Time will tell if the new district football format will see rivalries such as Morris vs. Coal City continue.
Time will tell if the new district football format will see rivalries such as Morris vs. Coal City continue. — Dan Voitik

In the fall of 2021, the proposed district system for determining playoff teams by the IHSA will be implemented. It has been a much debated topic since it was first discussed, and it's even more of a debate subject now that it has been voted for and approved.

One of the questions is what happens to schools with traditional rivals that are not in their districts? The district system leaves two weeks open for scheduling for most schools, as the districts will consist of eight teams, making for seven games on a nine-game schedule.

However, the system as it stands says that only district games will count toward a team making the playoffs. That leaves two weeks open for schools to fill. Will they try to keep current rivalries with non-district schools alive?

For the fans, keeping the rivalries alive seems like a no-brainer. Who doesn't want to see the rivalries continue? What would a season look like in Coal City if Wilmington wasn't on the schedule? And, it has only been two years, but the Morris-Coal City game has been one of the most anticipated season-openers in recent memory.

However, neither Wilmington or Morris is expected to be in Coal City's class, with Wilmington generally being a 3A school, Coal City 4A and Morris 5A. Do the Coalers keep their traditional rivals for the two open weeks or do they try to find two other 4A schools with playoff aspirations to see how they match up?

"I would love to keep playing Wilmington and Morris," Coal City coach Dan Hutchings said. "But with us in different classes, everyone has to look at what the benefit is.

"You know the fans want to see those games. As coaches, we know that those games are going to be battles. They always are when there are rivalries and bragging rights. We know they are going to be very physical games."

"I would love to keep playing Coal City every year," said Wilmington coach Jeff Reents, a Morris graduate. "But if we come out of that game banged up and lose some guys for a significant amount of time, we might have to re-think it."

That's where things start to get a little dicey for some coaches. If only the district games are going to count for advancing to the playoffs, do teams risk putting their best players on the field for the entire game during a non-district rivalry game?

"I would never expect or want a Morris team to take the field not trying to win," Morris coach Alan Thorson said. "But, if the non-district games don't count, then I have a feeling they will turn into like an NFL preseason game, where you might see the top players out there for only a quarter or a series. You run the risk of essentially making it a seven-game season. I don't know what the answer is for that.

"We definitely would like to keep playing Coal City. That has turned into a nice thing, both as a rivalry and for both communities. I know the fans like it, and the kids like playing that game. We are in regionals in almost every other sport with them, so why not play them in football .But, they aren't going to be in our district, so we have to weigh that, too. I know there are other rivalries around the state in the same boat. Sycamore and DeKalb are 10 minutes apart, but they won't be in the same district. I would imagine they would like to keep that rivalry going, but each school would have to figure out what's best for them."

For other rivalries it's more simple. For DeKalb and Sycamore, with two open weeks, the expectation is to keep playing the rivalry game.

The rivalry survived the Spartans and Barbs leaving the same conference – Sycamore moved to the Interstate 8 and DeKalb the DuPage Valley Conference after the Northern Illinois Big 12 disbanded. DeKalb athletic director Peter Goff said he expects the game, which has raised more than $1 million dollars for the schools during the past decade, to go on.

"I think the first two games are on your own, you pick them yourselves," Goff said. "We've already moved it to Week 2 and I think we'd like it in Week 1."

There have been rumors about bringing the district proposal up for a re-vote, but whether or not that happens remains to be seen. As it stands, the district system will go into effect in the 2021 season.

"I feel, for us, we have finally gotten our conference situation figured out," Thorson said. "We are a mostly 4A-5A conference, where NIB 12 was turning into a 6A-7A conference. Our travel is much less prohibitive now as well. Look at some of the districts in some of these classes and the travel is ridiculous."