Powell’s 2011 playoff run was, simply put, inspired.
Few teams have done what Powell did that season — win three road playoff games to win a state championship.
In fact, since Wyoming expanded to five classifications in 1990, 212 teams have played in state championship games after making their way through eight-team playoff brackets (through the end of the 2014 season). Of those 212 teams:
- 18 teams (8.5 percent) played in the title game after playing their first playoff game on the road.
- 3 teams (1.4 percent) won the state championship after opening the playoffs on the road.
- 2 teams (0.9 percent) won the state championship after playing all three of their playoff games on the road (or by playing in a neutral-site championship).
Only a small handful of teams reach the title game after starting the playoffs on the road. Even when such teams make it to the title game, those road-first squads are just 3-15 in the championship. Only Powell in 2011 and Glenrock in 2003 won titles by playing three straight road games in the playoffs; in addition, Big Piney won a title in 2006 after winning its quarterfinal game on the road, its semifinal game at home and its title game on the road.
Between 1990 and 2008, after which state title games moved to Laramie, only one team that started the playoffs in an eight-team bracket on the road hosted the state title game: Lovell in 2003. Oddly enough, Lovell lost that championship game to the aforementioned Glenrock squad. Yeah, the 3A playoffs in 2003 were crazy. I blame power ratings.
I have rambled about this before, back when I used to work for the Casper Star-Tribune and produced the blog “Sports Goulash.” Unfortunately, that blog post (along with every other one I wrote there) has been eliminated from the CST site.
When I first wrote about this idea, I used it as a call to reduce the playoff brackets from eight to four teams, and to extend the regular season a week. More games for all teams, fewer first-round playoff blowouts, an emphasis on the regular season…. After all, I reasoned at the time, it hardly seems worth it to have the playoffs at three rounds when less than 2 percent of teams that don’t host in the first round win a state championship anyway. Sounded good at the time.
I’m not so sure I agree with that assessment now, especially after the first two rounds of the playoffs this year.
The 2015 postseason showed us two more reasons to keep the playoffs at eight teams per classification, as both Green River and Tongue River reached this week’s championship games after starting the postseason on the road. Tongue River made a pair of long road trips to reach Laramie, beating defending champion Cokeville in Cokeville in the quarterfinals and topping East Conference top seed Lingle in Lingle in the semis. Green River, meanwhile, beat Buffalo in Buffalo in the 3A quarterfinals before beating West top seed Jackson in Jackson in the semifinal round.
In four-team brackets, neither the Wolves nor the Eagles would have even had the chance to make it this far. Now they’re playing in Laramie.
The more I think about it, the more I like the fact that a lot of teams make the playoffs — it makes almost every regular-season game important. That makes the regular season, especially Weeks 6-8, quite fun.
A longer regular season doesn’t necessarily mean a better regular season. If only four schools per classification qualified for the playoffs, some teams could be eliminated from postseason consideration halfway through the season. That’s not much fun.
And the upsets are, in part, what makes the postseason fun and memorable. Eight-team brackets expand the chances for those upsets, even if they don’t happen that often, and even if the 50 percent of the teams in the playoffs who start with a road game win titles 1.4 percent of the time.
If you’re unsure where you stand, just ask anyone playing for Green River or Tongue River this weekend. They’ll help you figure it out.
For reference, here are the 18 teams that played in the state championship game after starting their playoff run on the road (eight-team brackets only, from 1990-2014):
The three state champions
Powell, 2011 (quarterfinals and semifinals on the road; championship at neutral site in Laramie as “road” team)
Big Piney, 2006 (quarterfinals on the road, semifinals at home, title game on the road)
Glenrock, 2003 (all three games on the road)
The 15 other state runners-up
Kaycee, 2009; Evanston, 1993 and 2007 (’07 semis at home); Cheyenne East, 2006; Gillette, 2003 (semis at home); Lovell, 2003 (hosted title game) and 1990; Lusk, 2003 (semis at home); Normative Services, 2001; Mountain View, 2000; Sheridan, 1996 and 1997; Pine Bluffs, 1991 and 1994; Wind River, 1992 (semis at home).