Analysis: Coping with the Schedule

More than a gauntlet is needed for schedule balance


The Ontario SchoolReach provincial championship whittles roughly 40 teams down to three national invites. To coordinate the largest field of any SchoolReach event, teams are split into pools that play amongst each other, with the (usually) top two of eight in each group moving on to the playoffs.

The composition of the pool can play a significant role in how far a team can progress in the tournament. There are good-faith efforts to balance the pools, but historically with no other background information, organizers had to use reputation (and geographical separation) to form the pools. Often, this led to strange results, such as two 2013 national invites coming from the same preliminary group. Ideally, and with more information, teams would be sorted so that they earn a final rank appropriate to their performance.

But I can’t solve that for now. What I can do is look back, thanks to collecting data from past tournaments. I occasionally get asked (or hear complaints) about how teams don’t get a fair shot during provincials, either through losing a playoff spot to a “weaker” team or having to deal with a group of death. I took a look at some numbers.

The analysis is based on teams that had at least 10 appearances at Ontario provincials since 1999. Results from 2003-05 are excluded from the averages because I don’t have pool composition for those tournaments (just points and ranks). 18 schools fit the bill, including most of the modern “usual suspects” for national qualifications.

Fig 1. Average rank and PPG of frequent Ontario SchoolReach championship attendees

First up is a team’s average rank against their average round-robin points per game. See figure 1, and excuse the crowded labels in places; some teams are close together. There is an unsurprising relationship – teams that finish well scored more points to get there. There are four teams that are at least a full standard deviation from the linear trend:

  • UTS earns more points than necessary to get their rank. They are also limited by being unable to go below 1, even though they would fit closer to a theoretical rank of “0”.
  • Lisgar gets the round-robin points to justify an average rank in the 1-3 range. However, they have a history of stumbling in the playoffs, especially the televised ones, which gives them a lower final rank than their seed would suggest.
  • I will get back to Leaside in a later graph. In the early years, the team scored UTS-esque point tallies. In their later years, they had schedule benefits. Their mid-years are excluded (2003-05).
  • Assumption earns fewer points than expected. It will be seen later that one of my past assumptions (pun intended) that they get easy draws is false. Instead, they probably earn lots of close wins in the prelims, operating on razor-thin margins of victory to often get on the better side of the playoff bubble.
Fig 2. Average rank and strength of schedule of frequent Ontario provincials attendees

Next is the comparison of rank and strength of schedule. The relationship is not as strong, but teams with better ranks usually have an easier schedule. This is expected for balanced pools – the top teams in the pools face teams weaker than them, while the bottom teams face opponents stronger than them. Unfortunately, we don’t have information-based balance, so we are starting to see some outliers:

  • Leaside is on the low side of this chart. They were getting statistically significantly easier schedules than their rank would suggest. However, I believe I can explain this – Leaside made the provincial final in all (and only) the three excluded years. Leaside was extremely good in the 2003-05 period. They were also a very strong prelim team before that, but would slip in the playoffs. For their remaining active years (consecutively until 2009), they probably benefited from reputation placing them as expected pool winners, but they never made playoffs again after the 2005 run. If the 2003-05 results could be added, they would have a higher average rank with probably not too much change in SOS.
  • Lisgar appears low, but is within a standard deviation. As mentioned before, their average rank is worse than expected because of historical poor playoff performance.
  • The cluster of Oakville-Trafalgar, Waterloo, and Westdale have a right to gripe. They face statistically significantly tougher schedules than their results would justify – Westdale is almost two standard deviations from the trend. OTHS is particularly surprising: they had good results in the missing years (thanks to University Challenge celebrity Eric Monkman), but don’t appear to have been given a “boost” from that reputation; they seem to be put in pools under the assumption they don’t do well. Westdale’s tough luck was also looked at in an earlier post when I posited (incorrectly) that Hamilton teams in general suffered from bad schedules.
Fig 3. Average strength of schedule and PPG of frequent Ontario provincials attendees

The last graph, comparing SOS and PPG, could be summarized as how teams cope with the schedule they’ve been dealt. Strength of schedule loosely represents pool strength and the potential unbalance, so teams getting PPGs above the trend are punching above their weight to overcome a bad draw. A few teams are outliers:

  • Westdale still stands out (OTHS and Waterloo draw closer to the trend in this analysis). Their single greatest mountain to climb was the 2013 pool: they had a 5-2 record, their second-best ever PPG relative to the set, and a final rank of 11th, all while dealing with two nationals-bound teams and a third team that also got into the playoffs. Westdale also incredibly made playoffs in 2009 with a 1.15 SOS. Westdale often got the worst schedules, but they made every effort to try to get something out of it.
  • Assumption is the outlier on the low end. I don’t wish to suggest that they are a low-effort team, though. They get schedules that are roughly fair for what is expected of them, but the first analysis suggested that they just don’t pick up large margins of victory.
  • UTS is also an outlier. They appear to have an easy slate of opponents, but they are still performing better than their schedule would expect. UTS has had a few years with tough pools (including the 2013 one mentioned earlier) while still consistently putting up points – they have qualified for nationals four times with a preliminary SOS greater than 1. Organizers (unintentionally) throw tough teams at UTS, and they still prevail.

