High school football fans are celebrating a touch of March Madness in the crisp fall air.
The 32 metro-area programs in Class 6A were seeded for the first time in the manner of the NCAA basketball tournament, with four groups of eight teams and four overall No. 1 seeds. The plan to generate greater excitement for the big-school playoffs, which start at 7 p.m. Friday, is already working.
“It’s awesome,” Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi said. “I heard people say they’ve filled out brackets. I’ve got one up in my classroom, and even the non-football kids have been looking at it.”
Lombardi’s Crimson earned a No. 1 seed along with East Ridge, Lakeville North and four-time defending state champion Eden Prairie. The earliest those teams could play each other is in the state tournament semifinals. Following their journey and watching upsets along the way should mean more attention on Class 6A.
As for the next step, Lombardi and East Ridge coach Dan Fritze dream of a televised selection show.
“We have to do a better job of making it big,” Lombardi said. “Last year’s state playoffs were about as good as it gets, but I didn’t feel people really realized it.”
Weather was a factor. With state semifinals and championship games outside for the first time in 33 years, ticket revenue plummeted. Paid attendance dropped by almost 50 percent from the last tournament in the Metrodome.
Football remains outdoors this season, with the Prep Bowl set for Nov. 13-14, about two weeks earlier than usual because of scheduling needs at TCF Bank Stadium.
Weather is fickle, but a unified bracket fuels the entire playoff field with anticipation typically reserved for the championship round, Osseo coach Derrin Lamker said. Even Friday’s first-round games have a state-tournament feel. The format was devised by the state football coaches association and approved earlier this year by the Minnesota State High School League.
“It’s a whole new level of excitement,” Lamker said. “We’ve got posters up around school with the bracket on them. The kids are really having fun with it, and that’s what high school sports are about. I would say this is the blueprint for all state tournaments in the future.”
That’s where Kevin Merkle, an MSHSL associate director who oversees football, sidesteps the rush. He is cautious to make the new Class 6A format a precedent. The field is unique because all 32 teams are located in the metro area.
“I’m worried about the idea that we’re trying to set up the best final eight teams for the state tournament,” Merkle said. “When you do that, it conflicts with other league philosophies.”
Other concerns include placement, such as Osseo (5-3) getting a No. 2 seed and Woodbury (6-2) receiving a No. 5 seed, for example. Observers have deemed East Ridge as the No. 1 seed with the toughest path and noted that Eden Prairie and Totino-Grace, last year’s Prep Bowl combatants, could meet in the state quarterfinals.
In a sign the lines between section and state in 6A are getting blurred, Merkle is working more closely with the four section managers to ensure consistency when it comes to ticket costs, time for on-field warmups and postgame film exchanges.
“I’m hearing that overall it looks good, it looks different,” Merkle said. “Personally, I like it.”