Fixing Oregon’s broken high school tennis format

A tennis racquet next to a tennis ball
Photo by Josephine Gasser on Unsplash

Talking about a high school tennis format is a pretty niche discussion. Nonetheless, since I began coaching high school tennis in Oregon a few years ago — as a hobby — I’ve made a side quest of activating anyone who cares to fix what’s broken about the issue that makes the sport inaccessible.

First off, I don’t think there’s any malice involved in the Oregon Schools Activities Association (OSAA). Instead, I think like many western U.S. states, the format was grafted onto over time and isn’t prioritzed by decisionmakers, who don’t see tennis as a ‘team’ sport in the same ways that basketball, football, or soccer are.

Outlined below are proposal items that address the most significant issues with the current structure of high school tennis in the state.

Separate boys & girls tennis into different seasons

This is the greatest issue with growing the sport of tennis in Oregon. Most high schools — if they have their own courts — do not have more than 4. As a result, it makes practices hard to schedule as the two teams have to share the courts at different times. Unlike basketball, where this might also be an issue, tennis teams are constrained by the weather. Without access to indoor courts, it means that every rainy day is a missed practice or match. Having the seasons at the same time amplifies these issues.

The debate about which season is preferable doesn’t matter, really. It’s likely that keeping girls tennis in the spring season makes sense, because two-sport athletes who play soccer in the fall would be forced to choose. Many schools don’t have as many offering for girls in the spring, with track often the only option at schools without softballl or tennis. Boys tennis in the fall might open up additional opportunities for athletes who sit the bench in the spring, due to larger rosters.

Either way, making teams share court space makes it harder to build tennis programs. Schools could hire one tennis head coach for both seasons in this scenario, which helps schools where finding someone to coach tennis is harder to find every year.

Create a team tournament for high school tennis in Oregon

There have a number of past attempts to create a team tournament for high school tennis in Oregon. The last effort happened a decade ago. Right now, the format resembles something out of a local tennis club rather than representing the best of a state.

Each classification (6A/5A/4A and below are one class) is separated into conferences/districts which choose their representatives to the state tournament. Their formats all entail a singles and doubles bracket where the 12 players on each rosters are placed. The semifinalists from each district advance to state, where again there’s a single bracket for singles and doubles.

What this means is, teams in regions where tennis isn’t as competitive have an easier route to “state” than a team that’s playing in the toughest conferences. Put a different way, there’s no planet that basketball or football coaches would agree to a format where you play up to 16 regular season matches that have no bearing on whether you make the playoffs, because everyone makes the district tournament. The whole exercise makes a mockery of team sports.

As few as 13% of 6A tennis players have the opportunity to participate in the state tournament bracket. By comparison, 60% of football and 72% of other team sports get this opportunity. This is just unfair. Moreover, an OSAA “state championship” won in OSAA high school tennis can be won with 2 or 3 really good players on a team going deep into a single bracket singles & doubles tournament.

How would a state tournament work?

  • The tennis tournament structure will be identical to other OSAA team sports. Teams will be seeded according to power ranking. Number of teams that qualify would vary by classification.
  • Top three teams in each league advance automatically. The next 11 teams according to power ranking qualify as an At-Large team. (Using 6A as an example.) Brackets will be completed according to the current OSAA Championship protocol. 2 teams from the same league will not play each other in the 1st round etc.
  • The higher seeded team will host the dual team matches all the way through the finals.
  • Teams would submit a tournament roster lineup at the start of the playoffs to prevent “stacking” among top positions.

33 other states successfully host individual & team tournaments. By having schools host all the way through the finals, it’s one less burden on scheduling larger sites, though they could opt for a larger site if desired. The individual state tournament wouldn’t need to be pushed back in this format, as the team tournament wouldn’t be more than 4 additional matches and could be worked into the regular match calendar with ample space.

Additionally, this format would lend itself to a Tournament of Champions event at a single site, where the 6A/5A/4A finalists (and perhaps a 4th separate private/paraochial school tournament champion) duel for overall state bragging rights. New Jersey employs this model flawlessly in all of its major sports including tennis.

Four men playing doubles tennis
Photo by Julian Schiemann on Unsplash

Increase match limits for high school tennis

High school tennis teams are constrained in a normal season to 16 playing dates. The reasons for this limit are unknown, but it is the single biggest issue impacting the quality of play for many Oregon high schools. Right now, programs are forced to play home/away matches with every team in their leagues. For most schools, that usually leaves as few as 2–3 non-conference matchups left on their calendar every season.

There are some concerns that bigger programs will fill their schedules with “invitationals” that last 1–2 days and bring together the biggest programs from around the state for added competition, but these crop up partially because regular season records mean nothing in OSAA high school tennis.

In a world where wins equals team playoff berths, we’ll see teams seeking to schedule non-conference matches against teams in their local areas. Because power ratings can help teams chances for at-large bids, the incentives for more games will be higher and it’ll help emerging/lower-rated programs by enabling them more opportunity to find matches with programs of a similar talent level of their current students. Inter-classification matches in tennis as extremely rare, as there’s no incentive for bigger schools to play smaller classification ones, even if the matches could be competitive.

Maintaining student interest and growing smaller programs would benefit mightily from an ability to schedule at least as many games as baseball in a spring season. Some cite weather as a potential concern, but other outdoor sports manage to navigate this without an issue.

Students deserve a better high school tennis system in Oregon

Tennis is an odd sport during state tournament time. You’ll see smiling faces of two or three students holding up a trophy claiming state superiority, and wonder where the teammates that helped win matches during the season or challenged them in practice are during these moments.

It’s time to bring Oregon in line with so many other states who’ve embraced modern high school tennis formats that reward coaches that build complete programs. This model continues the traditional of the individual state tournaments for singles & doubles unabated, but adds a new traditional that’ll invigorate tennis in communities and give teams something to compete for together.

Ron Bronson is a high school head tennis coach in Oregon. He’s coached college & high school tennis periodically over the past two decades as a hobby that’s not related to his work in tech. Get in touch at ronbronson.com

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