ROBBINSVILLE, N.J. — Public school football will feature "bowl games" between sectional champions under a new playoff format approved by the NJSIAA's general membership Monday.
By a vote of 218-79 with 12 abstentions, school representatives in attendance at NJSIAA headquarters in Robbinsville approved the so-called New Jersey United Playoff Proposal, clearing the way for a significant change to the sport's format.
The new system will take effect in September, with the first "bowl games" in state history — a new round of competition that many observers believe will ultimately lead to the first state-championship games in public school football — scheduled to take place in December 2018.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," ironing out details of the new system, said Bud Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing High School and president of the West Jersey Football League.
Kowal and others associated with the WJFL were among the authors of the proposal, which was a merger of dueling plans forwarded in the spring by both a group that included the WJFL and a group representing the North Jersey Super Football Conference.
Among the highlights of the new system:
— Teams will play an eight-game regular season, with schedules to be created by respective leagues.
— Teams have the option to start play in a so-called "Zero Week."
— The playoffs will start in Week 9, which in 2018 will be the weekend of Nov. 2-3.
— The public school sectional-championship games will be held at neutral sites in Week 11, the weekend before Thanksgiving.
— Thanksgiving week will be preserved for traditional games.
— First-ever "bowl games," which are likely to match, for example, the South Jersey Group 5 champion vs. the Central Jersey Group 5 champion and the North 1 Group 5 champion vs. the North 2 Group 5 champion, will be held the first weekend in December.
— Non-public playoff fields would be expanded with top teams (likely the top 6 in Non-Public 4 and Non-Public 3 and the top 4 in Non-Public 2) receiving byes in the first round, which will be held Week 9.
— Non-public state finals will be held at neutral sites on the first weekend of December.
— There still will be five groups and four sections.
— All games played before the start of the playoffs will count toward seeding.
— A new ranking/power-point system will be developed, likely using some combination of the old power-point system and MaxPreps power-ranking system, with perhaps a third rating system as well.
— Because some teams will play seven games and some will play eight before the start of the playoffs, teams' power-ranking averages will be used for seeding.
— Plans call for the state to be "cut in half" for seeding purposes, with the top 16 Group 5 teams, for instance, in the Northern part of the state qualifying and the top 16 Group 5 teams in the Southern part of the state qualifying.
— Once the top 16 teams in each half of the state are determined, those groups will be split again by northing numbers to establish the four sections — southern-most eight forming the South section, next eight forming the Central, next eight North 1 and next eight North 2.
— Teams that don't qualify for the playoffs will have the option to play two cross-over "consolation" games, assigned by the NJSIAA.
— Teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs will have the option of playing a cross-over "consolation" game in Week 10 to fill out the schedule to 10 games.
"We like it," West Deptford athletic director Jason Morrell said. "It moves the state one step closer to state championships, which we think is a good thing."
Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley supported the proposal.
"What I like is that it gives schools a lot of flexibility," Gatley said. "You can play that second consolation game if you want, or you don't have to. If you want to end the season early, with more time to prepare for winter, you can do that.
"And I like the fact that this proposal was created by both the North and South, instead of always fighting like a pair of 13-year-olds."
Kowal said the proposal gives schools the option to tailor some of their schedules.
"If we're a struggling team and we want to play two games at the end of the year against similar teams, we can do that," Kowal said. "If we lose in the first round of the playoffs and we want to give our seniors one more game, we can do that.
"But if you have number of problems or whatever and you want to stop after eight games, you can do that."
Kowal said the new power-point system will be developed by a football committee over the next few months.
Kowal also said the new system with just eight regular-season games means the WFJL will need to create only three regular-season cross-over games for most teams, since most will have five division games.
"That limits the chances of creating a lopsided cross-over game," Kowal said.
One other change from Monday's vote is likely to impact the WJFL, since the NJSIAA membership approved a proposal to allow larger schools to form cooperative programs in football.
That means West Windsor-Plainsboro North and West Windsor-Plainsboro South will merge to form one team in 2018 and 2019. That team will be ineligible for the playoffs but will force the adjustment of WJFL divisions since the league's proposed format for the next two-year schedule cycle had included both teams.
Mike Beirao, athletic director for both Cherry Hill high schools, said Monday the district has no plans at this time to pursue creating a cooperative program for the football teams from Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West.
"We are looking forward to continuing a rich tradition of football at both High School East and High School West," Beirao said. "Plus, if we co-oped, what would we do with 'The Boot' (the trophy awarded the winner of the annual Thanksgiving-week game between the schools)?"