For the second consecutive year, area football teams will play under a new regional playoff format. The 1987 plan, designed to allow more teams postseason opportunities, is a modified version of the system used last season and has received a warm reception from area coaches.

"The intent is good, said Potomac head coach Bill Brown. "It gives more teams an opportunity to be in the playoffs and that's healthy for everyone."

The new format, introduced by the Virginia High School League, divides schools within each region based on enrollment. And though regular season schedules will not be affected by the new format, schools will compete for playoff berths only against teams with roughly the same number of students.

According to Ken Tilley, programs supervisor for the VHSL, "The intent is to provide realistic opportunity for smaller schools to reach the playoffs and be competitive."

Studies by the VHSL have shown that schools with larger enrollments have dominated past playoffs. The new format will allow smaller schools to participate in and enjoy the "positive and rewarding experience of playoff competition," said Tilley.

The new plan differs from last year's format in three significant factors: the terminology to distinguish the divisions is new; the schools are classified at the regional level, and district champions must play in their respective divisional playoffs.

Last year in each group, the schools were classified in either Division I or II, based on enrollment. In the new plan, Group AAA is divided into Division 6 (high enrollment) and Division 5 (low enrollment). Group AA is broken into Divison 4 (high enrollment) and Division 3 (low enrollment). Group A is separated into Divison 2 (high enrollment) and Division 1 (low enrollment).

Neil Callahan, head coach of state runner-up Marshall, hopes the new numbering will not change the way the public judges the quality of football. "I think it's a good idea," said Callahan. "The only weakness right now is in the public perception of 5A {Division 5} being less than 6A {Division 6}. But that should dissipate as the season goes on."

Under the two-tier playoff system, in each region, each group (AAA, AA, A) is divided in half with the larger schools in one half and the smaller schools in the other.

The split is based on enrollment figures and was determined independently within each region, unlike last year when schools were divided on a statewide level.

Schools with larger enrollment will compete for separate playoff berths from schools in the lower enrollment class. Though the district groupings remain the same and schools will compete regardless of division during the regular season, playoff spots will be determined in each division within each group. State champions will be crowned in each division.

Because the enrollment classifications were divided at the state level last season, many regions had few teams in Division II. Consequently, the Bull Run District sent all three of its Division II teams to the regional playoffs, including George Mason, despite its 0-10 record. By dividing the regions in half at the regional level, each area is guaranteed a more competitive field to compete for the berth.

Unlike last season, district champions must play in their respective divisions. Should a school classified as low enrollment win a district title it would advance to its respective division playoffs. The playoff spot awarded to the district champion would then be open to all high enrollment teams in the region and would be determined through the Virginia Football Rating Scale. (The Rating Scale awards credit to teams for victories and ties based on the record and group classification of their opponent. Defeating a team that has a winning record awards a team more rating scale points than a victory over a struggling team).

For example, West Potomac is the only Division 6 team in the Gunston District. If the Wolerines do not win the district, the playoff berth would be open to all Northern Region Division 6 teams and awarded to the team with the highest rating scale. With T.C. Williams expected to win the Northern District, other Northern District Division 6, teams such as Robinson and Lake Braddock would have a chance to capture the Gunston berth based on rating points. It is possible for onedistrict to capture several regional playoff spots.

By making it mandatory for teams to play in their own division, the VHSL hopes to limit the playoffs to teams with outstanding records. In 1986, several teams chose to play in the Division I playoffs despite being classified in Division II. In the Northern Region, Marshall's decision to play in the Division I playoffs opened the door for Falls Church to compete in the Division II playoffs despite a 3-7 regular season mark. Oakton, a Division I school, was left out of the playoffs despite finishing the season at 9-1. Under this year's plan, Marshall would have had to play in the low enrollment playoffs, opening the high enrollment berth for Oakton and eliminating Falls Church from post-season play.

Ironically, this year the new format may actually help the large schools more than the small. State finalists Salem and Marshall, along with other Group AAA powers, Courtland, Mount Vernon, E.C. Glass, Heritage, Potomac and Pulaski, have been classified Division 5.

By creating new divisions and restricting playoff competition to teams of the same class, "It will help a lot of the larger schools that haven't had a chance to get in the playoffs get in," said Courtland Coach Ken Brown.

Because of the split regions and the emphasis on the rating scale to determine playoff berths, questions have arisen concerning scheduling. The VHSL considered the establishment of a Group AAAA but found geography and travel factors to be prohibitive. And though some don't see the advantage of scheduling teams in higher divisions, Coach Neil Callahan, of 1986 AAA state runner-up Marshall, hopes the scheduling is not restricted in future seasons.

"It would be a detriment to many of the 5A schools because you draw better playing 6A schools," said Callahan. "Most athletic programs in this area run off football receipts and that would hurt them."

Regardless of the complexities of the new system one thing is perfectly clear: more teams have a chance at postseason play than ever before.