By Adam Lerman
I coach the University of Puget Sound Postmen. While I only discuss open division teams in this article, there are many examples of the same issues in the women’s division.
Following the 2010 season, USA Ultimate introduced a new structure for the college series which separated Division I and Division III teams. The new structure has resulted in some beneficial changes, but it is far from perfect. In this article, I will describe some problems with the current system, and suggest possible improvements.
Lower level of competition at D-I Regionals
In 2011, Claremont finished the regular season ranked #21 in the country, barely missing out on earning the Southwest Region an additional strength bid to the D-I Championships. Claremont easily won their four-team conference tournament, and earned a bid to the D-III Championships. Claremont was not allowed to play at D-I Regionals, where Stanford, ranked #33 at the end of the regular season, upset #16 San Diego State to earn a bid to the D-I Championships. Claremont went on to win the D-III title without dropping a game.
Last year, Minnesota-Duluth surprised everyone by qualifying for the D-I Championships out of the North Central Region. Minnesota-Duluth didn’t have enough sanctioned games to be ranked at the end of the regular season. In the final rankings, two North Central D-III teams (St. John’s and D-III Champion Carleton-GOP) were ranked higher.
Was 2011 Claremont good enough to make the D-I Championships out of the Southwest? Could Carleton-GOP or St. John’s have grabbed one of the five North Central bids last year? We’ll never know.
Worse competition for the top D-III teams
Under the old system in 2010, D-III teams played against D-I teams at Sectionals and Regionals before competing at the D-III Championships. In 2010, the four semifinalists at the D-III Championships (Carleton-GOP, Whitman, Kenyon, Puget Sound) had a combined record of 32-21, and had the opportunity to play against the top D-I teams in their respective regions. Playing only against other D-III teams in 2012, the D-III semifinals teams (Carleton-GOP, Puget Sound, North Park, Rice) had a combined record of 31-5 leading up to the Championships. The top D-III teams had far fewer opportunities to challenge themselves against teams capable of beating them.
Many of the best D-III teams aren’t at the D-III Championships
Last year, Carleton-CUT, Colorado College, Dartmouth, Luther, Middlebury, Whitman, and Williams chose to play in D-I conferences, making them ineligible for the D-III Championships before the season even started. Other teams like Princeton and Wesleyan opted out of the D-III series to compete at D-I Regionals. In 2011, all four of 2010’s D-III semifinalists (Carleton-GOP, Whitman, Kenyon, Puget Sound) made the same choice to attend D-I Regionals.
How can we improve the D-III system? Here are some ideas, starting with the least ambitious:
Give every team the opportunity to compete at both conference and regional tournaments
This allows D-III teams in the four regions with only a single D-III conference to attend both D-I Regionals and the D-III Championships. It creates more playing opportunities for the D-III teams, provides better competition for the D-I teams and means fewer teams decline bids to the D-III Championships. A change that makes many teams better off and no teams worse off should be a no-brainer. Under this system, we could have seen Claremont at D-I Regionals in 2011, and Whitman at the D-III Championships last year.
Get rid of D-III strength bids and replace them with wildcards
Each region keeps one auto-bid to the D-III Championships, awarded though D-III conference and regionals tournaments. D-III teams can choose to compete at D-I regionals. Six wildcard bids are awarded after regionals to the top ranked D-III teams, regardless of whether they attended a D-III or a D-I regional tournament. Under this system, the wildcards last year could have gone to Whitman, Dartmouth, Williams, Carleton-GOP, Harding, and Princeton, making the D-III Championships a much higher quality tournament.
Make D-III the 11th D-I region
D-III would get one auto-bid to the D-I Championships, and could earn more strength bids. Last year, Carleton-CUT, Luther, and Whitman would have earned three bids for D-III. Teams would compete and their conference tournaments, the D-III Championships, and the top teams would go on to the D-I Championships. This is never going to happen, but it’s interesting to think about.
D-III players, what do you think? Are you happy with the current D-III structure?
Feature photo by Brandon Wu – Ultiphotos.com