Jeff Reents still remembers the last time the IHSA seeded all of its high school playoff brackets 1 through 32.
The Wilmington coach, and other coaches who’ve been around since the late 1990s, always wondered why the association’s seeding format needed to change if it worked well before.
Reents won’t have to wonder anymore after the IHSA announced Monday that it will change its football seeding procedure in six of its classes.
“I think it’s a great move,” Reents said. “I really like the move.”
Starting this fall, all 32 teams in each class from Class 1A up to Class 6A will be seeded 1 through 32, joining 7A and 8A, after the IHSA Board of Directors approved its advisory committee’s recommendation.
The last time all classes were seeded 1 through 32 was 2001. Starting in the 2002 season, the state moved into a quadrant pairing system that had teams grouped in pods of eight teams each.
In 2006, a hybrid form was used where, if the geography allowed, teams could be placed in brackets of 1 to 16 or in groups of eight teams if there was too much of a geographical disparity. Also in 2006, Class 7A and Class 8A became 16-team brackets.
In 2015, the quadrant system was abandoned in favor of 1-to-16 brackets in Classes 1A through 6A. The 7A and 8A classes were then moved to a 1-to-32 seeding system.
The constant of this practice, regardless of the formatting, was that the 32-team bracket was divided into a north half and south half. With a few geographic manipulations along the way, typically the 16 northernmost schools in a classification would be on one side and the 16 southern schools on the other.
Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia, like Reents and other coaches in lower classes, watched as teams in 7A and 8A found a way to make the travel work even with a 1-through-32 seeding in six postseasons.
Once schools in those classes showed that the old system worked, it made sense for the changes to happen for all eight classes.
“A lot of the northern schools have preferred a 1 to 32 type of seeding,” Battaglia said. “That’s always what’s made the most sense to me, but there’s a whole lot of other factors going on other than what’s good for me.”
In the time since brackets were split between north versus south, northern-bracket teams won 81 matchups, compared to 33 wins from the southern-bracket teams. Class 4A and 5A had the closest margin with the north winning one and three more matchups, respectively. The widest gap came in 2A, where the northern teams have gone 18-1.
The change also came after the average margin of victory from Class 1A to 6A in this past fall’s title games was 17.8 points. The margin of victory for the Class 7A and 8A games were 29 and 18, respectively.
With the wide difference throughout the playoffs and the success 7A and 8A brackets showed, switching the seeding was the remedy many coaches had to make sure the best two teams play in the state title game.
“I think the past season really showed that the 7A, 8A model, you’ve had some really good games this past year, past couple years,” Battaglia said. “I can see the success and the competitiveness of those games being something you want to carry on to all levels, not just the top two.”
Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg didn’t think the day would come for the IHSA to change its seeding, but he’s excited for it to happen. He didn’t think there’d be enough support for a change until coaches talked about it in December and January.
Seaburg does realize there will be issues. There might be some first-round matchups where a No. 32 seed from southern Illinois might need to travel three or four hours north to play the No. 1 seed.
Finances might also be an issue. Some schools might have a hard time finding transportation, especially if games take place on a Saturday.
“There might be a cost problem associated with some of these things too,” Seaburg said. “I don’t think you’ll see that in the bigger classes, but maybe in a 1A or 2A, you might have some of those issues.”
Coaches also are excited for the scouting challenges that might pop up and the relationships that might grow with more northern and southern teams playing each other. With a north and south bracket, many coaches could relatively figure out who they would play and compete against opponents they were familiar with and didn’t need to do as much scouting.
Now that matchups will be much more of a wild card with the whole state in play, the playoffs will become less predictable and help the football community within Illinois grow.
“It kind of makes it exciting,” Seaburg said. “We’ve always looked at the playoffs as a great opportunity to play against a team we normally wouldn’t play. I think fans like that more, and so I think overall it will be good for football.”