So there are some data to ponder. I’m sure there are some less-frequent teams that also struggle or get an easy break, but the teams highlighted here should have enough sample size to stand out. Use your own results to see how your team compares to these provincial regulars.

The 1974 Gonzaga team

With a special appearance by Bob Cole!

The 1974 Gonzaga team is almost certainly the CBC-era Reach for the Top team with the most coverage today. Many Canadians are nostalgic for the games on CBC, whether through playing or watching, but few squads get as much attention as the underdog team from St. John’s. The Telegram ran a retrospective article in 2015 with the four members of the team. CBC published an article this past week in the context of a book launch about the 1974 team. In addition, the whole final match is available on YouTube (part 1, part 2).

1974 was near the beginning of Reach’s prime years. I have previously written about the paradigm shift of 1972/73, and within a year, top teams were all studying hard and becoming the most competitive teams of the CBC era. Archbishop O’Leary HS, which I believe is the birthplace of year-long practices, made it to the 1974 final as a favourite to continue the string of two consecutive titles for Alberta (O’Leary in 1972 and Lorne Jenken HS in 1973). Meanwhile, Gonzaga HS from Newfoundland, receiving a swell of local support thanks to Reach opting to film Nationals in St. John’s in celebration of the 25th anniversary of joining Confederation, was picking off established teams with a group of grade 11 students (Newfoundland, like Quebec, went only to grade 11 in high school at the time). The final was Gonzaga’s “David” to the O’Leary “Goliath”.

The final was a tale of two halves. O’Leary spent the first phase flustered with incorrect buzzes, giving Gonzaga early leads of 65-0 and then 170-30 by mid-game. O’Leary also got burned by a few tough (and possibly inconsistent) calls of “time” in the quick pace moderator Bill Guest was running. However, O’Leary started clawing back with assigned, scramble, and what-am-I questions on geography. About three-quarters of the way through, Gerry of Gonzaga accidentally hit his buzzer at the start of a question and was forced to give an impossible response; he was visibly shaken by this and went from being the most dominant player on the team to failing to give a correct answer for the rest of the match. In the final snappers phase, O’Leary was on fire and held a 280-270 lead with about one minute to go. However, two incorrect O’Leary buzzes (with -5 penalties) and the up-to-now quiet Peter’s answers of “[Beatrix] Potter” and “the” sealed the close 300-270 victory for the home team.

This was Gonzaga’s (and Newfoundland’s) only Reach title. They would continue to make national appearances consecutively until 1979, but not reach a final again. Gonzaga, as well as the whole province of Newfoundland and Labrador, did not continue participation into the SchoolReach era. O’Leary became overshadowed by Lorne Jenken for Alberta representation after this, but that province continued to make regular semifinal appearances through to the 1980s.

The 1974 team’s legacy lives on. Member Tom Harrington, a veteran host of several CBC programs over the years, holds some clout for keeping his team’s success in the public eye. While there have been some other teams of that era with notable members (including Richview’s Stephen Harper, who lost to the eventual 1978 champions), the Gonzaga team gets the spotlight. Perhaps the timing of the team winning at home at the “coming of age” 25th anniversary struck a chord. There may be a strong attachment to the show in the province since nearly every high school would have had to participate in the 1970s to fill up the broadcast schedule (Manitoba also seems to have this connection from high participation due to low population). It is also interesting that the nostalgia has not resulted in any revival of SchoolReach; though it can be difficult to manage out-of-province competition without the logistical support of a TV network.

During this offseason, I will post less often but will continue to look at past results. If there are any requests for particular topics (other than future predictions), feel free to let me know. Happy Canada Day and enjoy the summer!

Old Ontario Scores

When Reach could be picked up with bunny ears

The 2006-2009 gap in Ontario provincial tournaments is now mostly filled up. Thank you to Joe for collecting and saving the results. Here are the pages:

Most notable in these years was deviation from a field size of 40. This forced crossover matches and incomplete round-robins within a pool, which led to some teams getting rather imbalanced schedules. However, top teams usually still found their way to the playoffs, which was a whole different beast with the TVO format.

