FOOTBALL: Area coaches and athletic directors left with unanswered questions after IHSA ruling
Tuesday’s groundbreaking decision by the Illinois High School Association to dismantle football conferences in favor of districts in 2021 has caused quite the conversation across the state, mostly shock that the proposal passed.
“My first thought was that I was very surprised,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “I thought it would get voted down; I was surprised, as were many people throughout the state.”
Coal City coach and athletic director Dan Hutchings echoed Reents’ shock, but had a theory on what led the proposal to passing.
“I’m surprised it passed, but I knew it was going to be close,” Hutchings said. “I know a lot of the northern schools and suburban schools were in favor of it because of conference instability.”
The conference instability Hutchings referred to was the recent uptick in schools changing athletic conferences for the sole purposes of improving their odds of getting the necessary five wins for playoff consideration.
That conference instability is something many local schools faced, as the Interstate Eight Conference is in its final season. Coal City, Herscher, Manteno, Peotone, Reed-Custer and Wilmington, the six area schools in the Interstate Eight, will all be a part of next year’s Illinois Central Eight Conference.
“A lot of people did a lot of work to get the new conference in, and here we go, it’s all [going to] change in two years,” Reents said. “It’s definitely a unique situation and something everybody has to accept.”
While the IHSA now will determine districts based on enrollment and geographic location and schedule seven or eight conference games for each school, IHSA representatives for the schools had to vote on the proposal without actually seeing what the districts would look like.
“I think some of these votes may have happened and people didn’t quite understand who they would be playing,” Bishop McNamara coach Rich Zinanni said. “If it’s just enrollment and location, some of these teams could get buried.”
Reents said with so many similar-sized schools in the area, the Wildcats logically can guess most of their district but noted that isn’t the case with all schools.
“We have some local [Class] 3A teams next to us, but when you get to 4A-8A, who will those opponents be, and how far will that take you?” Reents asked. “I’m sure everyone wants to know how this will work, but we’ll have to be patient until the IHSA lets us know.”
Kankakee athletic director Ronnie Wilcox said some of the Kays’ Southland Athletic Conference foes seem to fit the bill geographically and enrollment-wise, but it remains unclear if they will get to keep their budding rivalries.
“For us, you look at the current situation with the Southland Conference, which we like because travel is minimal, it’s competitive, we feel like we’re in a good fit,” Wilcox said. “When you talk about conference teams, looking at size, Rich East, Rich South and Rich Central are all common fits with enrollment.
“Based on different discussions with different people at different times, there is speculation we could remain together. Or we could get Morris, Pontiac; it depends on the classes and enrollments.”
Arguably the state’s biggest gripe could be found in town at Bradley-Bourbonnais. With their uniquely large school just south of the more traditional large suburban schools, the Boilers could be sent south, with the likes of St. Louis suburban schools and/or west, with schools such as Quincy and Moline.
“I think my staff is numb to it; it is what it is, and we have to get ready,” Boilers coach Mike Kohl said. “They talk about us playing Alton, East St. Louis, Quincy; if it looks that bad, that creates a whole other animal, but if they keep us up north, we’ll be fine.”
Aside from conference jumping, another issue the districts are prepared to solve is the issue some schools have had in filling nonconference schedules. With so many schools scrambling for playoff position, schools were increasingly fleeing out of state or scheduling conference opponents for a second date in order to fill a schedule.
Now, however, nondistrict games will not count toward playoff qualification. The top four teams in each district, based on district records, will qualify for the playoffs, with each of the eight classes featuring eight districts.
Hutchings said he likes the idea of nondistrict games, particularly to start the season, which is where the IHSA intends to put these games.
“I like the idea of playing nondistrict games, and I think it will make it exciting for Weeks 1 and 2,” Hutchings said. “We could see rivalry games like Mt. Caramel and Joliet Catholic, or us and Morris, which we just had this year.”
For Kohl and the Boilers, the nondistrict games could be a way to preserve some SouthWest Suburban Conference matchups. While playing in a largely 8A conference as a 7A school, the disadvantages the Boilers faced in trying to make the playoffs could prove to be a positive in games that will not count toward them.
“The thing we’ve done in our conference is create rivals, and I’m hoping we can keep some of those guys,” Kohl said. “When we had that team that went to the semifinals [in 2015], we played Lincoln-Way East, and that made us better.
“If you want to do well in your class, you have to play schools bigger and stronger than you.”
Regardless of the unanswered questions and potential pitfalls of the state’s new system, one thing is certain: This is the new world for IHSA football.
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable because change is inevitable,” Hutchings said. ”[The IHSA] is trying to fix a problem, and it’s good when an organization can change something.
“Moving forward, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”