JANUARY 12, 2016

Demonstrating a desire for change in North Jersey athletics, the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference has decided to stage its own girls basketball tournament concurrently with the Bergen County tournament.

Teams from the NJIC, a conference predominantly made up of area Group 1 and 2 schools, will be eligible to enter either tournament – not both.

“I thought it could accomplish two things: One, give teams in our conference the opportunity to play in a more competitive tournament, and two, have the [Bergen County Women Coaches Association] look at the way they run their own tournaments,” St. Mary athletic director Matt Stone said of his idea.

The reason for staging their own tournament is clear: NJIC schools think they are at a competitive disadvantage against teams from the Big North Conference, made up of larger schools – not to mention the non-public programs.

This is an issue that has been brewing for years. Changes to the way the BCWCA has structured and seeded its tournaments indirectly have caused the gap to widen.

Seeking greater participation – an admirable goal – some BCWCA tournaments take as many teams as the number that want to enter. The girls basketball tournament capped its event at 32. Teams .500 or better automatically qualify. Those below .500 can apply to enter if there is room in the bracket.

However, teams below .500 can be seeded anywhere in the bracket, depending on the view of the seeding committee.

This change — from being .500 or better — was done in response to the creation of new leagues and smaller divisions in 2010, including the Big North and NJIC.

In the past decade, teams seeded 25 to 32 in the Bergen girls tournament have not won a game. The typical margin of defeat ranges from 35 to 40 points.

Almost every one of those teams were Group 1 and 2 schools.

Former Park Ridge girls basketball coach Mike Weaver is the director of the Bergen girls tournament, so he has first-hand experience of what it’s like for a small school to face a larger school in the first round.

“When you’re seeded in the 20s, you know you have to have a great game plan in order to compete, and your goal is to just compete and maybe put yourself in position to win,” Weaver said. “But then you realize that even if you play a perfect game, you’re still not thinking about winning. You’re still just thinking about competing, and that has become frustrating for coaches.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by Bergen County coaches regarding the girls soccer tournament, with many of the early-round games being mismatches.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. There has been talk of breaking the tournaments into “big” (non-public schools and Groups 3 and 4) and “small” (Groups 1 and 2), or even splitting it into four groups based on enrollment.

Each has its merits, but what would you do with two (or four) county champions? Would they meet at the very end in a Tournament of Champions style event? Also, if you create separate county tournaments, how would that impact the selection of the All-County teams? You could upgrade the standards for letting teams in, reducing the number of teams eligible, or let everyone in.

The BCWCA also has rules mandating what the association does for one tournament, it would have to do for all. How would you separate schools in swimming, softball and lacrosse? Each has its own variables.

“I say the county tournament has to be pure,” said Pascack Valley girls basketball coach Jeff Jasper. “If you don’t think you can compete because you’re drawing one of the top seeds, then don’t come in. Schedule some independent games where you feel you’re in the correct realm to play.”

In boys basketball, the Bergen County Coaches Association runs the Jamboree, which is the county tournament. Teams that don’t qualify have the option of playing in the Bergen Invitational Tournament, which serves as a secondary event not sponsored by the BCCA.

The top-ranked NJIC public school team in The Record Top 25 is Saddle Brook (7-0), and Falcons coach Darren White said he was leaning toward entering the Bergen County tournament, pending the health of his team. The non-public schools in the NJIC – Saddle River Day, Immaculate Conception and Queen of Peace – likely would enter the Bergen tournament. Veteran Dumont girls basketball coach Dave Cieplicki has been seeking an alternative format for the county tournament for years. His team is 5-4, but he said Monday afternoon that he’ll probably choose not to enter the Bergen tournament, because with the absence of NJIC teams, now it’s conceivable that his team would be a significant underdog.

And it’s not that Cieplicki and his team are afraid of a challenge. It is that long term, he knows his team would be better served by playing a team more on its level. Plus, it could accrue power points that will help it for the state tournament – an event he is more confident his team could win in.

“Everything else in the Big North has been tweaked. This has to be tweaked a little bit,” Cieplicki said. “Maybe we give [the NJIC tournament] a shot for a year or so and see how it works.”