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Daily Journal
     February 8, 2022      #78-39 KDJ
Kankakee's Jyaire Hill evades several Fenwick defenders on a punt return during the 2021 IHSA Class 5A state championship at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. The IHSA announced Monday it will begin seeding the playoff fields for Classes 1A-6A in a 1-32 format, rather than two 16-team fields. The move will

IHSA football to seed all playoff classes

By Mason Schweizer

While winter sports postseasons already have begun, it was the state’s biggest fall sport — football — that made headlines with the IHSA on Monday.

The IHSA released a recap of its monthly board of directors meeting that was held Monday, when the association voted to change the playoff seeding format for classes 1A-6A. Rather than breaking the 32-team field into two 16-team brackets, teams now will be seeded 1-32 in one bracket, the format that had been adapted by the state’s largest two classes, 7A and 8A, in 2015.

No additional comment from the IHSA was immediately available other than the note of approval of the change.

The format that is soon to be retired saw the 32-team fields split into brackets based on geographic location, typically north and south. The two largest classes don’t usually see many playoff teams outside of the Chicagoland area — just five of the 64 teams in the 7A and 8A fields last season were from south of Kankakee County — which allowed them to seed their playoffs in a true 1-32 fashion.

In the small and mid-sized classes, where a majority of teams in the Daily Journal coverage area reside, the local landscape was often the dividing line between southern- and northern-bound teams.

In 2019, Bishop McNamara was sent south in the Class 4A field, where the Fightin’ Irish opened the playoffs with a 240-mile round trip to Paris, hosted Tolono Unity and then traveled more than 500 round-trip miles to face Murphysboro in the quarterfinals as an extreme example of that split field not always saving on travel.

Manteno, located 10 miles north of McNamara’s Kankakee campus, was in the northern half of the bracket that year, yet still had to drive 210 round-trip miles for its first-round playoff game at Marengo.

“We’re still traveling anyway; we were the northern end of Illinois and going south,” McNamara coach Alan Rood said. “We’ve been to Effingham and Murphysboro in recent years; this year, we went straight west two-and-a-half hours away to Nashville and a week later, Erie-Prophetstown had to turn around and do the same back to us.

“It really just takes away the north and south aspect, but it doesn’t make it an easier path.”

There will be no changes to playoff qualifications — the top 256 teams based on record and then playoff points (combined wins of a team’s scheduled opponents) will make the playoffs.

From there, the largest 32 schools in terms of student enrollment make up the 8A field, with the next largest group of 32 schools making up the 7A field and so on, until all eight classes are set.

After those fields were set, 1A-6A again would be divided before seeding the two 16-team fields. That is the one change that will be made — the elimination of that split.

While that certainly would have shifted matchups, the merging of two 16-team fields into one 32-team field while still using the same criteria for seeding still led to similar ultimate outcomes if the new changes would have been applied to last year’s playoff field.

In Class 2A, all four local teams in the field would have had new first-round opponents. Wilmington, which was the northern bracket’s top seed, would have been the second overall seed and would have hosted Flora rather than Chicago Julian. Momence was the 11th seed in the north and would have been 21st overall, with a road trip to Vandalia rather than Tremont.

Central was the northern side’s 12-seed and would have had the 23rd seed overall, with a trip to the same Nashville squad McNamara ended up facing in the first round. The Fightin’ Irish made that trip as the 13-seed in the north, and would have been 26th overall with a trip to Brese Mater Dei in the first round.

However, the potential matchups later in the playoffs would have come in the same waves locally. The Irish and Comets would have had a chance to meet in the second round, which was the scenario in the fall. And, similar to the fall, the winner of that game would have had the chance to meet Wilmington in the quarterfinals.

The Wildcats, who won the 2021 IHSA Class 2A title, defeated McNamara 45-25 in the quarterfinals.

Kankakee played in its first-ever football state title game, a matchup with Fenwick that resulted in a 34-15 Friars victory. The Kays were the top seed in the south and would have been Class 5A’s top overall seed, and their potential meeting with the Friars, the north’s two-seed and seventh overall seed, once again would have been for all the marbles.

Kays coach Derek Hart knows no matter what bracket is presented in any given scenario, teams will have to win several evenly-matched battles just to get the chance to play for a title.

That’s why he has welcomed challenging nonconference games to round out the Kays’ schedule since he took over before the 2019 season — something that will continue when the Kays open their 2022 campaign with a challenging road trip against another Class 5A frontrunner, Nazareth.

“If you’re good enough to win a state championship you [have to] beat those teams anyway,” Hart said. “That’s what we’re trying to do is schedule those types of teams to get ready for the playoffs.”

The Kays are another area team that’s seen in recent years how wild that dividing line can be. In 2019, they took a 590-mile round-trip trek to Mascoutah in the second round of the Class 5A postseason. In 2021, they were again in the south, yet still made a trip north to Chicago to take on Morgan Park, a game they won 49-12 at Gately Stadium in the second round.

From that perspective, Hart loves the move to hypothetically even the playing fields that are created with a more traditional seeding.

“I like it in the sense that it’s just more fair to clump it together 1-32,” Hart said. “It’s tough for teams near St. Louis that have to go to the northern side of the state and vice-versa, but it’s really the fairest thing I think you can do.”

No matter who is on the other side of the line of scrimmage and wherever the field that game is being played on, the objective is always the same for the area’s 15 football teams once the playoffs get underway.

“We’re playing football, man,” Rood said. “We’re trying to win games and win a state championship.

“It doesn’t matter where go or who you play; it’s about winning once you get to the postseason.”

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Wilmington's Karsen Hansen tries to avoid a tackle by Bishop McNamara's Jaxson Roberts during the Wildcats' 45-25 victory over the Irish in the IHSA Class 2A quarterfinals last fall.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette