When McHenry football coach Jon Niemic was head coach at North High School in Sioux City, Iowa, he became well-accustomed with Iowa's district football system. In many ways, it resembled the system passed by IHSA schools last year.
“It became a travel nightmare,” Niemic said.
Niemic’s team traveled to Des Moines, about three hours away, multiple times each season for games.
“That made it pretty challenging, especially financially for our program,” Niemic said.
Iowa and Illinois are different states with a different set of circumstances and different population densities. Still, Niemic is glad IHSA schools reversed course this month with a vote to rescind the district proposal and keep the high school football system the way it is, for now anyway.
The district model passed by a 17-vote margin in December 2018, with plans to implement it by 2021. The IHSA on Tuesday released the results of this year’s vote to revoke the district model, which passed 374-241 with 87 abstentions. Each IHSA school had one vote. The amendment passed by a wide margin, even with more schools abstaining than did a year ago.
So the current conference system will remain, schools will maintain control over their own scheduling and the IHSA will continue to use the current playoff alignment.
For schools in the Fox Valley Conference, like McHenry, that means the ideal scheduling scenario. The FVC has 10 teams, so each team plays nine regular season games against a conference opponent, and doesn’t have to worry about finding nonconference games.
Traditional rivals such as Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge won’t be forced to play in different districts, as one IHSA mock-up indicated in May.
“I just feel like the Fox Valley’s got pretty good football, let’s keep it the way it is,” Niemic said.
In the IHSA mock-up – which looked at what a district format would’ve looked like in 2018, and was not meant to be a prediction of what it would look like in 2021 – McHenry was placed in a Class 8A district with Jacobs, Barrington, Warren, Huntley, Stevenson, Round Lake, Waukegan and Zion-Benton.
Woodstock coach Mike Brasile said he thought the IHSA mock likely scared some schools away from the district idea. The IHSA had not released a mock prior to the 2018 vote.
“I understand why it passed [in 2018] because of the stabilization of conferences,” Brasile said. “It made some sense for a lot of schools.”
Kishwaukee River Conference schools, such as Woodstock, are in a different situation than FVC schools. Smaller schools, especially, are having a hard time filling nine-game schedules in the current system. Woodstock and Woodstock North played each other twice in 2019, as did Johnsburg and Richmond-Burton.
“It really is the toughest thing that we do all year long,” Brasile said of scheduling those nonconference games. “It’s difficult for us just because we don’t have an abundance of nonconference games that we can go and find.”
Ottawa traveled to Woodstock for a nonconference game in 2019. Harvard played Macomb at Galesburg. Woodstock North traveled to Norwood, Ohio, outside Cincinnati.
“Right now we have Weeks 1, 2 and 3 scheduled [for 2020],” Brasile said. “Week 4, we’re still looking for an opponent. We’ve got to figure something out for that. Everybody’s in their conference [schedules], all the Wisconsin schools are in their conference [schedules], all the Indiana schools.”
Elsewhere, the Chicago Catholic League and the East Suburban Catholic Conference spent a significant amount of time working out a merger last fall, forming the new CCL/ESCC. With a district system in 2021, the 24-team, six-division league would've been short-lived.
Marian Central coach Darren Fortin said even teams in the CCL/ESCC are struggling to fill their two nonconference holes. Still, the conference creates a certain level of stability for the Hurricanes.
“The new version of the conference is good,” Fortin said. “As in anything, I’m sure it will improve over the years. It’s a brutal schedule for a 4A school to be playing some of the 8A schools we have to, but those are the cards we’re dealt.”
Fortin noted that if the IHSA could find a way to limit some of the travel issues, the district system could be beneficial.