When the Illinois High School Association instituted its new “success factor” rules for 2015-16, it was only a matter of time before it affected the playoffs in the metro-east.
Mater Dei’s extremely successful volleyball program, which owns an area-record seven state championships and frequently makes the national rankings, found itself squarely in the crosshairs of the controversial IHSA legislation that some public schools hope will help level the playing field.
Because of its many recent state tournament trips in Class 3A, including a third-place finish last season, the Knights will be forced to move up a class to the 4A playoffs this season. As a result, a small Clinton County school of 427 students will be paired in the regional playoffs with Southwestern Conference schools that have enrollments ranging from 1,414 students at East St. Louis to 2,504 students at Belleville East.
“I tell my girls all the time to only worry about the things that they can make a change on,” said Mater Dei volleyball coach Chad Rakers, whose school has made 22 state tourney trips. “There’s nothing that I can do or anybody in the area can do to change this. So we have to accept this, deal with it and handle it. We have to accept it as a challenge and move on from there.”
Five SWC schools have enrollments of more than 2,000 students, including Belleville East, O’Fallon (2,473), Edwardsville (2,355), Belleville West (2,182) and Alton (2,020).
The IHSA enrollment cutoff for 4A includes schools with enrollments of 1,346 and higher.
The “success factor” applies only to private, or “non-boundaried schools,” which already have a 1.65 multiplier tacked on to their actual enrollments. It does not apply to public schools like Cahokia, which has won five straight Class 2A state track championships and seven state titles since 2006.
If a private school wins a state trophy in the same class twice in a four-year span, it will be forced to compete in the next higher playoff class the following year.
“We have to be prepared in 4A and if that’s a school that’s 10 times our size, then so be it,” Rakers said. “It’s still six girls on their side of the floor and six girls on my side of the floor. Do we have to up our game and up our level? Yes we do. We’ll do our best to be prepared come playoff time.”
In five seasons under Rakers, Mater Dei is 144-16. The Knights were 38-4 last season when they finished third in the state and annually play one of the toughest schedules of any metro-east school.
“I want my girls to take it as a challenge,” Rakers said. “If you waste your time worrying about things that are out of your control, then you’re wasting a lot of time. We can work on our game, we can work on making our game better. We can’t worry about who they’re going to put on the other side of the net.”
Mater Dei already plays many of the Southwestern Conference schools in regular-season matches and also sees them at tournaments at Edwardsville and Belleville East. Rakers said he will probably add a tournament in Chicago next season to begin seeing and competing against the top teams there.
What do the SWC teams think about adding Mater Dei to their playoff mix, which in past years was basically a conference tournament with perhaps Quincy or Moline thrown in.
“Each year the (4A) teams around here have a very difficult time getting to state because of the caliber of all the teams,” Belleville West volleyball coach Lauren DeGirolamo said. “With Mater Dei in the mix now we’ll have to step it up even more. That makes it a little more difficult, but it’s not like it’s been a cakewalk before.
“You want to play the best to be the best. They’re good year-in and year-out, it seems like they just re-tool and don’t really lose a step every year.”
O’Fallon coach Melissa Massey said the addition of Mater Dei provides motivation based on the Knights’ history of success.
“It does change things, I’m not going to lie,” said Massey, whose team has won three straight regionals and four in five years. “I’m always thinking ahead to postseason and what we need to do be prepared. We’re going to have to be prepared for a team like that. I’m not going to deny that they’re a volleyball powerhouse. They’ve always been like that.”
Belleville West has the area’s best 4A volleyball legacy with 16 state tourney appearances and back-to-back state titles in 1990 and 1991 under Hall of Fame coach Charles Rodman.
Belleville East and Collinsville have made two state tourney appearances each, with East St. Louis and Granite City making one state tourney trip. Edwardsville finished third in its lone state trip in 2010.
Mater Dei lost five senior starters from its third-place team last fall, including Belleville News-Democrat Player of the Year Madi Haake.
The Knights’ move to 4A could open the door for area 3A teams that have seen their seasons ended by Mater Dei in the past. Among the list of 3A hopefuls with potentially strong teams this season are Mascoutah, Highland, Central, and Columbia.
Rakers understands why people think his program is dominant based on sheer numbers alone, but also pointed to the relatively small geographical area his players are coming from.
“I can understand it if we were actually snapping up kids from other schools, but that’s not the case,” he said. “Our kids are from right here in Clinton County for the most part. Very rarely do we have students that could attend another school other than Central (also located near Breese).”
There were only two football programs in the state forced to move up a class because of the “success factor” - Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin (5A to 6A) and Montini (5A to 6A).
Griffins has won two straight 5A state football titles and five overall since 2005, while Montini won four straight 5A state titles from 2009-12 and finished second behind Griffin in 2013 and 2014.
IHSA “success factor” explained
“A sport or activity program at a non-boundaried school shall be subject to the success adjustment if, over the course of the last four school terms, the program has won at least two trophies in the same class, one of which must have been within the last two school years.
In such a case the school will be moved up one class from the highest class in which the school has won two trophies. A school will never be adjusted up or down more than one class from one school year to the next.”