MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- For years the state of Illinois has boasted conferences for football. Many of the conferences throughout the state have changed over the years, whether it be via expansion, losing members, or the collapse of a conference. Some of that conference change has caused member schools of the IHSA to push for change in the state. That push culminated on Dec. 17 with the passing of 'Proposal 23' by IHSA member schools.
Proposal 23 -- which passed by the slimmest of margins (17 votes) -- mandates that the IHSA begin a districting system for football, rather than the conference alignment that schools had utilized in the past.
At the surface it appears that the Proposal was a highly debated topic throughout Illinois. A record-high 702 out of 818 schools voted on the proposal at the IHSA's annual by-law referendum.
"I really didn't have a gut feeling whether it would pass or fail, but I always said I felt it was going to be very close," said Sam Knox of the IHSA. "I don't think it could be much closer than 17 votes out of our 85 percent of schools that voted. Typically our voter turn out is around 73 to 75 percent of our schools participating in the voting, this year we had an all-time high of 85% of schools participating.
For schools such as Mount Carmel, who remained a member of the North Egypt Conference from its inception in 1929 until it's disbandment in 2003, it could be a breath of fresh air. The Aces were placed into a rather unique situation by joining
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the Indiana-based Big Eight Conference in 2003 following the collapse of their predecessor conference. The state of Illinois requires five wins to qualify for the IHSA playoffs, meaning the bulk (six each year) of Mount Carmel's needed games to qualify came against out of state foes. That's all set to change in two years though.
Knox, the Assistant Executive Director of the IHSA and administrator for football, wrestling, baseball, and officials department, explained that with the new system, postseason qualification will be determined by intradistrict records. Furthermore, districts ideally will consist of eight teams, though Knox admitted there is the possibility for some districts to vary in size based on geographical needs and fits. Meaning there could be some districts with seven schools or nine schools.
"The initial plan looks like, if you're in a district of eight teams, you'll play everyone in your district," Knox explained. "So there's seven games there within your district."
In the hypothetical scenario of an eight team district, Mount Carmel would still be alotted two remaining games from their nine-game schedule to schedule with foes as they choose -- and the results of such a game wouldn't have any influence on their postseason qualification -- instead, the top four teams from each district will qualify for the revamped IHSA playoff starting in 2021.
Mount Carmel head football coach Michael Brewer, who will be entering his third season on the job in 2019, sees this as a positive for the program, admitting he was in favor of the proposal.
"Yeah [I was in favor of it]," coach Brewer said. "Overall, like I said, I think Big Eight has prepared us really well in years past, we've gotten to the playoffs. As we get smaller and those schools hang where they're at it becomes harder and harder to get into the playoffs every year numbers wise. That's the standard and that's what we want to do. I don't know, it's a fine line between saying we need to get better and just raise the level of football we're playing, versus at what point is that disparity clearly impacting what you can realistically expect. Based on that part of it, yeah. I'm looking forward to playing teams that are like communities, that are similar enrollments. I think that'll be good for our program."
Brewer insists that the Aces (who finished 3-6 in 2018) are likely to still schedule some Big Eight foes past 2021 -- if they're willing -- noting the competition level in the Big Eight has done a tremendous job of preparing Mount Carmel for Illinois play in the past. So there's still a chance that rivalry games, such as Princeton, can continue.
"I think we'll continue to try to schedule some of those guys in the Big Eight if opportunities are available. Just because they test your team and prepare you for a high level of football ... .," coach Brewer said. "I think it's good football, I think you still have the ability to go test yourself, that's one of the things I like a lot about how they set it up. You can still go out and schedule a couple games and can go find out what you have against better teams and stuff like that. Yeah, I think given the opportunity we would still like to do that."
The Aces are just 3-9 against Big Eight foes over the past two seasons, severely hampering any chances Mount Carmel could have of qualifying for the IHSA playoff in the current system. In contrast, the Aces boast a 4-2 record against Illinois foes (and possible district opponents in the future) in the same span.
"When you look at those numbers in years past I can imagine most of the schools are similar in enrollment, just because they're probably playoff opponents," coach Brewer said. "I think that's something you would expect as far as win percentage goes because once you got in the playoffs you were playing other 3A schools within the state. I think that's the reason you look forward to it and it can be an advantage for us. Just get back to playing teams that are like you."
There's still a significant amount of the proposal that needs to be ironed out according to Knox. The IHSA will monitor the next two football seasons closely to help determine the classing of schools based on recent athletic success and trending enrollment for IHSA schools (some of which may trend toward eight-man football if too small). Expect a final announcement from the IHSA in regards to districting around December of 2020.
"That seems maybe late in the game for scheduling games for the fall of 2021, but all of those schools are going to be in the same boat and starting with a clean slate anyway, so no one's going to have an advantage over anyone in scheduling so to speak ... . Sitting here in January of 2019, we don't even know how many football playing schools we're going to have in 2021. We kind of have to let the dust settle a little bit to let schools make a decision on what they want to do with their co-ops and eight-man, let the next two years play out to see how the non-boundary schools do, whether they're moved up a class, multiplied, things like that." Knox explained.
Knox insists that the districting will be very similar to their methodology of grouping schools in other sports for sectionals and regionals. The process will use straight line geography to determine what schools will align into a district. You can use a map and estimate what schools are likely to be in Mount Carmel's district but it may differentiate from the IHSA's estimation.
Is it a good move for Mount Carmel? More than likely. Football wise the Aces should thrive back in Illinois, the amount of traveling on the other hand may increase starting in 2021. For the IHSA as a whole, time will tell. Though districting is a system that most states employ, it remains a highly controversial topic in Illinois.
"I don't know what my opinion is on it yet because it's so new to everybody," Knox said. "There's a lot more questions than answers right now. Naturally a lot of schools want to know, who's going to be in our district? We don't know that yet. Just looking at the vote totals, passing by 17 votes, tells us all that there are many schools in favor of it and looking forward to it and many schools that have some hesitancy and not looking forward to it."