Realignment ends conferences

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A massive change in high school football is coming to Illinois and programs around the state are having divided feelings about its implementation.

In December, 2018, Illinois High School Association (IHSA) member schools narrowly approved a plan to eliminate football conferences in place of a geographic-based district format beginning in 2021. The IHSA currently organizes classes after each season once the playoff field is set. The IHSA will organize classes and districts before each season begins.

The proposal passed by a narrow 324-307 margin, with 69 schools having no opinion and another 118 choosing not to vote.

Under the new system, conferences will be eliminated in favor of eight geographic groups of eight or nine teams organized before the season by IHSA administrators. Those in each group will play each other in a round-robin format, with the top four in each qualifying group for their respective playoffs.

So in 2021, Little Illini Conference football season will no longer exist. It may be possible to schedule longtime rivals such as Marshall and Newton in the first two games of the season, which are bye weeks or non-district games. These will have no impact toward playoff qualification. Schools will have full control of scheduling for only these open weeks.

In terms of when district assignments will be released, the IHSA isn’t expected to reveal any spoilers until late 2020 or early 2021, leaving scheduling for non-district games up in the air.

Joliet Herald-News sports editor Steve Soucie published a projection on how he thought the IHSA would organize districts for all eight classes.

Paris, listed at that time as a Class 4A school, was placed in a district with several unfamiliar opponents including Hoopeston, Clinton and Tolono Unity. Unity would be the shortest road trip for the Tigers at just over an hour. The longest hauls include trips to Quincy Notre Dame and Macomb — each clocking in at just under four hours.

Paris football coach Jeremy Clodfelder has seen these projections — and he’s not happy. Depending on enrollment numbers, the Tigers could still slip to 3A and perhaps play some of the same from the LIC. If they don’t, Clodfelder thinks a district like one projected will cause problems.

“I think if we’re 4A, we’re going to run into some problems. Because of our geography, we’re kind of left out on this island,” Clodfelder said. “I love our fanbase — don’t get me wrong — but I think on a regular routine Friday night, a lot of people aren’t going to make that four-hour drive to Quincy or Macomb for a game. I mean, you’ve got people still working at 3 p.m. They can’t get off for that.”

Clodfelder also criticized what he said will be the top four teams in each district “getting grandfathered” into the postseason rather than qualifying through regular season performances against a variety of opponents. Regardless where the Tigers fall in two years, the Paris coach is not going to be making any excuses.

“Football is the only sport out there where you need to achieve something in the regular season in order to participate in the postseason. I don’t want that to go away,” Clodfelder said. “I like the fact that if you want to play a week 10 game, you’ve got to earn it. But I bet (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban doesn’t mope and whine about how the champion is crowned. They go out and do what they need to do. We’re not going to give ourselves or our players an excuse.”

The reception of realignment statewide is not totally negative. In fact, some programs like Casey-Westfield see district formatting to be a positive change for good.

Warrior Coach Jay Bohner’s team plays as a 1A school in the LIC with a 2A and 3A-heavy schedule — and all for a 1A playoff spot. With realignment, Bohner said playing schools in their class makes the playing field more level and fair.

“In terms of the situation we have here in Casey, this is the best thing that could’ve happened to us,” Bohner said. “Lining up against the Olneys and the Parises each week— that’s tough. For us being a smaller school, actually being able to compete with schools our size is a great thing for our program.”

A big criticism of realignment is rivalry games between schools of different classes would likely be in jeopardy. Bohner thinks the new system actually will help cultivate new rivalries while also preserving historic ones.

“We’ve already contacted Marshall. The Clark County Super Bowl is probably still going to happen,” Bohner said with a laugh. “You talk about rivalries, we’re so close to Cumberland and never play them because of conferences. Tri-County, too. There’s gonna be lots of renewed rivalries.”

Tri-County Coach Brian Anderson doesn’t share many of the same views as the Casey coach, even though both programs will likely be 1A schools in 2021. Anderson’s biggest criticism was the unknown of future scheduling — especially toward the season’s first two weeks.

“You can’t really schedule games because you don’t know who’s going to be in your district,” Anderson said. “I guess you can schedule bigger schools, but for us I don’t know how much sense that makes. We have a lot of nice rivalries with Villa Grove, Arcola, Cumberland, but they may be in our district, they may not. We just don’t know.”

Anderson said he does see some positives of the initiative, particularly for schools that don’t currently play in a conference. He noted the reaction to the changes largely depends on where and who you are in the state.

“Up in Chicagoland, you have Catholic League schools that have been playing over 100 years. They don’t know if they can keep playing,” Anderson said. “But when I texted a buddy (about realignment) when I was at Salt Fork, he was like, ‘Yeah, isn’t it great?’ It just largely depends on where you’re at, really.”