There is still some missing information on a few pages, but the database now has Ontario tournaments from 1999 to the present. Back in 1999, none of the 2018 playoff teams even participated. Things have changed!

The 1970s paradigm shift

Let’s do this: LOOOORNE JENKEN

Last summer during my ranking of CBC champions, I referred to a paradigm shift that changed the game. In 1972, O’Leary HS of Alberta won a title by practicing earlier in the year; Lorne Jenken followed up in 1973 with probably the greatest single-season jump in innovation.

In the earliest years of Reach for the Top, the TV show brought in hastily-assembled teams. Sometimes a teacher ran a test to select the team, while there are a few cases of fielding the student council or making a team elected by students. Schools wanted their institution represented well on television, and there was attention to good manners and dress, but not necessarily hard knowledge. Other than Oak Bay from BC, there weren’t any “dynasties” where a school would readily bring a trained team year after year.

By the 1970s, the attitudes of teams on TV had changed. Students weren’t necessarily in their nice suits and dresses, and the players were starting to treat it as something to win rather than a means of making the school look good. The prize system may have helped: in the 1960s, only the school won bursaries; by the 1970s, the students themselves started receiving trips, books, and scholarships. Students now had another incentive to win the tournament.

O’Leary appears to be the first school to use a year-long practice method and win a title. I don’t know very much about their method other than that Lorne Jenken built upon it. Selecting a team at the beginning of the year – and having them study from encyclopedias, newspapers, and literature – was a new concept for the time. It allowed a team to split their topic strengths and build some chemistry before being thrust into the TV studio. I haven’t seen any footage of their 1972 title run, but in their 1974 final, they were very knowledgeable, not very TV-friendly, and only lost to Gonzaga by getting flustered from the Newfoundland home audience. They were much stronger than the teams in audio I’ve heard from 1960s games.

Lorne Jenken would have competed with O’Leary in the Edmonton area, and was no doubt inspired by O’Leary’s title. In the fall of 1972, new coach Ken Kowalski made a start-of-year intercom announcement asking for interested students – the meeting room filled up. I don’t know the logistics after that meeting, but somehow that large group of students became a credit course for Reach for the Top. Scheduled school time for a team would have been unheard of for the time, and is rare today. During the course, Kowalski and the students built a mock set of the studio with buzzers, studied books and old tournament questions, and perhaps most significantly, wrote tens of thousands of questions. Question writing is the preferred practice method of top teams today, but nobody was doing that in 1972. That class at Lorne Jenken was getting work done.

Side note: Lorne Jenken HS has since become Barrhead Composite. It is sometimes difficult to find information on the team because some people refer to it as “Lorne Jenkins”. Sources with “Jenkins” tends to be people recalling from the past, though it also appears on Reach’s list of champions. Meanwhile, Barrhead’s website mentions their old name of “Jenken”, as does some old news stories. I am sticking with “Lorne Jenken” for their name.

Lorne Jenken bested O’Leary at their own game in 1973. Lorne Jenken took the Alberta crown and went to Ottawa for their first nationals trip. I don’t know the identities of their opponents, but they beat teams from Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec to win the title. Two consecutive titles (and almost a third in 1974) coming out of this Edmonton rivalry probably gave teams notice that change was afoot.

There was a shift in how teams played after the O’Leary/Jenken run. Players were aggressive on the buzzer, well-studied, and much more bonded as a team. Rather than assembling a group of seniors, teams would start bringing in younger players to acclimatize them for a later year. Reach of the later 1970s was in many ways similar to the modern era, and with a few adjustments, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those teams could have competed against today’s clubs. Dynasties formed: Lorne Jenken (7), Gonzaga (6), and Dryden (3) all had multiple national appearances, and the first two-time champion (Vincent Massey CI) re-emerged in this time. The CBC era was in a golden age.

The golden age faded around 1980. The previously-mentioned dynasties no longer appeared, prizes and viewership were reduced, and teams of the mid-1980s didn’t look as strong. The first threat of cancellation occurred in 1983, and Reach ended up being dropped from CBC in 1985.

O’Leary HS did not make nationals again after 1974. They were outclassed by Lorne Jenken in Alberta competition for the rest of the CBC era, and no longer participate in SchoolReach.

Lorne Jenken missed a 1974 appearance, but took the Alberta title for a further six consecutive years (1975-1980). They never reached the final again, but made it to the semis at least twice. The 1985 edition of the Canadian Encyclopedia referred to Lorne Jenken as the best Reach for the Top team ever. By the end of the decade, though, most strong schools had adopted practice and writing methods developed by the Alberta team. The school dropped in performance after the departure of their coach, Ken Kowalski, and their modern incarnation, Barrhead Composite, also no longer participates in SchoolReach.

