STROHECKER: Irish playoff outlook off to good start
- York Catholic is 2-0 to open the year with both wins coming over bigger, 4-A schools.
- The Fighting Irish will play five more games in the next eight weeks against larger schools.
- York Catholic has made three straight District 3 title games, all coming in 1-A.
November may seem like a long time from now.
We've only just gotten to the middle of September. Yet, before we know it, September will come and go and we'll be trudging our way through October. District 3 football talk will heat up. So, why shouldn't we talk about it now?
For one program within the York-Adams League — the York Catholic Fighting Irish — it's hard not to talk about what they have done through two weeks of the high school season, and what it could mean come November.
Through two weeks, York Catholic is 2-0 — like many teams — with both wins coming on the road. However, this is where things get intriguing for the Irish. In those two wins, Catholic, which is a 2-A school, has knocked off two 4-A schools, an immediate boost to its District 3 power rating. For a program such as the Irish, the early-season non-league games against much larger programs are really a win-win.
Small-school teams are generally viewed as underdogs in those match-ups because they simply don't have the numbers and depth that big-school programs possess. So, for the the smaller schools, a loss isn't necessarily devastating to the postseason outlook. A win against one of the larger schools, however, can be a humongous boost to the playoff chances of the smaller school.. It can be equally devastating for the larger schools which lose games against smaller schools.
Fewer teams make it: When the PIAA voted to expand to six classes in the winter, one of the big talking points was the reduced playoff brackets, with the District 3 playoff field shrinking from 44 teams to 32 over the six classes. That meant teams which squeaked into the playoffs with .500 records or below-.500 records in past years would have practically no shot of qualifying under the new system. Even a 7-3 mark isn't a guarantee of entry under the new system.
So, one thing coaches, especially in the higher classes, were discussing was paying more attention to how they scheduled. They wanted to try to stay away from scheduling too far below their class. Rather, they wanted to get more non-league contests against teams within their class.
However, with a new two-year scheduling cycle going into effect before the PIAA opted to expand, teams were stuck with what they had. That meant schools such as York Suburban and Susquehannock had to play a strong 2-A school such as York Catholic. It was a golden opportunity for the Irish. Wins against those schools would be huge, while losses for the Trojans and Warriors would be debilitating.
Bright outlook: That is why, with Catholic standing at 2-0 with two road wins over bigger schools, it's not too early to think about what it could mean come November. With only two teams making the District 3 2-A playoffs, there is no chance to slip up. It's a 10-week grind, with every game potentially meaning playoffs or not.
"That's our goal," Irish coach Eric DePew said about making the District 3 playoffs after Friday's win. "I'm not going to lie. We've been talking about our goal being that we want to get back to that game again, but we know that it's one at a time. Definitely, this helps and it gives us some breathing room a bit."
York Catholic made the last three District 3 1-A title games, losing all three. But, in each of those seasons, it just had to be one of the four best teams in an eight-team class. It had a 50/50 shot of making the field. Now, it needs to be one of the top two out of seven.
More chances: Next up for the Irish is their home opener against another 4-A school in Berks Catholic, which is also off to a very impressive 2-0 start. It's another golden opportunity to continue improving their district playoff hopes early in the season. Once Y-A Division III play begins, Catholic will have three more games against 3-A foes — Biglerville, Bermudian Springs, and Littlestown — plus a game against a 6-A school in York Tech.
That's seven out of 10 games against programs bigger than them. Should the Irish prevail in even six of those, then a fourth consecutive shot at a District 3 title seems likely. And with the goal to win the Division III crown, they expect to win all of them.
"We're expecting to go undefeated," senior running back Jakkar Kinard said. "That's our goal."
Too often, if a team makes the playoffs, it'll look to key games late in the year that helped get it over that final hump. But, if a team falters and misses out, it'll look back at games during every part of the season and think: "If only that had gone differently."
There's none of that for York Catholic. These first three weeks of the season are just as important as the final three.
If York Catholic ends up being one of two teams to make the District 3 2-A championship game, then it'll look back at this start as a major reason why.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org