High School Sports

IHSA changes playoff format, limits football full-contact days

The IHSA rule change limits how many days of full-contact practices football players can take part in. It’s aimed at keeping them from suffering injuries.
The IHSA rule change limits how many days of full-contact practices football players can take part in. It’s aimed at keeping them from suffering injuries.

It’s “back to the future” time for the Illinois High School Association state football playoffs.

Under new by-laws approved Monday by the IHSA board of directors, the state’s largest schools in Class 7A and 8A will be seeded 1 through 32 in the playoffs as they were up until 2001. All classes were seeded that way previously, but in recent years the IHSA has divided up the state into two brackets with 16 seeds each.

It will remain that way for Class 1A through Class 6A, eliminating the eight-team “quadrants” that were still being used in some areas of the state based on travel distances.

“The travel will be crazy, but maybe you’ll get better matchups,” Belleville West coach Cameron Pettus said, noting the history of the larger Southwestern Conference schools facing off against each other in the first or second round.

Last season, Belleville East played SWC rival Edwardsville in the final week of the regular-season and then met the Tigers again in the opening round of the playoffs.

“I hate that we always draw somebody in our conference,” Pettus said. “I think it’s kind of fun to play somebody you haven’t seen, especially in the first week of the playoffs.”

In each of the last two years, Althoff’s first two state football playoff opponents were Columbia and Herrin.

“I think it will be fun facing people you don’t normally see,” Althoff coach Ken Turner said.

One of the arguments coaches have used for more of a state-wide seeding system for the playoffs over the years was determining a better state champion. Many times ultra-strong teams from similar regions were squaring off in earlier rounds under the old playoff system.

“The meat grinder you’ve got to go through to win that ... if you do that, if you’re not the best team in the state you’re still pretty doggone good,” Pettus said.

As part of another playoff change, the bracketed playoff sports of baseball, basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer will now be competing in two seeded sub-sectionals rather than four regionals that feed into a sectional.

The top two seeds in each sub-sectional will be assigned to different sites. The sectional complex will remain in effect for Chicago-area teams in Class 3A and Class 4A.

“Given the size and diversity of our state, it is very difficult to formulate a state tournament that adheres to the IHSA’s traditional geographic assigning principal, while also attempting to maintain competitive balance at each level of the tournament,” outgoing IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said in a statement. “The board felt like this was a good compromise that will be well-received by coaches and student-athletes around the state.”

IHSA limits football contact periods

In another rule change, the IHSA will limit football teams to only three full live-contact days — for 90 minutes total — beginning with the Monday prior to the regular-season opener.

During double-session preseason practices, only one practice per day can include live full contact.

“I don’t think it changes too much from what a lot of teams are doing now,” Turner said. “It’s keeping kids’ safety in mind.”

Turner said a typical practice week a Althoff would include a film session and walk-through Monday, contact and game-planning on Tuesday and a lot of contacts on Wednesday.

“Everyone’s going shells now, which is just helmet and shoulder pads, showing the proper way to tackle,” Turner said. “You need the full contact because the games are full contact, but as far as needing to do it every day, I don’t think any school does it every day.”

Pettus welcomes the changes in the interest of player safety, but wondered how the rules can be monitored and by whom.

“I understand they’re trying to make the game safer,” Pettus said. “I think they’re taking proper steps to make the game safer, but at the same time it’s going to be hard to enforce and monitor. We’ll make sure we’ve got it scheduled into our (practice) script.”

Pettus said many high school coaches have followed the lead of their NFL and college coaching counterparts in backing off the amount of time spent in full contact sessions.

“We don’t do a whole lot of banging like we used to,” he said.

The IHSA has come up with similar rules in recent years governing concussion protocol and other safety measures.

“I understand what (the IHSA) is trying to do in looking out for the kids,” Cahokia coach Antwyne Golliday said. “When you are talking about the three contact days and 90 minutes per week, we don’t go that long anyway. I would say that maybe we’ll go one day per week for maybe 30-40 minutes, but that’s it.

“During two-a-day practices we rarely go full pads anyway. We use that time more for teaching then we do for actual hitting and drills. I don’t think either change will really have much of an affect on us.”

“These changes will have little impact on the practice plans for most high school football programs around the state of Illinois,” said Batavia High School Head Coach Dennis Piron, a member of the Illinois Advisory Council on Player Safety. “Coaches understand now more than ever how important it is to have their players performing at their peak on Friday nights, factors that run the gamut from nutrition to offseason training to practice habits. These policy changes will help further standardize practices and protect students-athletes from risk of an injury.”

Pettus said it’s important to teach players the proper way to hit and protect themselves. The best way to do that is in full gear.

“I don’t want to see them go much further than that because I do believe you’ve got to teach kids how to hit live,” Pettus said. “You really need that time in there to teach how to hit and hit safely. We’ve already kind of cut back on it, but at the same time you can’t eliminate it totally.”

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at nsanders@bnd.com or 618-239-2454. Follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders.