After playing in one of the most confusing playoff systems in college sports for six years, Chapman’s men’s water polo team will usher in a new conference schedule and playoff system this year, but with some unease.
The new schedule has all nine teams in the conference play each other twice, whereas the previous schedule had each team play each other once. This is a massive shift from the previous eight in-conference games to the now 16.
Now, only the top four teams in the conference will make the playoffs. Previously, all nine teams made it, with the eighth and ninth-placed teams facing off in a single-elimination play-in game.
Men’s water polo head coach Eric Ploessel said he has mixed feelings about the new system and how players may react to it.
“A lot of the coaches weren’t in favor of this,” Ploessel said. “They want everybody involved and to be able to go to (the conference playoffs).”
Despite being generally in favor of the schedule, Ploessel said he and his coaches are concerned about how his players would react to not making the playoffs.
“The thing I might be worried about is maybe I’m the seven or eight (seed) and I already know I’m not going to be going,” Ploessel said. “How are my guys going to be feeling if we are at the bottom those last couple of games? What are we playing for? Just for pride, I would think.”
It is hard to have sympathy for this anxiety. Sports, at the end of the day, are always about competition. If you have a bad season, you do not deserve to make the playoffs. I find it hard to imagine that college-level athletes would be unable to deal with the disappointment of losing when most have been playing competitive sports for years.
Some concern is understandable – it’s a new schedule with more conference games and there isn’t that chance of having playoff success after a subpar season. However, the four-team playoff system has been cemented for years in sports like soccer and volleyball for a reason: it’s logical and streamlines the season. Ploessel’s concern about narrowly missing out on the playoffs is a much more sympathetic one.
“Something the coaches have been worried about too is that 4-5 (seed),” Ploessel said. “That 4-5 is close. And I’ve been in that spot where I am that 5 seed, so the tough part is, what if we’re tied in the standings and I’m not the team that’s going?”
The 4-5 seed concern is fair, but it should be taken as a positive thing: it could and should create better competition. Knowing you have to be consistently good throughout the regular season forces you to hold yourself a higher standard. Women’s volleyball was tied for fourth last year and missed out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker. This season, women’s volleyball head coach Mary Cahill said she is using that disappointment to motivate her team to make the conference playoffs.
I highly doubt that Ploessel and his players were saying in the past after a loss, “It’s fine, we’re going to make the playoffs anyway,” but I am sure that thought was present in the back of their minds. It’s hard not to rationalize the disappointment of a loss with the reality that it only affects seeding – not a meaningless reward by any means, but not nearly as do-or-die a motivation as missing the playoffs entirely.
This change is healthy for the sport. It encourages competition and simplifies the season, making it clear to teams what they actually have to do to make the playoffs.