Prep Sports

Prep football: Will districts be replacing conferences?

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Wilmington coach Jeff Reents says that a better solution than the district proposal may be to allow more schools to qualify for the playoffs.[]

For a while now, and it only is getting worse, conference realignments in Illinois high school sports are happening at a whirlwind pace.

The culprit is football. Everyone wants to be in a situation where winning five games to qualify for the playoffs is feasible.

Of course, when you ride the conference roller coaster because of football, other sports can suffer in various ways.

The IHSA’s football committee is proposing a way to stop the frenzy. It recently released a proposal that would change how the regular-season schedules are created and how teams qualify for the postseason.

The committee proposed that the IHSA would assign schools to eight- or nine-team districts, eliminating traditional football conferences altogether. Districts would be assigned based on enrollment and geography. Assignments would be re-evaluated and potentially changed every two years based on changes in school enrollments.

Districts would be for football only. Schools would retain membership in their conferences for other sports.

Each playoff class would consist of eight districts. Each team would play every other team in its district, and the top four teams in the district standings would qualify for the 32-team playoffs.

Teams still would play a nine-game regular season and schedule their own nondistrict games (one or two based on the size of the district) to fill out the nine-week schedule.

Nondistrict games would not count toward playoff qualification. In the postseason, schools would not play a team from their district until the quarterfinals at the earliest.

The committee plans to share its proposal and listen to feedback from schools in November, when the IHSA considers bylaw amendments. Any formal proposal would have to pass a vote by IHSA member schools.

“I kind of like it,” said Providence Catholic coach Mark Coglianese, whose Celtics play in arguably the state’s toughest conference, the Chicago Catholic Blue, and have had difficulty scheduling nonconference games as few schools are eager to schedule them when they are concerned with winning five games.

“I’d like to stay in the Catholic League, but this is interesting,” Coglianese added. “I’d like it to be easier to find games. Maybe we could play a couple of our Catholic League rivals in nondistrict games.”

Joliet Catholic Academy coach Jake Jaworski played in and now coaches in the East Suburban Catholic, another strong football league. The Hilltoppers have been among the smallest schools in the conference, so they generally play larger opponents. Right now, they are in Class 5A for playoff purposes.

“It’s interesting,” Jaworski said of the proposal. “In a conference with so much tradition like the East Suburban Catholic, it will be difficult to lose rivalries, a tough pill to swallow. But a positive is you would play teams more your size.

“Another question is where would we fall – east, west, south? There are not many [Class] 5A schools in our area.”

Jaworski also is hesitant to endorse having two games on the schedule not counting toward the playoffs.

“Right now, each week is your Super Bowl,” he said. “You only play nine games, and two wouldn’t count. Especially in a sport like football, you put in a lot of work to play all nine games.

“Having played in the East Suburban Catholic and coaching there now, I have a lot of memories to look back on. We’re fortunate we have been together this long. Unfortunately, the trend we are continuing to go down is football specific, and the IHSA is doing their research trying to appease the masses.”

Another of the smaller schools in the ESCC is Marian Central in Woodstock. Its coach, Mike Maloney, is a former JCA all-state lineman.

“I think [strong competition is] the only way to ensure a coach’s flexibility to test your team,” Maloney said. “If you’re a strong team in a weaker-perceived district, how do you challenge your team to get the players to understand what the impact will be in the playoffs? You’re going to have to challenge your kids.”

Wilmington is a perennial Class 3A power under veteran coach Jeff Reents, and the Wildcats enjoy their association with Interstate Eight Conference opponents.

“I need to find out more about it, but at this point, I’m not in favor of it,” Reents said of the proposal. “It could take away rivalries down the road.

“I understand [athletic directors] are having a heck of a time with conference changes, but rather than this, I’m for letting more teams in the playoffs.”

Currently, 32 qualify in each of eight classes for 256 total.

“What we have now is a good situation,” Reents said. “If we want to change something, why not let in teams that finish 4-5 or maybe even 3-6?

“If you ask a lot of football coaches, what they want most is a shot at the playoffs. Now they have to get five wins. If you can bring that number down, you will be able to keep conferences and rivalries alive. Schools won’t feel like they have to get in different leagues to better their playoff chances. Let’s let in more teams and keep rivalries alive. I’d hate to see all that history taken away.”

Despite not favoring the proposal, Reents added, “The IHSA is under an extreme amount of questioning. The ADs are telling them we need a change. They are trying to find a solution.”

High school football expert Steve Soucie created his own district projections for Shaw Media based on the IHSA’s current proposal. Soucie’s projections are available at www.theherald-news.com, and his column accompanies this story.

According to Soucie’s projections, one Class 8A district includes Belleville East, Belleville West, Edwardsville, Minooka, O’Fallon, Plainfield East, Plainfield North and Plainfield South.

It’s 272 miles from Plainfield East to Belleville West, about a four-hour drive. With half the district in the Joliet area and half in the St. Louis area, each team in the district likely would make two similar road trips during the course of the nine-game regular season.

One Class 7A projected district is even more spread out. Soucie projects Alton, Bradley-Bourbonnais, Collinsville, East St. Louis, Moline, Normal Community, Pekin and Quincy in the same district.

Bradley’s closest district opponent would be 83 miles away. Moline’s closest would be 102 miles away.

Simply put, it would be a lot of travel for all schools involved and could cause larger schools in the south suburbs to vote against the proposal.

“They’re talking about this, but it seems like these things are talked about and then for whatever reason always get voted down,” Coglianese said.

Travel is among the reasons.

• Sean Hammond contributed to this report. Contact him at shammond@shawmedia.com.