Jeff Jacobs: CIAC double-elimination baseball tournament the answer; getting there the question

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In the GameTimeCT Top 10 baseball poll on May 31 before the CIAC tournament, Norwalk didn’t receive a single vote.

“None,” Norwalk coach Ryan Mitchell said. “Zippo.”

On Monday, when the final poll was released, Norwalk stood No. 3 behind East Catholic and Hand.

“It definitely felt weird, a little bit shocking,” Mitchell said. “But all we can do is try to beat the team on the schedule ahead of us. We’ll take the No. 3 ranking and the state championship.

“I still think I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be the night before we play Amity in the first round and say, ‘What a crazy dream that was.’ It hasn’t happened yet. I figure if I can go another day or two, it is real.”

Oh, it’s real, Ryan. The Bears were 10-9 before they ran off five successive victories for the Class LL title. Nobody can take away Norwalk’s first baseball state championship.

The question is whether the CIAC should continue its course of a single-elimination tournament, which in turn, has a mighty impact on the Top 10.

“Baseball was never meant to be played one and done,” Amity coach Sal Coppola said.

“Baseball is not a single-elimination game,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said. “Everybody keeps saying it’s not, yet we keep playing single-elimination. Little League, American Legion, NCAA, major leagues — none do, except us.”

“I would be all for a double-elimination tournament of some kind,” Hand coach Travis LaPointe said.

If that isn’t clear enough, we direct you to East Catholic coach Martin Fiori’s quote of 2019, when he looked me in the eye and said: “If the CIAC really cares about a true champion, they will have some form of double elimination. Maybe they don’t care about having a true champion. Sometimes we feel like they want to have a tournament because they have to get it over as quickly as possible, crown a champion and move on to football for next year.”

As long as there is single elimination, you’ll see four teams that weren’t in the Top 10 — including three that hadn’t received a single vote — finish in the top seven of the final poll. [Enter fan arguments here.]

“I believe in the final polls there is too much weight put on teams that win state championships,” said Hearst Connecticut’s Pete Paguaga, one of the voters. “While it is very hard — seriously, it’s very hard — to win a state championship, especially in a single-elimination tournament, putting a ton of weight on winning a state title almost throws out the regular season. It throws out the overall body of work.”

“Some vote who they think is Top 10 regardless of states, and some vote state champions of any class above teams that may be better in a higher class but were eliminated,” said Hearst’s Scott Ericson, who oversees the poll and is a voter. “I do factor in the state tournament but also how good a team was. Try to find a balance.”

Ericson voted the four state champions in the top four, while Paguaga had Greenwich fourth and Warde fifth. Neither had Southington, which dropped from its No. 2 spot out of the poll in their Top 10. McFarland said Warde, which finished with the 12th-most votes, was the best team in the FCIAC, especially after Vanderbilt-bound Miles Langhorne stopped pitching for Greenwich.

I called young coaches like Ben Desaulnier of Killingly, who had a spot in the Top 10 until the playoffs. I called multiple past state champion coaches like Coppola and McFarland. And if you are worried about sour grapes, LaPointe just won the Class L title and his Hand team was in the No. 2 poll spot behind Fiori.

“The tournament is awesome, but it’s a matter of what’s fair,” LaPointe said. “I haven’t heard anybody come out in favor of keeping things the same.”

Everyone we contacted, coaches and writers, agreed. Save one.

“The single elimination definitely adds to the intensity of the games,” Mitchell said. “It adds to the importance of every single pitch. You don’t have, ‘We can drop this one, but we’ll get them next time.’ Or an opportunity to come out of a losers’ bracket. I like the way it sets up now.”

In chatting with CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini at the state finals, he felt there wasn’t enough time to get in a double-elimination format without shortening the 20-game regular season.

Two years ago, Fiori gave me an entire plan. It involved eight pods of four teams each (1 vs. 32, 16 vs. 17 in Pod A). Day 2, the winners play and losers play and so on for Day 3 and Day 4 if needed, like the NCAA does. Eight teams would be left. Repeat with two pods of four teams. There’d be a best-of-three finals. Fiori had the tournament start May 29 and end June 14.

That’s one plan. I don’t have one that dots every i, but I do endorse some kind of double knockout. More so than any sport, baseball is decided by bad bounces and situational serendipity. Yet it is the required revolving nature of pitching that sways me most. It’s the one sport (along with softball), where, depending on tomorrow’s starter, the best team in the state suddenly may be the 20th best.

“If you have a 8-12 team that has that one stud arm, they can beat a 18-2 team in the first round,” Desaulnier said. “Some people say they like that, but I’d rather see the better teams win.”

“How many times have great teams been eliminated in the first game?” Coppola said. “They run into a pitcher who’s 7-1 and his team has 10 total wins.”

That team then gets thumped in the second round. Another problem is the CREC and tech schools. They went 1-7 in the 2021 first round, with two schools seeded as high as fifth. The only win was one Tech over another.

“One year we used our No. 3 pitcher against a tech school and he threw a no-hitter,” LaPointe said. “It’s totally uneven. I have to imagine the CIAC knows that and is still unwilling to change.”

In such situations, a team uses its No. 1 pitcher in the second round while its next opponent already used their ace.

“I love how the American League state tournament has adopted the pools,” Desaulnier said. “If the CIAC wants to come up with their own way, I’m cool with that. I do like a double-elimination factor. Baseball, and I think a lot of coaches would agree, is not a sport where the best team always wins.”

“Seven of the top 10-seeded teams in LL were out by the second round this year,” said McFarland, who supports a double-elimination component for softball, too. “I believe 17 to 32 should have to fight their way into the tournament somehow, single-elimination if needed. Even if they have to go to the semis before they have double elimination, there should be something.

“When we played Southington in 2019, Chad Knight pitched great to win 3-0 for the title. (Southington coach) Charlie Lembo had two, three other pitchers. Beating them or Cheshire in the semis would have been tough two of three, but I think a lot of people would have liked to have seen a series like that.”

LaPointe says the CIAC should get more creative in fitting in more regular-season games in a shorter amount of time, and that could free up some extra days. American Legion plays six games a week. Saturday doubleheaders could be played. The subject of eliminating conference tournaments — which would save up to a week — is touchy. Some see them as glorified exhibitions before the state tournament, while others find them important.

Paguaga proposes one idea: Do what basketball did a few years ago. Create an elite Division I, chosen by a committee and subject to change each year. And then play a 16-team double-elimination like in Legion and NCAA.

“You can continue to have the other state tournaments,” Paguaga said, “but everyone will know who the true No. 1 team is.”

McFarland and other coaches pointed out the CIAC runs a great tournament. The argument is the format.

“I don’t know all the logistics of the timeline and the high school calendar,” LaPointe said. “But if we’re looking for the true best winner. I think some kind of double-elimination tournament is the only way to go.”

“Look how Oklahoma lost its first NCAA tournament softball game,” McFarland said. “If it was Connecticut, they wouldn’t be national champions.”

CIAC softball does not allow teams under .400 into the playoffs, while baseball fills its entire 32-team bracket. Darien and Stamford got in with, gulp, a .235 winning percentage (4-13) this spring. Crazy things do happen. Foran went 7-13, won the lottery pick over New London for the last seed, proceeded to knock off No. 1 seed East Lyme in the first round and go on to win the 2017 Class L title.

Foran finished fifth in the GameTimeCT poll.; @jeffjacobs123