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Soucie: District vote leaves too many questions unanswered

Joliet Catholic celebrates winning the Class 5A state championship Nov. 24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Joliet Catholic celebrates winning the Class 5A state championship Nov. 24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

In a press release from the Illinois High School Association, Executive Director Craig Anderson said Tuesday that the membership vote that will bring district football play to Illinois beginning in 2021 was "a historic change."

I couldn't agree more, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

IHSA member schools voted by a 324-307 margin – with 69 "no opinion" votes – to implement a district proposal, which in my mind rivals only the decision to implement the actual playoff system in 1974 and the decision to expand the playoffs from six to eight classes in 2001 in significance.

Conferences are gone. In some cases, long-standing rivalries between two teams that don't happen to fall in the same classification are likely gone; or those games won't have any playoff significance.

The cost of those things should come with the reward of considerably more stability. The trend of teams scrambling out of state to fill vacancies in their schedule will likely go away. It's a huge issue for some schools and that was reflected in the membership's vote.

Full disclosure: I liked the system we were working with previously.

I believe flaws existed, quite a few of them in fact. But I think the dangers involved with going to a different system, including the district system that we will now be undertaking, outweighed those concerns.

I also was very uncomfortable with the notion that this district proposal provided no examples of what it might like look like. I fear some schools that supported this change misinterpreted the teams they will play.

Some schools that are working under the assumption that schedules will look very similar to what they do now are probably in for a big surprise.

This policy offers stability, but not a lot of flexibility. That may seem counterintuitive, but here goes.

This policy is guaranteeing a school gets seven (or in some cases eight) scheduled games from the IHSA. As such, there will be somewhere between 65 to 70 teams per classification and you will know what classification you are in from the get-go.

For the record, I think this is a wonderful change that will spare everyone the explanations of why teams shift from class to class from year to year.

This, however, is a double-edged sword.

There are a lot of conference that are working quite well that feature teams from multiple classifications.

Those are gone now.

The list of schools that your district can come from has now been whittled to 65 to 68 teams. If you pulled an existing random schedule out of a hat, you're probably going to discover that almost any schedule (barring a few exceptions) will have a mixed bag of classifications.

Now, if you are a 2A team, you will only play other 2A teams. So as that 2A team, you might have three or four 2A schools on your current schedule that you'll keep – and even that's not guaranteed – and then you'll have to be bringing in new opponents to round out your district. A virtual grab bag of teams if you will.

Let's look at the Southwestern Conference, which is located near St. Louis. The seven teams in that league is made up of four teams that are likely to be in 8A with three more that are in 7A (East St. Louis is "playing up" and is a 5A school by natural enrollment).

These schools are part of a conference that not only has similar enrollment numbers, but also as geographic partners. Under the district formula, they'll be halved and placed in districts with schools that even the most imaginative person wouldn't define as reasonable neighbors.

This is an isolated example, but there are other circumstances where there might be 10 or 11 teams in a general geographic area. The districts will only hold eight or possibly nine teams, so who gets left out and moved to a district that is geographically inconvenient?

We are leaving a lot to the IHSA mapping computer, which if you have studied postseason assignments over the past few years, you know it often provides some truly confounding combinations.

And in areas where there is a heavy concentration of teams, there appears to be no caveat for balancing districts.

Like it or not, the conference system does a fairly good job of insuring that teams that are on a totally different competitive planes don't lock horns very often.

If you are in a classification and geographic location with a good football program and your closest neighbors are all scuffling Chicago Public League programs, while the neighboring district that is just as close to you is stacked with powerhouses, luck of the draw I guess.

My biggest lingering issue with this is that the first two games of the season will be left open for teams to schedule whomever they would like.

Theoretically, since they have no playoff impact and won't detract from getting to the magic five-win plateau, it would hopefully inspire good nondistrict matchups. And while there's a lot of local rivalries I'd like to see maintained, I think my fear that many will simply become glorified exhibition games is a real concern.

But I guess it is somewhat telling that the anticipation of knowing what this all looks like even though it doesn't come to fruition until 2021 is eating me alive says something.

Buckle up football fans, its going to be a bumpy ride.

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