Proposal 23: The good and the bad with districts for football
Wherefore art thou, Romeoville?
Until December 2020, when the Illinois High School Association releases its eight classes of football teams grouped geographically by "district" under Proposal 23, this and myriad other questions will go on being just that.
Questions. Even the status of the proposal itself.
"To tell you the truth," said Benet athletic director Gary Goforth, "I see someone floating a proposal to reverse this next year."
Some things we know right now regarding Proposal 23, passed Dec. 17 by a slim, 17-vote majority of IHSA member schools and effective starting with the 2021 season.
As initially proposed by Naperville Central athletic director Andy Lutzenkirchen and Forreston principal Travis Heinz, their rationale was, "To avoid scheduling conflicts and the search to win 5 games to be playoff eligible."
This is a win for districting.
Implied in the rationale is an end to the conference-hopping that has swept the landscape, most notably in the western suburbs. Programs sought the proverbial level playing field for a crack at playoff eligibility.
Under this proposal, the top four in an eight-team district make the playoffs based on head-to-head results. The IHSA will schedule games for Weeks 3-9. Weeks 1-2 are "left to the discretion of each school."
Scheduling those first two games without playoff repercussion yields several benefits.
Programs no longer will need to travel out of state to find foes. Or fear that a Week 2 loss will doom their playoff chances. Or, as seen last season in the five-team DuPage Valley Conference, play a conference opponent twice.
"I've talked with schools already who probably would never have reached out to us," said Batavia coach Dennis Piron, whose Bulldogs won the first of what may be only three DuKane Conference football titles.
A slight plus is teams in the eight classes -- by enrollment, with non-boundaried school multiplier and success adjustments intact -- will be determined at the start of each two-year cycle rather than after the regular season as it now stands.
Better yet is district foes won't face each other in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It doesn't happen a lot, and at the time South Elgin coach Dragan Teonic called it "awesome," but West Aurora and South Elgin may have preferred to open the 2018 Class 8A playoffs against someone they didn't play eight days earlier. Antioch and Lakes went 1-2 in the Northern Lake County Conference and met in the second round in Class 6A.
Proposal 23 doesn't penalize good neighbors.
The West Suburban Conference started playing football in 1924, according to Glenbard West football historian Joe Carlton. The Illinois High School Glory Days website dates Chicago Catholic League football to 1913. The Mid-Suburban League (1963) and the North Suburban (1948) are entrenched.
On the other hand, the DuKane Conference debuted this school year. Several schools join new leagues this fall. The East Suburban Catholic Conference-Chicago Catholic League merger arrives in 2019-20, a 24-team football version of the biggest musical super group ever.
"The (ESCC-CCL) merger has brought a lot of excitement, and the way the formula was created it's something that I think could be sustained for a long time. Now it doesn't look like we're going to have that opportunity," said St. Viator coach Dave Archibald.
Conferences are a big deal, or at least always have been. Depending on how district lines are drawn and how enrollments fall into classes, programs may need to decide which rivalries go by the wayside. Does a Class 8A Glenbard West put Class 7A Wheaton Warrenville South back on the schedule at the expense of Downers Grove North or, should they be assigned elsewhere, York or Lyons Twp.?
Would Kaneland fans be hyped for that big game against Steinmetz?
While those athletic directors are busily scheduling for Weeks 1-2 they'll still have to keep an eye on the lower levels, since the IHSA handles only varsity games.
Here's another thing: The Metro Suburban Blue, which sent five teams to the 2018 playoffs, fielded teams representing four classes. They and other multiple-class groups will no longer be a unit.
Of three-time defending state champion IC Catholic Prep, "their schedule is going to be a tire fire," said Steve Soucie, sports editor of the Joliet Herald-News.
Soucie is renowned for his ability as a "bracketologist." In 2018 he accurately placed 93 percent of the 256 playoff qualifiers through the eight brackets. He did brackets for this new system, too, before and after Proposal 23 was passed. He is not a fan.
Though Soucie believes the number of teams "wildly affected (by travel) will be small," fans whose teams played in multi-class conferences may drive by their old rivals as they visit district opponents. Due to Proposal 23's rigidity, he said, the field of opponents for Weeks 3-9 is drastically diminished.
As player numbers dwindle, co-ops and 8-man football programs increase. Soucie fears that when Chicago Public School programs join districts with more powerful suburban foes, some may fold. Combining these factors, the viability of an eight-class, 512-team system comes into question.
"My concern for all of this," Soucie said, "is I'm not for anything that decreases the amount of teams that play football."
Like others, he wonders how coaches will treat Weeks 1-2. Will they rest players, use those games as essentially live tryouts, or will they be all-in?
The Iowa High School Athletic Association has already gone through this process. By a large majority in 1998 Iowa passed district scheduling. After 20 seasons of Weeks 1-2 not counting, in 2018 the IAHSAA made all nine games count.
In this speculative period perhaps it takes one who's experienced the transition, like IAHSAA football administrator Todd Tharp, to assess the anguish of losing football conferences.
"That'll disappear," Tharp said, "in a couple years."