Few surprises emerged on the field during the state soccer tournaments. Favored teams that reached the final four last weekend (Brophy, Pinnacle girls, Xavier, both Hamilton teams and both Notre Dame squads) showing why they were top contenders.
In between, a couple unheard-of schools refreshingly crashed the party (Mesquite girls in 5A Division I, Marcos de Niza in 5A-II girls, along with Phoenix Barry Goldwater and Perry in 5A-II boys).
But disillusionment and divisiveness hovered outside the lines. This year’s tournament format raised ire among many coaches and created more controversy.
From nearly a dozen coaches who’ve spoken the past two weeks, the two biggest sources of frustration between their idea of state tournaments and how the Arizona Interscholastic Association ran the events was the neutral site locations for Rounds 1 and 2, and subsequently playing on variously sized fields.
The soccer advisory committee, a compilation of 20 members which includes a couple coaches and athletic directors from around the state, will meet March 8 to discuss what worked, what didn’t and other logistical issues going forward as the number of tournaments is reduced from five to three beginning next year.
Because of the reduced number of tournaments next year, don’t expect a 100 percent carbon-copy of this year’s setup.
“I think we’ll get lots of feedback,” AIA tournament coordinator David Hines said. “By the time we have a chance to talk about everything, then we can narrow it down to a few things and make it a lot better. ... I’m sure it won’t be a 15-minute meeting, but eventually we should come out of that and make some recommendations to the Executive Board.”
It used to be the top eight seeds (based on power points) earned home-field advantage for the first round of the tournament, and the higher-seeded team would host the quarterfinals. Hines said the goal of using neutral sites for the first two rounds was to create a tournament atmosphere by having multiple games available to fans at one time, in one location.
It also allowed the AIA a better chance of finding better-quality officiating because the better referees could work two matches per day if they so choose, instead of spreading out to 64 different schools.
It also was consolidated to a couple large sites (Red Mountain Park and Reach 11 Sports Complex) to try and boost attendance, which has suffered in recent years in early-round matches.
Corona del Sol girls coach Matt Smith liked the tournament format and noted how it used to be held at Tempe Sports Complex in the past. He was also happy to see that teams which would potentially face each other in the next round of the bracket played at the same time so one team couldn’t “scout” the other.
Red Mountain girls coach Andy Barber and Mesquite boys coach Rich Esperti didn’t like the neutral-site format. Barber noted a group of 20 people shooting a soccer ball and arguing on the field during halftime at his team’s first-round match against Desert Ridge at Red Mountain Park, where eventually he had to break away from talking to his team to yell and kick people off the fields.
Mountain Pointe boys coach Bryan Sabato was upset that his team’s first two rounds were played at Yuma Cibola High School, which was considered a “neutral” site even though the Pride played against San Luis and Kofa, respectively. Mountain Pointe had a three-hour bus ride with no fans. San Luis and Kofa were 15 minutes away.
“The biggest thing is to work all season for home-field advantage,” Esperti said. “What’s the point in killing yourself to get a top seed? It’s pretty stupid. I understand that a lot of things have to be cut and change, but there’s no consistency.”
Hines noted the tournament changes mean from now on there will be 48 matches in the first round and 24 in the second round.
“Does that help with high-seed home games? Yes, that can make a difference,” he said.
Amenities were an issue at the larger parks, especially restrooms accommodating a half-dozen games’ worth of players and fans at one time. Red Mountain’s fields were hard, with dead grass and uneven surfaces. Fans on the sidelines were sitting on top of the players and officials, and Hines said that’s likely to be discussed at the meeting (it was less of an issue during the semifinals and championship locations).
“The best thing about high school soccer is the atmosphere; the stadiums, the lights, the announcers announcing the starting lineups, the kids hearing their names, the national anthem, the fans in the stands,” Barber said. “I’ve coached high school, club and college soccer, and I have always said high school is my favorite for those reasons. That is taken away at neutral sites.”
Inconsistencies with field sizes — another home-game advantage they felt was lost — between various high schools, Reach 11 and Red Mountain Park played a factor in some matches’ outcomes.
The adjustment from playing on grass to Fieldturf surface at semifinals/championship locations (Campo Verde, Scottsdale Christian and Paradise Valley) was also a source of grumbling because only a few schools (Brophy, Tucson Salpointe, Chaparral) have the surface and it changes the style and speed of the game. Hamilton’s boys had issues with cramping when switching to various field surfaces.
But Hines said a majority of people he’s heard from like the Campo Verde facility. The turf won’t suffer by bad weather and helps return the “atmosphere” that includes player introductions and a scoreboard. It also keeps fans a bit further away from players and officials.
The meeting figures to last a few hours because it appears there are plenty of issues. Logistics, efficiency, baseline standards and finances dictate some of the tournament decisions made by the AIA and Executive Board in dealing with 250 schools, and Hines said a few things will naturally change because of the upcoming format changes.
“We’ll have to try some things, and you can think how things will work until it goes through and occurs,” Hines said. “Now you have to re-evaluate and adjust accordingly.”
Coaches, who already feel powerless and voiceless in these processes, want consistency.
“(The AIA) will always say that they get the input of coaches, players and administrators, but I would like to know who that is, especially in soccer,” Barber said. “I think it’s fair to say that the East Valley is where the majority of the soccer power lies, but I don’t know a single East Valley coach who has ever been involved in discussing these type of things.”