Thank You, Power Ranking: Three Belmont Teams Make Their State Tourneys Under New System

Photo: Belmont High Girls’ Volleyball starts tourney play on Nov. 4

Jen Couture, Belmont High Volleyball head coach, was joking – a bit – when discussing her team as it wrapped up the 2021 fall season last week.

“Best 7-11 team ever, huh?” she said.

In fact, Belmont IS the best 7-11 volleyball team, at least, in the context that the Marauders will be taking its below .500 record into the MIAA Division 1 state tournament. Just two years ago, a similar “losing” season would have seen the team packing their uniforms early. But in 2021, Volleyball is joining Field Hockey (6-10-0) and Boys’ Soccer (6-9-3) into the playoff brackets with a more defeats than victories to their names.

What gives?

The reason a trio of Belmont squads have a chance make some post season noise is the new process instituted this year by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. For the first time, teams are not judged by their win/loss records but ranked under a formula that considers how strong each opponents’ schedule is and the team’s average margin of victory. Under this system, playing well against top ranked teams is rewarded even if your team suffers losses during the season while defeating weak squads by a small margin could see you tumble in the rankings.

The Division 1 tournament for Belmont’s fall teams starts on Thursday, Nov. 4 with Volleyball at 10th seed Lincoln-Sudbury Regional (14-6) at 4:30 p.m. and then the 28th ranked Boys Soccer (6-9-3) hosting Peabody (8-8-1) at 7 p.m. Field Hockey (30th ranked at 6-10) ventures up Route 2 to meet its traditional pre-season opponent third-seed Concord-Carlisle (16-1-1) on Friday, Nov. 5 at 5 p.m.

The overall ranking decides if a team is one of the 32 teams that make the playoffs and their seeding in the tournament. A team’s win/loss record only comes into the mix if a squad is outside the top 32 but has a winning – above .500 – record. And then they are required to meet one of the lowest seeds, starting with the 32nd ranked team in a play-in match.

If the MIAA had followed the playoff criteria from previous years based on a team’s victories and defeats, every Belmont’s fall team – boys’ golf and girls’ swimming state championships are determined at single event meets and matches – would have failed to make the tournament.

Belmont’s teams benefited from being in a very competitive conference, the Middlesex League, with a number of strong teams. For example, Field Hockey faced three of the top 12 teams in the state twice during the season. Because the three top teams have very high ratings, just playing them is important in making the tournament. In their second games against Winchester and Arlington, Belmont kept the margin of victory of their opponents to less than the three – which is the maximum amount the ranking will count for or against a team – which prevented the Marauders from slipping out of the tournament as they placed 30th.

For volleyball, the new system doesn’t punish the team ending the season on one of the most brutal seven match losing streaks in team history, five of those losses going the distance, 3 sets to 2. But due to the tough schedule it faced, Belmont is ranked 23rd, one place higher than Natick High (10-4), three better than Wellesley (11-6) and five notches greater than Bridgewater-Raynham which finished the year at 12-5.

Boys soccer also found itself on the wrong end of an early season seven game bad beat, which in previous seasons would have been fatal to its chances making the playoffs. But a win against Winchester and two memorable ties vs top-ranked Melrose and Arlington saw the Marauders slide in seeded 28th with a play in game to come.

Yet losing to underrated teams or playing a slew of weak squads has dashed the fortunes of Girls Soccer (5-6-5) and Belmont High Football. Belmont’s Hall of Fame Girls Soccer Head Coach Paul Graham lamented his team’s losses to “small schools” Wakefield and Stoneham – those in the Middlesex League Freedom division – which the Marauders would traditionally skim by. A 1-1 tie against three-win Watertown, which hadn’t scored a goal against Belmont in 30 years, and a 5-0 home defeat against Arlington in the season finale was just enough to place the Marauders 34th in Division 1, the first team that missed the tournament as the 33rd placed squad had a better than .500 record and is in a play-in game.

While the football team (4-4) has had a great start to the season, the four wins came against opponents with a combined record of 3-28, which put the Marauders behind the eight ball early. And while Belmont finished the regular season with a one-point loss to 6-1 Woburn, they lost big to middle-of-the-road Wakefield (4-3) and Arlington (3-4) which saw them fall to 25th where the first 16 in Division 2 made the post season.