BLOOMINGTON — In a drastic change to high school football in the state, Illinois High School Association member schools approved a plan to eliminate football conferences and move to districts beginning in the 2021 season.
The proposal keeps in place the current nine-week regular season but playoff classes will be determined prior to the season by enrollment, with schools in each class placed in eight geographic groups of eight or nine teams by the IHSA and playing a round-robin schedule.
The top four teams in each district advance to the playoffs. Districts will change every two years as enrollments fluctuate, co-ops change or the success factor impacts non-boundaried schools. Two non-district games, which schools would schedule on their own, would not count toward playoff participation.
"I am shocked," said Maroa-Forsyth football coach Josh Jostes, who is a proponent of districts. Jostes added that he thought this would be the closest vote in the history of any proposed football changes.
Proposal 23 passed 324-307-69.
The move could also shake up conferences in sports outside of football, with schools no longer forced to make football-based decisions on what conference in which they compete. Maroa, for instance, joined the Sangamon Conference in 2016 to stabilize its football scheduling issues, but it's meant more traveling for the rest of its sports teams.
"Until you actually go through a conference realignment — unfortunately for us it was three in five years — it makes you really have to focus on the better plan for everyone, and I felt like that’s what this is," Jostes said. "This eliminated the only reason why conference realignment was happening; now it’s out of the picture. You don’t have to win a certain amount of basketball games (to make the playoffs)."
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson called it "a historic change."
"The narrow gap in the voting indicates that there are pros and cons that impact our diverse football-playing membership in a multitude of ways," Anderson added.
"We hope that it will effectively address conference realignment and scheduling concerns while helping create long-term sustainability and growth for high school football in our state."
Districts will be assigned similarly to how schools are assigned to regionals and sectionals in other IHSA sports.
Districts will be set for two years, allowing for home and away scheduling. Anderson said what the districts will look like won't be known for two years.
“We understand that everyone wants to know what district and class they will be in, but the reality is that we are two years away from being able to tabulate that information,” Anderson said. “Because IHSA districts will operate on a two-year cycle, schools will need the next two years to evaluate their participation. Some may choose to join co-ops or disband co-ops. Some may choose to play eight-man football. Chicago Public Schools will need to determine what schools it will make playoff eligible, and we will also have non-boundaried schools that will change classes in that time frame as they gain or lose multiplier waivers.”
Mattoon coach Troy Johnson said, "I figured the vote would be status quo and that is why I haven't looked at it. The main thing for me was if they were going to do that as long as they would make sure you keep your rivalry games it didn't matter to me. I would hate to not play Charleston because of it. That game and others too like Marshall and Casey-Westfield should be played somehow."
Johnson has seen how districts work as he coached for three years at West Vigo, Ind., where everyone is in the playoffs and the ninth game is a team's first playoff game.
"You will still play nine games and need to win some games to get into the playoffs and hopefully throughout the year you get better and hopefully you get to play a few more games," said Johnson.
Charleston coach Tyler Hanner said, "I kind of thought it might pass. It seemed like it was gaining. With conference (Apollo) scheduling, it was more difficult to schedule the non-conference games and this will kind of take care of that. I wasn’t totally surprised. I see the good in it and the bad in it. Rochester, a Class 4A school (and powerhouse) might be in our district. The two non-district games are good to have as we can play Mattoon if we are not in the same district and Arcola can still play Tuscola. So, it is good for rivalry games."
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Argenta-Oreana is a member of the Little Okaw Valley Conference, which will be a 10-team, closed conference in football beginning next season — the ideal situation for any football team.
"(The change) isn't ideal for our current situation," Argenta football coach Steve Kirk said. "The 10-team league is a great situation for our program in regards to travel. I'm just not sure what it's going to look like as far as travel and the teams within each district."
The LOVC in football had been in two divisions, the Northwest and Southeast since 2014.
"From our standpoint I am a little disappointed just because we have put a lot of effort into the solidifying our conference and we just got some schools together (Cumberland Tri-County join from the Southeast Division) would have solidified the conference (Blue Ridge is to join for football in the 2019 season)," said Arcola athletics director and football coach Nick Lindsey. "We were looking forward to the conference with those teams. I understand why the IHSA did it, but I think we had a pretty good thing going. I do understand some schools having to travel all over the place in a conference."
Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond athletics director Jared Vanausdoll was not happy it passed either.
"I think this doesn't follow the boundaries of what the agency (IHSA) stands for in the first place," said Vanausdoll. "I think our 10team closed conference gave ourselves an opportunity to be a very competitive conference. I think in some cases it is not a horrible thing, but I don't like the potential to lose rivalries. I have seen where Arcola would not in our district and that would be a big blow. We are always going to be on the border of Class 1A and 2A. I don’t like the IHSA taking he scheduling out of our hands."
Cumberland athletics director and boys' basketball coach Justin Roedl said, "We put a lot of effort into the conference. I think because of district play there will be a lot of things going on in the next two years again with conference again reshuffling because it won't be revolving around the football schedule anymore. I think it might force teams to form co-op or break up co-ops. It is hard telling what is going to happen in the next two to three years. A lot conference might go back to the old conferences."
Lindsey agreed that there might be more conference shuffling.
One coach who doesn’t think it matters is Cumberland coach Lucas Watkins.
"I don’t know if it makes a big difference for us," said Watkins. "The competition will be similar based on what has been projected and our travel would not be too far. I think some of the teams we play now we will still play some of them anyway."
Tri-County football coach Brian Anderson was not happy the proposal passed.
"We voted 'no' for it," said Brian Anderson. "We like our conference and we were excited about the new league with Blue Ridge coming in and having a closed conference. I don't like that the first two games don't mean anything for the most part at least not for the postseason. I don't like that you are locked into your enrollment for two years and I think with districts it will be tough to build up natural rivalries."
Shelbyville coach Bill Duckett said, "I didn’t think it would pass. I am not real supportive of it. For us, it might mean we don't play any current (Central Illinois Conference) member of our conference. Our conference has been pretty stable and we don’t travel more than 45 minutes. There are not a lot of Class 2A teams where we are. I have seen projections that have us going to Carmi, Johnston City, and Eldorado. It is done now so we will move on and in some ways, it will be nice to play some teams that we don’t normally play assuming the drive isn't too awful."
Under the current playoff system in effect through the 2020 football season, conference champions in eligible conferences and any eligible team that wins six, seven, eight or nine regular-season games automatically qualifies for the playoffs. A tie-breaker system determines which five-win teams make the field. Beginning in 2021, the top four teams in each of the eight districts will determine the playoff qualifiers for that class.
"It is a long wait to see what happens," said Duckett. "If they have the plan now why don’t we just start it this fall? It is a long wait until it actually begins."
Brian Anderson said, "You can pout about it, but you have to get ready for football and play it. It is still a lot of fun."