Ken Kowalski was a local hero after the 1973 title and subsequent national appearances. In 1979, he left teaching and ran for a seat in the Alberta legislature. He credited his win to the positive reputation from his teams’ Reach successes. In 1997, he was elected Speaker of the assembly in Alberta and retained that position until his retirement in 2012, becoming the second-longest tenured politician to preside over the legislature.

The 1972/73 shift is the biggest single-season upheaval in Reach. If you write questions, use a practice buzzer set, or even just schedule time for intramural SchoolReach, thank Ken Kowalski and that little hotbed of activity around Edmonton.

Reach champion rankings, 2017 part 4

Where Nationals is a regular thing.

Here ends the ranking of Reach championship-winning clubs. The rankings from the CBC era are here, while the first two parts of the modern era are here and here.

The top six teams are no strangers to national championships. Between them, they account for 15 titles and 26 final appearances, and you have to go back to the 2000 Merivale-Ridley final to find a title match that didn’t feature at least one of these teams. These are the teams that have dominated the new millennium.

Here are the top six, with not much change from 2015:

  1. University of Toronto Schools (ON)
  2. Kennebecasis Valley HS (NB)
  3. St. George’s School (BC)
  4. Lisgar CI (ON) [up 3]
  5. London Central SS (ON) [down 1]
  6. Martingrove CI (ON)

I don’t think UTS at #1 is a surprise to anyone. UTS participated in Reach as far back as the CBC era, but they really broke out at the 2000 Ontario Provincials with a sudden run to the semifinals after some absence. Their first peak from 2001-04 saw four consecutive provincial titles and two national titles, all while putting up dominant playing statistics that would be tops until very recently. After that, they continued picking up provincial titles and a few final appearances in a relative “lull”, then nabbed two more titles this decade to cement themselves as the winningest club. A new coach hasn’t slowed down the team; they cruised through most of Nationals this year and are expected to do well in the years to come.

KV is firmly at #2, thanks to another title they picked up last year. Three titles and a further three runners-up should be enough to rest on, but they also are incredibly consistent. KV ended Fredericton’s long domination of New Brunswick in 2004, missed 2005 for job action, then qualified for Nationals every year since. In their 13 National appearances, they have finished at least in the top half of the field every time. Not even UTS can claim this consistency, though they still have quite a bit to go to reach another team…

St. George’s remaining at #3 might be more surprising. They have mostly faded from national contention after the retirement of their coach who guided them in the ’90s and ’00s, though they still pick up some appearances as a BC representative. What keeps them ranked high is 20 National appearances (I can’t verify ’89 & ’90, which would add to that total). St. George’s was the team to beat in Reach until UTS took on that mantle. Their coach often lamented that the only thing that held them back from even more titles was Ontario’s grade 13 and all those old students dominating the ’90s (to be fair, Fredericton was often a better non-Ontario team than St. George’s during that period). I will still place St. George’s ahead of the remaining teams, but the next set are in a good position to rise further.

Lisgar, Central, and Martingrove are close to a coin flip. Lisgar has the most titles but is the least consistent, Central has been steady for a decade, while Martingrove has both history and an impressive consecutive appearance streak going (for an Ontario team). Here are National stats for the three:

Team Titles Finals Appearances
Lisgar CI 3 (’08, ’15, ’17) 3 (same) 5 (& ’11, ’16)
London Central SS 2 (’07, ’09) 4 (& ’12, ’14) 5 (& ’16)
Martingrove CI 1 (’14) 1 (same) 6 (& ’93, ’13, ’15-17)

All three each lead a different category. Martingrove, at first glance, appears a step below, but their strength in ’90s Ontario alongside Saunders shouldn’t be discounted (it is possible they also qualified in ’89 or ’90). Lisgar has the biggest jump forward; last time the rankings were done, they were lower in all categories compared to Central. For now, I think the order is fair, but even just next year’s results could alter the positions of all three.

And that concludes my Reach for the Top champion rankings. I try to find old results to help boost the reputations of clubs, but if you have further information, I’ll be glad to use it for later updating (like I did to elevate Saunders). I hope you enjoyed them!

Reach champion rankings, 2017 part 3

Turn of the millennium

I’m continuing the ranking of Reach championship-winning clubs. The rankings from the CBC era are found here, while the first part of the modern era is found here.

