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Girls wrestling, competitive cheer and a new playoff system are on tap for Utah high school team sports in 2019-20

ALA's Sage Mortimer, top, and Kiersten Bush, of Bonneville, compete in the 113 lb. girls weight class at the Utah All-star Dual wrestling meet at the UCCU Center in Orem on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
ALA's Sage Mortimer, top, and Kiersten Bush, of Bonneville, compete in the 113 lb. girls weight class at the Utah All-star Dual wrestling meet at the UCCU Center in Orem on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

MIDVALE — Girls wrestling, competitive cheer and an all-comers state tournament for team sports — changes are coming to Utah high school sports as soon as the fall of 2019.

For decades, every state tournament has been accompanied by hype, hoopla and criticism that lopsided regions create an unfair playoff system where deserving teams are left out and the best teams meet too early in a tournament.

Thanks to a unanimous vote from the Utah High School Activities Association’s Executive Committee, the region-based playoff system will end with the 2019 school year.

“We’ve been in discussions for a while,” said Brighton principal Tom Sherwood, who sits on both the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees that govern the Utah High School Activities Association. “We talked about a pilot program with 6A and 5A, but once everyone saw the brackets that resulted from using an RPI (Rating Percentage Index) system, 4A through 1A wanted in. They see this as a better-case scenario than anything else. It passed unanimously.”

UHSAA assistant director Jeff Cluff said the RPI rankings will be determined using three numbers — the win percentage of the team (40 percent), the win percentage of a team’s opponents (40 percent), and the win percentage of a team’s opponent’s opponents (20 percent).

“That’s how we’re going to seed our tournaments for team sports,” Cluff said.

It’s an idea that has been contemplated for years because it addresses a number of issues created by the current system, which simply takes the top four or five teams (depending on size of the region) and lines them up against another region, with those matchups rotating.

The current system makes region play critically important, which, in turn, made alignments hotly debated as schools argued against playing in extremely competitive regions, pointing to the fact that the No. 4 seeded teams from certain regions regularly beat top-seeded teams from other regions.

“One example is Region 4 in boys basketball,” Cluff said. “You have the top five teams in the state (6A) in that region, and one of them is not making the playoffs.”

Examples of this can be found in a number of sports in nearly every classification.

Another aspect of the change, Sherwood said, is that those teams with the best RPI rankings will have byes in the first round of the tournament, pitting more evenly matched teams in those early games.

“I think it makes the state tournament more compelling,” Sherwood said. “It’s really a much more student-athlete friendly approach for high school sports. It’s also a step toward getting away from using traditional regions, which allows us to address a number of issues like transportation costs, time out of school, because all of the games count the same. They don’t have to be in your region.”

Sherwood said that an RPI system would have made the 2018 first-round meeting between No. 4 Pleasant Grove and No. 5 East in the first round of the football playoffs impossible.

“It’s really a fairness issue,” he said, noting that Westlake didn’t make the tournament last fall but under the new system would have hosted a first-round playoff game.

With that change as the background, the Board of Trustees heard appeals from several schools who felt last month’s alignment was problematic for them.

It’s never happened before, but it was allowed this year because of a rule change several years ago.

“The procedure was added that a school that was moved on the last day of a new alignment could appeal their status and the BOT would consider it,” Cluff said. “These schools appealed, and these decisions were made.”

East High moved from 6A Region 3 to 5A’s Region 6 for all sports but football. West High’s football program moved from Region 3 to Region 2 for football only.

Both moves addressed concerns about the schools’ teams’ ability to compete against schools that are similarly situated.

Jordan High moved from 5A to 6A’s Region 3 for all sports and activities.

Park City moved from Region 5 to Region 8 for all sports and activities, except football, an appeal based mostly on travel and time out of school issues.

Milford High moved to 1A Region 20 (from 21) for all sports and activities, except football.

Cluff said the changes to state tournaments for teams made the decision to grant these appeals easier for trustees because all games count — not just region games.

In a separate action, the executive committee heard a report from the UHSAA’s Equity in Sports Commission, which recommended sanctioning girls wrestling and competitive cheer. The executive committee voted to sanction, with the caveat that the committee would report what it would cost to add both sports and how it specifically be instituted. The final report to the Board of Trustees and vote is in March.

“(Competitive cheer) is something I’ve been fighting for for three years,” Sherwood said, noting that there have been some issues that may delay competitive cheer to 2020. “We’re pretty confident girls wrestling can start next year.”