Proponents of a state championship for New Jersey public high school football teams picture enthusiastic fans dressed in their school colors sitting in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
They foresee the excitement building in a school and its community as their team advances through the playoffs to a state title game.
They dream of South Jersey powers such as Cherokee, Eastern or Millville meeting North Jersey powers such as Montclair and Ridgewood.
Public schools currently play for South, Central, North I and North II sectional titles. But under the new format, those four sectional winers would go on to play for one state championship in each of the five public school enrollment groups.
New Jersey high schools will vote Monday at the Pines Manor Restaurant in Edison on a proposed changes to the constitution of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association that would allow public schools to play for a state title. Two-thirds of the schools that vote Monday must approve the measure for it to take effect for the 2014 season. Every other sport in New Jersey plays to a state championship.
"It's time," said Jack Dubois, the assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs most New Jersey high school sports. "It's 2013. It's time to put our football teams on the same stage as the other sports we sponsor."
But opponents of statewide playoffs say the new system would not be worth the changes it would bring, namely a longer season. The new playoff format would preserve Thanksgiving Day rivalries but extend the season's length. In some years, the season would start Labor Day weekend. The season would end the second weekend of December instead of the first weekend of that month as it currently does.
"That's where the resistance lies - Labor Day," DuBois said.
The vote is expected to be close. Dubois discussed the proposal with schools around the state at the NJSIAA's four sectional meetings this fall. DuBois said the reaction from schools was mixed.
"I'm optimistic," he said, "but you never know what people are going to do when they go to vote."
The NJSIAA constitution bans statewide public school playoffs in football. Public school teams currently only play for sectional titles, such as South Jersey Group V. State football playoffs began in 1974, and no one now connected with the NJSIAA can remember exactly why the ban was put in the constitution. New Jersey nonpublic schools have played for state titles since 1993.
The lack of a true state group champion in football has been a much-discussed topic for years in the state's high school football community. Past attempts to create a statewide playoff system failed.
Fans have debated for years where the best football in the state is played. A true state champion would settle that argument.
"The South Jersey teams would get to play the teams from Central and North Jersey," said Oakcrest coach Chuck Smith, who supports a statewide playoff. "The bragging rights would actually mean something. Instead of saying, 'What if? What if?' You actually get to play the games."
But opponents of the plan are concerned about the length of the season, though DuBois said that under the proposed format 326 of the 346 high schools that play football in New Jersey would be done by Thanksgiving.
School administrators worry about having players available for Labor Day weekend games. Many players - especially in shore communities - are still working summer jobs that weekend. Schools might also have trouble hiring staff to work games played on Labor Day weekend before school opens.
"The start date is a concern because of kids working the beaches on the boardwalks," Smith said. "But I don't mind it. In the last 15 or 20 years, there is no offseason. Everybody starts early now. You have a game scrimmage anyway Labor Day weekend."
Others are concerned the new playoff system would mean eventually mean the end of Thanksgiving games, which have disappeared in most states where true state champions are crowned.
"The NJSIAA leadership has assured me that as long as they're there, the integrity of Thanksgiving games will be upheld," Atlantic City athletic director Frank Campo said. "But I honestly think because the strategic placing of Thanksgiving week it's going to cause many teams in the state to say, 'Hey, we need this date for playoffs.' There's going to be so much pressure down the road that the Thanksgiving games are going to be done away with."
Finally, some are concerned about the state championships happening just five days before the start of the winter season.
"It's only week (longer than the current system), but it's a more prestigious (title)," Smith said. "But I can understand being a winter sports coach. You don't have your athletes right away. I get that part."
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