Call it the taffy-pull effect.
Take four groups in public school football playoffs. Stretch them out to five groups.
Invariably, the ends stay pretty solid and the middle gets a little soft.
It has been the case since the NJSIAA increased the number of groups in football to five in 2012. Group 3 has lacked competitive depth in South Jersey, and that’s no disrespect to Delsea, which has made five straight sectional finals in that field, winning titles the first four years.
The Crusaders would be tough to beat in any group. And who knows? If the NJSIAA had stuck with four groups, Delsea might have been down in Group 2 in a couple of those seasons.
This isn’t about the teams at the top of the South Jersey Group 3 and, in this postseason, South Jersey Group 4 fields, anyway.
It’s about a playoff format that invites too many teams, cheapening the value of a tournament berth.
Let’s take a look at the five South Jersey public school groups this season.
Group 1 is good. Everybody in the field is .500 or better, with three seven-win teams (Paulsboro, Penns Grove, Gateway) and two six-win teams (Salem and Woodbury).
Group 2 is better, with six (six!) seven-win teams (West Deptford, Camden, Sterling, Cedar Creek, Willingboro, Pleasantville), plus a six-win team (Cinnaminson). The field is so strong that Overbrook won three in a row to get to 5-3 and end up with 92 points — and still missed the tournament.
Group 5 is solid, with two eight-win teams (Millville, Howell) and three seven-win teams (Lenape, Rancocas Valley, Vineland). Everybody is .500 or better, and the competition was so tough for berths that Vineland went 7-1 and still landed as the No. 8 seed.
Groups 3 and 4, not so hot. Those groups had trouble filling the fields with .500 teams, and that’s a problem.
Group 3 has strength at the top in 8-0 Timber Creek and meat in the middle with 5-3 Delsea as the No. 4 and 6-2 Ocean City as the No. 5. But Group 3 also needed to fill out the field with 3-5 teams Deptford and Seneca. Not to slight the Spartans and Golden Eagles (Bill Fisher’s two favorite programs), but the feeling here is that a non-losing record ought to be a criterion for a tournament berth.
Group 4 is strong enough at the top of the field that 5-3 Shawnee is the No. 4 seed. This group has 8-1 Moorestown, 6-2 Burlington Township, and 7-2 Central in the top three slots, respectively. But this group also has just four teams with winning records. And this group also needed to fill out the field with below-.500 teams in 3-5 Pennsauken and 3-6 Hammonton, which lost six of its last seven, with the lone win against 0-8 Egg Harbor Township, and still landed the No. 6 seed.
When a No. 6 seed in Group 4 has a 3-6 record and just 65 power points (27 fewer than Overbrook, remember), something is out of whack.
In fact, the bottom three seeds in Group 4 — Hammonton, 4-4 Highland, and Pennsauken — have 65, 64, and 60 power points, respectively. None of them would have made the field in Group 1 or Group 2.
The NJSIAA is going to try to remedy this situation with its latest playoff proposal, which will create pools of teams in each group in the North and South, and then divide the top 16 in power points in each geographic region into four, eight-team sectionals.
But that’s assuming the proposal is passed in a vote by the general membership Dec. 4, and that’s also assuming that a whole other set of problems doesn’t arise from the new format.
What has been clear since 2012 is that five groups is one too many.
Now watch — one of those below-.500 playoff teams will spring an upset this weekend.
Here’s a closer look at six games this weekend, with predictions:
No. 8 seed Vineland (7-1) at No. 1 Lenape (7-1) in S.J. 5, Friday at 7: The Indians, who made the S.J. 4 finals last season, have gotten strong work from senior running back JoJo Kellum, who has 14 touchdowns in the last four games. Vineland is smarting from a 14-0 loss to St. Augustine last Friday. The Clan are looking for the first playoff win in program history. Pick: Lenape, 10-7.
No. 6 Williamstown (4-4) at No. 3 Millville (8-0) in S.J. 5, Friday at 7: The host Thunderbolts are the defending champions and have been led all season by senior running back Clayton Scott, who has 16 touchdowns. Williamstown lost, 28-17, to Millville on Sept. 29. The Braves, who are battled-tested from a challenging schedule, were behind by 22-17 midway through the fourth quarter in that game. Pick: Millville, 22-14.
No. 5 Absegami (4-4) at No. 4 Shawnee (5-3) in S.J. 4, Friday at 7: These teams scrimmage every summer, so there’s familiarity among the players and coaching staffs. The host Renegades got a big lift with the recent return from injury of senior running back/linebacker Ryan Parris, who had a pick-six in a 38-6 win over Hammonton last Friday. Absegami has won three in a row behind senior all-purpose Josh Coursey and senior quarterback Andrew Marcucci. Pick: Shawnee, 17-10.
No. 5 Ocean City (6-2) at No. 4 Delsea (6-3) in S.J. 3, Friday at 7: The host Crusaders have won five in a row, averaging 45 points. Junior running back Aidan Borguet is tied for the South Jersey lead in touchdowns with 23. Ocean City is seeking its first playoff win since 2001. The Red Raiders have a playmaker in senior all-purpose Isaac Robertson. Pick: Delsea, 30-19.
No. 6 Haddonfield (5-3) at No. 3 Sterling (7-1) in S.J. 2, Friday at 7: This is a six-days-later rematch of a 37-19 win by the Silver Knights over the Bulldawgs in a WJFL Colonial Division game Saturday. Sterling senior C.J. Barrett has thrown 13 touchdown passes, seven to senior wide receiver Jared Matchett. Junior quarterback Jay Foley is a player to watch for Haddonfield. Pick: Sterling, 19-14.
No. 5 Woodbury (6-2) at No. 4 Salem (6-2) in S.J. 1, Saturday at 1: The visiting Thundering Herd beat the Rams, 14-6, in Woodbury on Sept. 30. Woodbury has a top playmaker in sophomore quarterback Andre Parker. Salem is led by senior all-purpose Zaire Jones, who missed the Sept. 30 game. Jones is tied for the South Jersey lead in touchdowns with 23. Pick: Salem, 22-20.
Last week: 4-3.
Year to date: 45-18.