Polk County's Ella Waldman

With regular-season schedules nearing their end, high school coaches across North Carolina are beginning to think about playoffs – and how teams qualify and are seeded.

It’s that time of year to again start thinking about seeds and RPI as the postseason approaches. Here is an explainer of how the playoffs work in North Carolina and where Polk County teams stand at present.

The first way to advance to the postseason is to earn an automatic berth based on your conference finish. Conference with five teams or fewer get one berth for the league champion, with conferences with six or more teams getting two for the champion and runner-up. Note that in sports with a conference tournament, the tournament winner can get the second automatic berth in lieu of the regular-season runner-up.

Once the automatic qualifiers are decided, then the remaining spots in each playoff field are filled with wild cards. Those are determined solely by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s RPI standings. The RPI is calculated through a formula that includes a team’s winning percentage, its opponents’ winning percentage and its opponents’ opponents winning percentage.

RPI is the sole criteria used to determine wild cards.

One other provision – a team cannot qualify for a berth before all teams in their conference that finished ahead of them in the conference standings have qualified. So if a team finishes fifth, it cannot jump the fourth-place team and get in the playoffs no matter the teams’ RPI.

So win your conference for smaller leagues, finish second or win your conference tournament in larger conferences or have a good enough RPI to earn a wild card – that’s how teams qualify.

Once the qualifers are determined, then teams must be seeded in order to determine pairings.

All conference champions are seeded first, and are done so solely by their RPI. The only exception to that rule is for split conferences, where the champion of a split must finish in the top three and/or have a .500 or better conference record to be seeded as a champion. Otherwise, the team still qualifies, but isn’t seeded like a conference winner.

Once the conference champions are seeded, then all remaining teams are seeded by RPI, regardless of conference finish.

So seed the conference winners, then seed everyone else. Simple, right?

The sport closest to the end of the season at present is volleyball, so let’s begin there.

Polk County currently has a one-game lead over Brevard in the Mountain Foothills 7 Conference standings. If Polk defeats East Rutherford and Brevard defeats Hendersonville on Tuesday, then the Oct. 13 meeting between the two teams will decide the conference title.

If Polk County wins, then the Wolverines are conference champions and earn the MF7 top seed. If Brevard wins, then the two teams finish tied for the conference title. In that case, the team with the best finish in the MF7 tournament will be declared the conference’s top seed.

Polk County currently is ranked No. 2 in the 2A West RPI, just behind McMichael. If the Wolverines finish as the conference’s top seed, then Polk would likely be assured of being at home for at least the first three, possibly first four rounds of the state playoffs. But, if Brevard wins Oct. 13 and has a better finish than Polk in the MF7 tourney, then Brevard would be seeded as the conference champ and Polk could be seeded no higher than 12th. That’s because there are 11 conference champions in the 2A West bracket.

Given their current RPI, the Wolverines would likely be the 12th seed. That would mean a first-round match at home, then likely going on the road for remaining games barring any upsets elsewhere in the bracket.

So a big few days await Polk County ahead of playoff seedings on Oct. 20, with the Wolverines likely needing to beat Brevard at least once in that span to clinch a top-four seed for the playoffs.

As for Polk’s boys soccer and football teams, much remains to be determined. The Wolverine soccer squad is currently 39th in RPI and thus needs a few more wins to rise and have a shot at being one of the 32 teams that qualify for the postseason.

Polk’s football team sits 23rd in RPI, but still has half of its conference schedule to go and isn’t out of the running for a conference title. Polk has a key game this week at Chase.

As for girls tennis, that’s the only sport where RPI is not used. There are 14 automatic berths in the 2A West bracket, with two wild-card slots available based on overall record.

Polk County finished tied for third in the MF7 standings and, with a 5-8 record, likely won’t earn one of those two playoff spots.