April 20. 2017 5:39PM

H.S. Baseball/Softball: Less may be more, panel says

New Hampshire Union Leader

NHIAA tournament baseball

This spring, the number of teams that will qualify for the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association baseball tourneys will decrease to 12 for each division. Here is a comparison to last season as well as what the field size could be under the new 70 percent rule:

Division I

2016 tournament field:

Maximum field size under the 70 percent rule: 13

2017 tournament field: 12

Division II

2016 tournament field:

Maximum field size under the 70 percent rule: 16

2017 tournament field: 12

Division III

2016 tournament field:

Maximum field size under the 70 percent rule: 15

2017 tournament field: 12

Division IV

2016 tournament field:

Maximum field size under the 70 percent rule: 15

2017 tournament field: 12

NHIAA Baseball featured a handful of Cinderella stories in its state tournaments last spring. Among the biggest surprises were Bishop Guertin of Nashua making an appearance in the Division I final as the No. 15 seed while Hopkinton and Raymond reached the D-III semifinals as 16th- and 18th-seeded teams.

There will be no such shock value when tournament time rolls around this season. The NHIAA’s baseball committee, which is comprised of one athletic administrator and a head coach from all four divisions, voted to reduce the size of all four state tournament fields to 12 teams going forward. The reduction sets out to comply with the 70 percent rule, which the NHIAA applied to all high school athletics at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year. The rule states no more than 70 percent of teams in a given division can make the playoffs, however, committees for each sport can elect to trim tournament sizes below 70 percent.

Sticking to the maximum under the 70-percent rule would’ve cut playoff spots in all four baseball tournaments, but the baseball committee’s vote for 12-team tournaments dwindles some fields even more. Division I, II and IV will lose four seeds apiece from their previous tournament formats while Division III will cut seven spots.

“The general consensus was Divisions I and IV love the new format. Divisions II and III hate it for the most part,” Londonderry coach Brent Demas said. “It got to the point where we suggested we do the 70-percent rule just for Divisions II and III, and the baseball committee said they wanted to do the same thing for all four.”

The new universal playoff format has its benefits. The regular season now becomes more meaningful as fewer playoff spots and first-round byes for the top four seeds make every game important. The byes give the top teams in each tournament the best opportunity to succeed rather than putting them at risk for an early-round upset like the old tournament format did.

“The arguments against (the 12-team format) are that they want to offer the playoff experience to more kids,” Demas said. “I get that, but usually the real low seeds have one ace pitcher. The way the format is you could dominate the regular season and end up as a No. 1 seed, and then face a (pitcher) who’s going to play Division I (college) baseball on scholarship and your season’s over. Right or wrong, I think the regular season has to mean something and I felt this addresses that.

“You want the top four seeds (advancing) as often as possible. Last year (with 15th-seeded BG reaching the Division I final) was a nice story, but what happened in the end wasn’t right for baseball.”

Some coaches don’t view the move positively. Dover’s John Carver, Souhegan of Amherst’s Bill Dod and Sunapee’s Tom Frederick are among those irked by not only the committee’s decision, but also the 70-percent rule. Carver viewed the previous playoff format as more than fair.

“There’s this idea that somehow having (a 12-team postseason) makes the regular season more competitive,” said Carver, who is in his 20th season leading the Green Wave. “I want to meet the people that aren’t competitive, because I want to play against them every day. Even in seasons when we didn’t have a shot to be in the top 16, we still did our best to compete every day. If you’re not teaching your kids to compete like that, then shame on you.”

Frederick would’ve been fine with the 70-percent rule, but dropping the field further has him concerned about an unfair advantage regarding pitching. Frederick said the new format hurts competition as first-round byes allow top teams to throw No. 1 pitchers against a second-round opponent that had to use their best pitcher to get out of the first round. All teams were playing first-round games under the previous format, leaving everyone on an even playing field with their pitching.

Carver echoed Frederick’s sentiments on playoff pitching, especially when it comes to top seeds facing a dominant hurler on a lower-seeded club.

“Frankly, if you’re the No. 1 or 2 seed and you can’t beat (the low seeds), you shouldn’t have the chance to keep playing,” Carver said. “(Upsets) happen but if you look at all for divisions collectively, it doesn’t happen often. In the times it has, it’s been a helluva good game.”

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ALL FOUR divisions of softball have also adopted new playoff formats under the 70-percent rule. Unlike baseball, the softball committee opted to keep playoff fields as large as possible under the new mandate. Division I’s bracket will feature 12 teams, Division II is 15, Division III has 16 and Division IV has 14.

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THE PELHAM softball team’s move from Division III to Division II this season has been a painless one so far. Pelham raised its record to 3-0 by beating Windham — the Division II runner-up last season — 12-0 in six innings on Wednesday.

Pelham pitcher Shannon Morin hasn’t allowed a run in 14 innings this year. The Pythons also have one of the state’s top players in third baseman Sarah Ratcliffe, who has committed to play at UMass-Lowell. Ratcliffe led Division III in home runs during her freshman and sophomore seasons, and entered this year with 18 home runs in her high school career.

“She’s batting around .525 for her career, but she’s a ridiculous fielder too,” Pelham coach Todd Lozeau said. “She just makes every play. I believe that she is absolutely the best third baseman in the state.”

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PINKERTON ACADEMY has been one of the season’s early surprises in Division I softball. The Astros are 4-1 and one of their victories was a 7-6 decision over Salem, last year’s Division I champion. The team’s only loss came against unbeaten Londonderry, which returned eight starters from a team that earned the No. 4 seed for last year’s Division I tournament.

Pinkerton has five players who hit .400 or better last season: Abby Amato (.574), Caitlin Hogan (.461), Jess Nardozza (.448), Nicole Gonya (.412) and Makayla Bolduc (.400).

The Astros finished the 2016 season with a 7-13 record.

“They definitely are improved,” Londonderry coach Wayne MacDougall said. “We’ll have to see about their pitching, but they have some good batters. They’re going to put the bat on the ball.”

High School Baseball/Softball appears Fridays in the New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball and Roger Brown, e-mail jduball@unionleader.com or rbrown@unionleader.com.


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<strong>Baseball Power Rankings</strong>

1. Exeter (3-0)
2. Bedford (4-0)
3. Souhegan (4-0)
4. Goffstown (3-0)
5. Pinkerton (4-0)
6. Dover (3-1)
7. Portsmouth (3-0)
8. Windham (1-1)
9. Bow (2-1)
10. Campbell (4-0)

<strong>Softball Power Rankings</strong>

1. Alvirne (4-0)
2. Londonderry (4-0)
3. Milford (4-0)
4. Merrimack Valley (4-0)
5. Pelham (3-1)
6. Pinkerton (4-1)
7. Salem (3-1)
8. Bedford (4-0)
9. Franklin (3-0)
10. Bishop Guertin (2-1)