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Soucie: Can a district system work for prep football?

Move from conferences to district would face uphill battle

Max Christiano races upfield during a Minooka game last fall. If the district proposal passes, the Indians could be placed in a Class 8A district that would contain four schools from the Joliet area and four from the St. Louis area.
Max Christiano races upfield during a Minooka game last fall. If the district proposal passes, the Indians could be placed in a Class 8A district that would contain four schools from the Joliet area and four from the St. Louis area.

It usually doesn’t take long to find a critique of the football playoff system utilized by the Illinois High School Association.

For the record, I like it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with certain areas of how it is implemented. It simply means that for all the suggested alternatives, I have yet to find one that I feel strongly about.

From all indications, it appears an alternative is quickly coming up on the horizon.

Advanced discussions about a district playoff system recently have taken place, and it looks like the proposal finally might be gaining some traction.

Why now? After all, many failed attempts of similar proposals haven’t gotten very far.

The biggest reason cited for this change is the conference roller coaster ride that schools have been going on in increasing numbers over the past few years.

If you can name five conferences that have had stable membership for at least three years, I’ve got a prize for you. Heck, name two.

The current system requires that programs manipulate their schedules very carefully for the purposes of getting to the required amount of wins for playoff qualification. The number of teams required to go out-of-state to fill vacancies on their schedule has exploded over recent seasons. Rivalry games have lost luster or disappeared all together. 

It’s not great.

This district proposal is not without flaws. In fact, there are quite a few of them.

No system I’ve ever seen is without them. Do they outweigh the flaws of the current system? It’s extremely hard to tell.

After years of having every game mean something, the new system likely will no longer have that same implementation. In an eight-team district format, the first two weeks of the season likely would be reserved for nondistrict games that would not count toward playoff qualification.

Hopefully, this would encourage the reinstitution of rivalry games or neighborhood games that have fallen off the calendar because of playoff ramifications.

One of the biggest drawbacks I can see is that many rivalry games still will be lost. Unless you are fortunate enough to have all of your rivals in the same classification and then the same district, odds are this system is going to reduce the number of times you see teams you’ve seen for decades on a school’s schedule.

There are countless rivalries in this state between two teams that do not fall in the same classification. Leagues steeped in tradition such as the Chicago Catholic League essentially would be rendered null.

Also, the district proposal has sweeping problems for teams that are on geographic islands. 

For example, there are teams on enrollment islands in Quincy, the Rock Island area and the St. Louis-metro area that have very few to no logical schedule links in the district system. This is where the conference system is superior. Although the members of the Southwestern Conference don’t always experience the same level of success, their proximity to one another makes them much better regular-season partners than their potential opponents in a district system.

Then there is the question of district balance. When paired strictly by geography, there are some glaring problems of equity, particularly in Class 4A, 6A and 7A. There are some districts where teams with no playoff pedigree at all are placed in the same districts while a neighboring district has six or seven playoff-caliber teams. 

And some of these geographic lines that separate schools are razor thin. In areas where there is a high concentration of teams, I’d be a strong advocate of some sort of point system based on past success to more equitably split up the districts. There is no indication whether that would be a consideration; past proposals have not had that.

This argument could be made in a lot of different sports, but unless there is some sort of provision to provide for some of the more extreme cases of district imbalance, this system will provide little to no improvement over what we currently have.

But at least it will give us something different to argue about.

• Steve Soucie brings more than two decades of Illinois high school football knowledge as a contributor to Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @thesouc.

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