This next set of clubs mostly had their highlights during the turn of the millennium, 1995-2005. Sandy Stewart, the founder of the SchoolReach program, retired by this point, but the Reach program was in good shape: subscriptions were at their peak, provincial and national championships return to television, and new question styles (like shootouts and relays) were introduced. Reach alumni from the 1990s started establishing university clubs at Queen’s, Western and Waterloo, though Reach failed in their early-2000s attempt to get a university subscription program. The Reach circuit, as a whole, may not have had as much top-end strength as today, but it had a healthier population.

Part 2 of the modern era rankings:

  • 7. Saunders (ON) [up 5]
  • 8. Gloucester (ON) [down 3]
  • 9. Fredericton (NB) [up 1]
  • 10. Cobequid (NS) [down 2]
  • 11. Merivale (ON) [down 2]
  • 12. Woburn (ON) [down 1]

The biggest change of the whole list is Saunders’ rise. While Saunders’ four Nationals appearances in the five Thorsley years is impressive, I toned down their ranking before by attributing it all to the strength of one player. I was mistaken. Like the 1990 Oilers, Saunders could find success again without their star, and finished the 1999 final with one of the highest losing scores ever. There was clearly a good foundation to that club, and they deserved to be higher than originally placed. Unfortunately, they have been pretty much dormant this century, so that stops them from getting higher.

Gloucester drops because of the rise of other teams. Gloucester was probably the best program in Canada for the span of years I mentioned earlier, using different player compositions in all their National appearances. However, with the club inactive, they will continue to drop as other teams achieve success.

Fredericton gets a slight boost from my awareness of three straight finals, 1994-1996. I knew about their long dominance of New Brunswick, but taking it to the Ontario teams in an era of Ontario’s 5-year high schools is impressive (the St. George’s coach of the time claimed his school would have had many more titles had Ontario stopped at grade 12). Fredericton is still around, and may rise again.

Cobequid, Merivale, and Woburn all drop from other teams rising. Cobequid has come down from their 00s peak, while Merivale and Woburn can’t crack Nationals despite some playoff success provincially. None of these teams should be at risk of falling below the inactive clubs of last week, though.

The final installment comes next week. You can deduce who is in the top six, but I’ll reveal my ranks and reasoning then. The remaining top teams are all active, all have Nationals success, mostly all got their break in the top-heavy part of new millennium. Stay tuned!

Reach champion rankings, 2017 part 2

The early modern era

Today I begin ranking the Reach championship-winning clubs for the modern SchoolReach era. The rankings from the CBC era are found here.

The SchoolReach subscription program began right after the final CBC episodes of 1985. Schools enrolled to get sets of questions that were used either for intramural/interschool tournaments or local TV productions. Ontario teams were very active in these “lost” years. By 1988, a graduated regional/provincial/national system was re-established, with the help of coaches like Eric Stewart (BC), Chris Zarski (AB), Patricia Beecham-Cooper (ON), and Hans Budgey (NS). A few tournaments had television coverage, but national championships were done off-air in the early 1990s.

The teams for today’s set of rankings come from this part of the modern era. The clubs ranked 13-18 all had their one national title in the ’80s or ’90s and none returned for another nationals appearance (as far as I can tell). Most are inactive now.

Part 1 of the modern era rankings (sorry, I can’t make a numbered list start at 13):

  • 13. Bell (ON)
  • 14. Frontenac (ON) [up 2]
  • 15. St. Joseph’s (ON) [down 1]
  • 16. Earl Haig (ON) [down 1]
  • 17. Tagwi (ON) [up 1]
  • 18. Memorial Composite (NS) [down 1]

All of these teams were in the bottom 6 in 2015, but here’s my reasoning for the shuffles:

Frontenac had the single most dominant year of any of these teams. Their 1999 provincials R-value of 175% is not fully verified (derived from margins of victory rather than raw points), but was the best on record until Lisgar this year. At nationals, they beat national regulars (for the 1990s) Saunders 600-410 in the final; that is the highest championship-winning score and the highest combined score in a final. Frontenac deserves a little boost, but not as high as Bell, who could sustain some provincials appearances into the 21st century.

The Tagwi-Memorial swap is minor. Originally, Memorial had the edge because of their follow-up victory over the NAC champs from the U.S., but Tagwi never got their opportunity to try it. It was another disappointment for the Tagwi champs, coming after the fact that they never got the Reach trophy due to it being stuck in legal ownership limbo between Kate Andrews HS and the reincarnated SchoolReach program. Anyway, I have now given Tagwi the slight edge because their club remained active far longer than Memorial.

Next time, I’ll review the 7th to 12th place clubs. That cluster of teams, who mostly had their success near the turn of the millennium, will see the most change.