IHSA to start football district format in 2021

Earlier this week, 324 members of the Illinois High School Association voted "yes" for Proposal 23 granting the IHSA the authority to implement a football scheduling system for regular-season varsity games. Three hundred and seven members voted against the measure and 69 school representatives entered "no opinion" on the measure. 118 schools abstained from the vote.

The new system will eliminate the instability caused by conference members moving to softer alignments to get the five wins needed to make the playoffs. It also will address the hush-hush practice of opponent ducking and conference blacklisting.

All of this means starting in the fall of 2021 (or perhaps sooner) coaches will know which of the eight playoff classification their program will compete before the start of their 9-week regular season.

Cole Berry makes a catch for a SJO touchdown
Spartan's Cole Berry makes a catch in the end zone for his team in the first half against Erie-Prophetstown. The Spartans won 48-34 in their Class 3A first-round playoff game on November 1, 2014. Under the new district format starting 2021, SJO will have to finish in the top four to advance to the postseason. (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)

Varsity teams from each class will be placed into groups of eight- or nine-teams districts by the IHSA, based on enrollment and geographical location, to play a round-robin schedule set each year by the association. The districts will be set for two years.

Each member school can play the team(s) of their choice on open dates which would be non-district games and do not count toward qualifying for the playoffs. The IHSA didn't announce which weeks on the schedule would be used for non-district games but those will likely occur at the beginning of the season.

The top 4 teams from each of the 8 districts will qualify for the playoffs based on their record.

"I was surprised it passed," said former St. Joseph-Ogden head football coach and athletic director Dick Duval. In 2009 and 2014 similar proposals were put up for vote and was not ratified. "I thought there was no way it would pass."

Justin Franzen, the current AD at SJO, had a feeling the members schools would finally vote in favor of districting.

"It started gaining steam a month or two ago. I thought the vote would be close."

Franzen thinks that the programs St. Joseph-Ogden will face under the district system on the gridiron won't vary much. Monticello, possibly Unity, and Bloomington Central Catholic, because of the success factor, would likely remain on the schedule.

"I think we are in the waiting game right now," said Franzen. "It is hard to speculate where we would play. It will be interesting."

Spartan head football coach Shawn Skinner sees a several positives as well as problems with the change coming to varsity football in Illinois.

"I'm looking forward to the potential it brings," he said. "(Having) one or two games to play to prepare for the "real" has the potential to be interesting."

Since schedules for other sports revolved around football conference alliances, the shift to football districts may encourage athletic directors and coaches to play teams closer teams closer to home.

"I like it. I think it will be good for us," added Duval, who actively volunteers his time to assist with the school's athletic program. Overall, he believes the move will cut overall travel budgets over time. "It will be better for all the sports. We can play local schools again."

For the next two years St. Joseph-Ogden's official IHSA enrollment is 467.5. Until the association announces geographical boundaries and enrollment breaks for each classification, it is a guessing game on who will share the same district with SJO.

Here's a list of possible schools the Spartans could square off against 2021 under the new scheduling format with similar enrollments with 50 more or less in close proximity to SJO.

Riverton (413.5) 1.5 hr drive
Pleasant Plains (421.5) 2 hours
Vandalia (426) 2 hour
Farmington (429) 2 hour
Beardstown (434) 2.5 hour drive
Robinson (453) 2 hour
Newton (458.5) 1.5 hr drive
Wilmington (465.5) 2 hour
Williamsville (467) 1.5 hr drive
Paxton-Buckley-Loda (472) 37 min
Reed-Custer (474) 1.5 hr drive
Mt. Carmel (488.5) 2.5 hour
Monticello (511) 36 min
Peotone (511.5) 1.5 hr drive
Monmouth-Roseville (522.5) 2.5 hours

Moving to a district format is not without its challenges and uncertainties.

"I think that it doesn't really address many of the issues the IHSA and football have," said Skinner, who is not sure the new format will have significant effect on SJO's path into the playoffs since enrollment for the school is relatively stable at this point. "I'm not impressed that we have no idea who is in our district, and my understanding is that we won't know until December of 2020 what our 7 or 8 district games will be."

The new scheduling system threaten traditional rivalries around the state. Unity, for example, may not be on the Spartans regular season schedule under the new system due to their increase in enrollment, which is now at 550. The Rockets could possibly move up to the 4A classification and see more travel if the school district continues to grow. A St. Joe-Unity game would be a non-district contest with no baring on whether either team makes the playoffs or not.

Other factors could also influence a district make up from year to year. School's may elect to drop football altogether, form or dissolve co-ops or make the switch to the growing 8-man football association not governed by the IHSA. Those changes could make district alignments just as unstable as the conference system.

"We also have no solution in place for if cooperatives disband or merge," Skinner said. "We also have no recourse for teams leaving to play 8 man football."

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