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Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)
District football made perfect sense when the Iowa High School Athletic Association introduced it 20 years ago.
At the time, school closings and consolidations were tearing apart conferences in smaller classes across the state. Quality football programs were being left out of the playoffs because of strength of schedule. And scheduling became more and more difficult.
District football solved all three problems. The administrators in Boone simply grouped together similarly sized schools and drew up their schedules. And, ever since, the schools ranging from 8-Man to Class 3A haven't had to worry about strength of schedule in their quests for playoff berths.
Two years ago, district football again made so much sense for Class 4A schools on the western half of the state who were struggling with scheduling issues.
It's a very good system. But it is far from perfect.
Within the next month, the 24 Class 4A football programs in the eastern half of the state will have to decide if they want to remain in their conferences or put their fates in the hands of the IHSAA for district play. Looking at the list of positives and negatives involved, I don't envy them.
It's not a clear-cut decision.
Nor should it be.
The three Catholic 4A schools in the East would likely be impacted the most by a switch to district football. Dubuque Wahlert, Cedar Rapids Xavier and Davenport Assumption have Class 3A enrollments but play 4A football because of their memberships in the Mississippi Valley Conference and Mississippi Athletic Conference.
You can't blame Wahlert for wanting to play Class 3A. As it stands, the Golden Eagles consistently play schools with four times their enrollment, and the size difference has put them at a competitive disadvantage in a numbers sport like football.
The decision becomes a little more cloudy for Xavier and Assumption, both of whom have established football traditions and routinely compete for conference championships. Xavier has five intracity rivals in the Cedar Rapids metro area alone and the two Iowa City schools are half an hour away. Assumption plays five conference rivals in the Quad Cities and has three more within a 30-mile radius.
So, both Xavier and Assumption rarely leave their metropolitan areas for conference games. That means big games and higher gate receipts almost every week. District football would take both Xavier and Assumption away from their metropolitan areas more frequently, so the move might actually hurt the schools more than it might help.
Rivalries absolutely must be taken into consideration.
For instance, Cascade and Dyersville Beckman are located only 15 minutes apart and have one of the best Class 2A rivalries in Iowa. And yet, for a two-year stretch, they did not meet in football, because the IHSAA placed them in separate districts and both schools were locked into commitments with other programs for their two non-district games.
Those kinds of quirks happen with district football, even though the IHSAA tries to prevent them. But I'm sure that's little consolation to the graduating classes at Cascade and Beckman for those two years.
For years, Beckman developed somewhat of a rivalry with North Fayette in district football. But, because the two schools competed in different conferences in every other sport, that rivalry never seemed as intense as others. Your best rivalries stem from seeing each other throughout the school year, either in a conference setting or a tight geographic location.
In all likelihood, a switch to districts might not impact Hempstead and Senior all that much. If they wouldn't be paired with MVC schools, they would most likely play the northernmost MAC schools, and Hempstead and Senior frequently schedule non-conference games in other sports with the likes of Clinton, North Scott, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley and the Davenport schools.
Wahlert could be placed with the likes of Western Dubuque, West Delaware and Maquoketa - again, schools the Eagles schedule as non-conference in other sports. But, on the other hand, it might take time to develop rivalries with schools such as Decorah, Cresco Crestwood and Clear Creek-Amana.
The whole district concept returned this fall, when the MAC voted to reopen discussions about it. MAC schools cited a lack of playoff success against the MVC as a reason for exploring it.
Perhaps the MAC schools could benefit from being grouped in districts with more MVC schools.
But, on the other hand, aren't the MAC schools running the risk of having fewer of their schools reach the playoffs if they opt for a switch to districts? Based on their logic, the MVC schools might monopolize those playoff berths.
Does it make sense for the western 4A schools to play district while the eastern schools remain in conferences? Maybe not, but it shouldn't be a deal breaker.
The western schools really needed districts because of scheduling problems that do not exist with the MVC and MAC.
Also, in the past two seasons, schools with 2-7 records advanced out of western districts to the playoffs. Senior, meanwhile, didn't get in this fall despite a 4-5 record. So, you can argue, the more deserving 4A teams are advancing out of the East.
District football makes a lot of sense in many ways, but it's far from perfect. Now its up to administrators to decide if the pros outweigh the cons.
Leitner's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org