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Zopf: A fix for first-round futility
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Region 7-AAA has a problem.

Some might call it a flat-out epidemic.

Prior to the start of the baseball playoffs on Friday, only 12 of the 36 region teams that reached the state playoffs during the 2007-2008 academic year were able to advance out of the first round.

Sure some teams were able to get out of the opening round and make a legitimate run at a state title. But for the most part, the Region 5-AAA schools that drew a 7-AAA team as their first round opponent were pretty much guaranteed a spot in Round 2.

This is evident by the 12-24 record that Region 7-AAA had against Region 5-AAA in the first rounds of the state football, tennis, volleyball, softball, basketball and soccer playoffs this year.

I’d call that a problem — a problem that was magnified during the opening round of the baseball playoffs this weekend when the baseball teams nearly got swept out of the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year.

And by nearly, I mean they were a Patrick Henry two-run home run in the seventh inning away from going 0-for-4 against Region 5-AAA.

Some would argue that 5-AAA is simply a better region with better coaches, better players and better teams, but I’d beg to differ.

The top-tier teams in Region 7-AAA are equally as talented, equally well-coached and are equally as capable at making a run at a state title. But there is one thing that separates the two regions, and Region 7-AAA from the majority of regions for that matter: preparation.

I’m not talking about the type of preparation that involves fielding groundballs, hitting to the opposite field or throwing strikes consistently. I’m talking about the type of preparation that readies you for the playoffs. That’s right, your schedule, specifically the out-of-region schedule.

There’s a reason why other regions out there, specifically 5-AAA are advancing in the playoffs. It’s not because they are private schools filled with elite athletes, it’s because they actually test themselves during the regular season.

The teams within Region 7-AAA simply do not play anybody but themselves. And if your region is mediocre (at best), then when it’s time for the playoffs, the fact that your team hasn’t been challenged all year is on full display.

Just take a look at the non-region schedule for the eight teams that made the playoffs from Region 7-AAA and 5-AAA.

Take a look at No. 3-ranked Dunwoody, who easily dispatched of White County in the first round. The Wildcats went 21-5 during the regular season, while playing against two Class AAAAA teams (Duluth and Northview), three teams from Florida and Class AA’s top-ranked Wesleyan. Not only that, but in their region, the Wildcats had to play Blessed Trinity, Westminster, North Atlanta, Riverwood and Chamblee, four teams with a combined .740 winning percentage.

Throw in Dunwoody’s .808 winning percentage and the top six teams in Region 5-AAA won 77 percent of their games.

By contrast, the top five teams in Region 7-AAA had a combined winning percentage of .705, and those teams didn’t play nearly the caliber of competition that their first-round playoff counterparts played.

Take Riverwoood for example. The No. 4 seed out of the region played five Class AAAAA schools, three Class AAAA schools and the No. 3-ranked team in Class AA, Holy Innocents’. Meanwhile, Flowery Branch played a total of three games out of Region 7-AAA, against Buford (13-11 Region 6-AA), Mt. Pisgah (7-18 Region 5-A) and Lakeview Academy (17-10 Region 8-A), and those three games were all played at the beginning of the season.

The same can be said for Gainesville, which played four non-region opponents this year, Buford, Statesboro (15-12 Region 3-AAAA), Glynn Academy (8-13 Region 3-AAAA) and Jonesboro (14-11 Region 4-AAAA). All four of those games also came at the beginning of the season and only one of those teams (Statesboro) qualified for the playoffs.

Surprised that a team like Westminster was able to knock out the Red Elephants in the first round? You shouldn’t be.

Westminster also played a tough out-of-region schedule to go along with its difficult region tilt. The Wildcats played three Florida teams, a team from Tennessee, Class AAAAA’s Wheeler and Class AA’s No. 8-ranked Lovett. When it was time to play Gainesville, Westminster was ready and it wasn’t intimidated.

That’s what playing a difficult out-of-region schedule can do for you.

Sure, if you look at the records against some of the higher quality opponents, the teams from Region 5-AAA’s records aren’t that stellar (38-19 combined against non-region opponents), but in those losses the teams saw how quality teams play. And if you play against better competition, your team will get better. It’s really that simple.

Of course 7-AAA coaches would have to get together and pretty much overhaul how games are currently scheduled in baseball. Currently, Region 7-AAA plays within the region for 22 of the 26 regular season games allowed by GHSA. Region 5-AAA plays only 14 region games in the regular season, and that system seems to be working pretty well for those teams.

But what I propose is to limit the region games to 18 and come up with some way to ensure that the top-tier teams play each other twice, maybe some sort of "how-you-finished-last-season" type of scheduling. This way, each top-team will have a chance to host their better region opponents and will still be able to schedule eight games that can used in hopes of fixing the region’s first-round futility.

Here are my solutions:

Schedule top-notch opponents and travel to their place and see what they have to offer.

Play in tournaments that have quality opponents involved, and if you hold tournaments, invite top-ranked teams. Sure, you may not win all the games you play and your record may take some hits, but when it comes to the playoffs, what happened during the regular season won’t matter.

The fact that you’ll be able to get out of the first round will.

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