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JIM BOWLING, HERALD & REVIEW Maroa-Forsyth’s Max Davenport celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against Tuscola in the class 2A quarterfinal at Maroa-Forsyth Saturday November 10, 2018.

BLOOMINGTON — In a drastic change to high school football in the state, Illinois High School Association member schools approved a plan to eliminate football conferences and move to districts beginning in the 2021 season.

The proposal keeps in place the current nine-week regular season but playoff classes will be determined prior to the season by enrollment, with schools in each class placed in eight geographic groups of eight or nine teams by the IHSA and play a round-robin schedule.

The top four teams in each district advance to the playoffs. Districts will change every two years as enrollments fluctuate, co-ops change or the success factor impacts non-boundaried schools. Two non-district games, which schools would schedule on their own, would not count toward playoff participation.

"I am shocked," said Maroa-Forsyth football coach Josh Jostes, who is a proponent of districts. Jostes added that he thought this would be the closest vote in the history of any proposed football changes.

Proposal 23 passed 324-307-69. According to St. Teresa athletic director Todd Vohland, the number of votes was the largest percentage of member schools to vote in an all-school vote since the IHSA began keeping track.

The move could also shake up conferences in the sports outside of football, with schools no longer forced to make football-based decisions in what conference they compete in. Maroa, for instance, joined the Sangamo Conference in 2016 to stabilize its football scheduling issues, but it's meant more traveling for the rest of its sports teams.

"Until you actually go through a conference realignment — unfortunately for us it was three in five years — it makes you really have to focus on the better plan for everyone, and I felt like that’s what this is," Jostes said. "This eliminated the only reason why conference realignment was happening; now it’s out of the picture. You don’t have to win a certain amount of basketball games (to make the playoffs)."

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson called it a "historic change."

"The narrow gap in the voting indicates that there are pros and cons that impact our diverse football-playing membership in a multitude of ways," Anderson said.

"We hope that it will effectively address conference realignment and scheduling concerns, while helping create long-term sustainability and growth for high school football in our state."

Districts will be assigned similarly to how schools are assigned to regionals and sectionals in other IHSA sports.

Districts will be set for two years, allowing for home and away scheduling. Anderson said what the districts will look like won't be known for two years.

“We understand that everyone wants to know what district and class they will be in, but the reality is that we are two years away from being able to tabulate that information,” Anderson said. “Because IHSA districts will operate on a two-year cycle, schools will need the next two years to evaluate their participation. Some may choose to join co-ops or disband co-ops. Some may choose to play eight-man football. Chicago Public Schools will need to determine what schools it will make playoff eligible, and we will also have non-boundaried schools that will change classes in that time frame as they gain or lose multiplier waivers.”

Pana football coach Trevor Higgins said he was shocked schools voted in favor of the change without getting a chance to see what the districts looked like before the vote.

“Not knowing what anything looks like ... I understand the premise behind it, I understand the conference jumping, but to me I needed to see something," said Higgins, whose team is a longtime member of the South Central Conference. "We really have no idea what it's going to look like.

“I’m the type of person that I like to have my plans and know what to vote on. I don't understand how you can vote for something and change an entire football system when you don't know what it looks like."

Argenta-Oreana is a member of the Little Okaw Valley Conference, which will be a 10-team, closed conference in football beginning next season — the ideal situation for any football team.

"(The change) isn't ideal for our current situation," Argenta football coach Steve Kirk said. "The 10-team league is a great situation for our program in regards to travel. I'm just not sure what it's going to look like as far as travel and the teams within each district."

Vohland said he didn't feel the new format would have a huge impact on the Bulldogs.

"If we are looking strictly from the St. Teresa perspective, then if we get in a nine-team district and I only have to find one non-district game, that’s an advantage over two — especially because it has been difficult for us to fill non-conference games," Vohland said.

Monticello athletic director Dan Sheehan said the unknowns of the plan gave him pause.

"Anytime that we lose local control in terms of doing what’s best for the Monticello students, that concerns me," Sheehan said. "Which class? Which district will we be in? I feel that we really have no control over high school football for Monticello anymore. It’s going to be based on what we are assigned and our schedules dictated to us. 

"The other part of the proposal that I’m uncertain about is that this is for varsity football only. Right now I know I have all my JV games lined up for next year and I’ve already picked up JV non-conference games. If I don’t find out my district until the summer so what is that going to do to lower level scheduling?"

Jostes said a selling point for the move was to reinvigorate regional rivalries, such as the St. Teresa-Maroa-Forsyth rivalry that captivated the postseason this year. If the two are not in the same district in 2021, that game could be scheduled as a non-district game.

The same goes for the Cola Wars between Tuscola and Arcola, or a Maroa-Williamsville game — a rivalry that started when the Trojans joined the Sangamo.

"The reason why we did that was to make sure no one got cheated out of the old rivalry game," Jostes said. "That's why I was a proponent of that. I felt like that eliminated a lot of people's rivalry game concern."

Former Warrensburg-Latham and current Bloomington football coach Scott Godfrey said he likes the district concept in general, but has concerns with this particular proposal.

Among them, he said, are "the first two games not counting (toward postseason qualification), the added travel for some teams and some naturally rivalries potentially being broken up."

"We had no answers on how the playoffs would look (i.e. who is in your district, etc.)," Godfrey added. "We play in a tough conference (Big 12) as it is, so if you're going to say we're a 6A school, we're going to be OK playing any 6A school you put us in with.

"My worries are how the playoffs are going to work and how are those first two games that don't mean anything going to work? I don't want our regular season to be a seven-week season with two practice games. I think it devalues the regular season."

Higgins also said he didn't like the games that don't count toward the playoffs.

"That's what stood out about football is every game counted and now it doesn’t," Higgins said.

Under the current playoff system in effect through the 2020 football season, conference champions in eligible conferences and any eligible team that wins six, seven, eight or nine regular-season games automatically qualify for the playoffs. A tie-breaker system determines which five-win teams make the field. Beginning in 2021, the top four teams in each of the eight districts will determine the playoff qualifiers for that class. 

This is the third time a football district proposal has been brought forward to vote on by the IHSA membership — previous plans failed to get the majority vote in 2009 and 2014.

"Each time the support has grown,” Anderson said. “It is based on a concept that other state high school associations have used successfully, and we are committed to doing our part to make it successful here in Illinois. The beauty of our legislative system is that our member schools will have input in that process and the ability to offer recommendations on tweaks and changes as we progress.”

Jostes said the move should alleviate the conference realignment problems that have been caused by football but affected other sports.

"It wasn’t anything in particular. We love the Sangamo, but (the girls basketball team) has to travel to play a Thursday night basketball game in PORTA, where it’s tough to get people to go. Hopefully, we can go back to local rivalries."

Vohland said it would be interesting to see what schools will do now that football isn't driving conference affiliation.

"I don’t think a lot of people put a lot of energy into that thought process," Vohland said. "I know one of the goals was that conference won’t break up, but are some conference now going to break up because they were basically together for football? I think you may see some of that.

"We have boys and girls soccer (at St. Teresa), but we don’t have enough schools in our conference to make it a conference sport. Do some schools that have soccer in this area go together and form that? I don’t know but there are a lot of possibilities out there."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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