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."

Spartans step it up in second half to topple Sabers in conference opener

Early on, it looked like it was going to be a runaway game and an easy victory for the St. Joseph-Ogden girls' basketball team in their conference opener at St. Thomas More on Monday.

The 11-1 Spartans made all the right moves building an 11 point lead, the largest of the game by either team, when the contest reached the midpoint in the first quarter.

Senior Bree Trimble makes a pass during second half action in St. Joseph-Ogden's road game at St. Thomas More. Trimble finished the night with 17 points in the first Illini Prairie Conference contest of the season. (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)

SJO, moving the ball well around the perimeter forcing open looks, was fully in control on their way to their 58-43 victory over the Sabers.

Finishing the quarter with 11 points, the table soon turned and STM's giant awoke.

The Sabers stepped up their defensive game creating scoring opportunities for senior NaKaya Hughes to put the ball in the hoop. Hughes' effort, five second quarter field goals and a free throw, erased their early deficit in a palatable momentum shift. The STM starter finished the night with 27 points.

"We came out a little slow and didn't expect them to do what they did," said Peyton Crowe. The senior led the Spartans with 19 points and was perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. "In the second half, we kicked it into gear and played better defense."

Spartan head coach Kevin Taylor praised his opponent's effort in the second quarter when his team's focus seemingly wavered.

"I have to give St. Thomas More a lot of credit," Taylor said. "They came out with energy, which I think we lacked at the start of the game."

With 52 seconds left in the half and STM two points away from taking the lead at the half, senior Bree Trimble, a veteran starter and the team's scoring leader this season, wasn't worried.

"I knew it wasn't our half. I knew in the second half we would be okay," said Trimble, who went on to add 7 second half points to the 10 she delivered in the first to finish with 17 total. "I knew someone would be able to pick us all up and get something going."

Back in the locker room during halftime, Taylor made tactical adjustments and told his team they needed to concentrate on playing more aggressively.

"Just get out there, focus and play harder," he told the team before the second half.

Fortunately in the fourth quarter, after St. Thomas took the lead battling tooth and nail to keep it throughout the third, Taylor's words became action.

Offensively, the Spartans scored seven unanswered points pulling ahead 44-37 at the start of the period before the Sabers' next bucket. They then went on a 10-point run to put the game out of reach late in the final quarter.

Nearly half Crowe's scoring production came in the second half. She thanked her teammates for helping her attack the paint.

"They were setting screens making it a lot easier to cut," she said. "Whenever I saw the open lane I went in."

The SJO defensive effort allowed just three STM field goals in the final quarter.

"In the second half we had some fire," Trimble beamed. "We stepped it up and played a lot better."

Next up, before playing in the annual State Farm Classic Basketball Tournament after Christmas, the 12-1 Spartans will travel to Morton on Saturday to face a 3A program that has won three state titles and suffered just 10 losses in the past four years coming into current season.

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