If Central High School’s official enrollment figure of 559 was two students lower, the Cougars would be competing in Class 2A again this season in the boys and girls basketball playoffs.
Instead, both teams will be competing against larger competition in Class 3A. They have gone from being one of the biggest schools in Class 2A to the smallest in Class 3A, based on current Illinois High School Association enrollment cutoffs for playoff classification.
In recent years, Central’s Cahokia Conference rivals Columbia and Freeburg have also made the jump to the strange new world of the Class 3A playoffs.
The current IHSA cutoff for Class 3A ranges from 557 students to 1,368. Class 2A ranges from 270 students to 557.
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“I think we fit in fairly well as far as competition and things like that,” said Central boys basketball coach Jeremy Shubert, whose 12-3 team entered Monday on a 10-game winning streak prior to its Nashville Invitational Tournament opener Monday night. “Our kids are prepared for the 3A type of basketball it takes, but year-in and year-out it’s going to be a tougher road to make a postseason run.
“Now we need to take a look at schools like Cahokia and Centralia, teams that we’ve never really watched much before. The rivalries we have with a lot of the 2A schools we’re not going to see in the playoffs any more.”
Central has enjoyed a remarkable run of success in Class 2A, winning the 2012 state championship and finishing third last season. Since 2000, the Cougars have won 11 regional titles and eight sectional titles, advancing to the state tournament six times.
“We haven’t look at it any differently up to this point,” Shubert said. “We’re playing the same schedule, which includes a lot of 3A schools and a lot of good 2A schools. We haven’t really changed our approach at all, but it is going to be a little bit different.”
There is no doubt about that.
Just ask the Columbia Eagles, the largest school in the Cahokia Conference with an enrollment of 661. After six seasons in Class 3A, the Eagles finally won their first 3A boys basketball regional last season.
Since 2000, the Eagles made a Class A state tourney trip in 2001 and have won six regionals (one in 3A) and one sectional. Eagles coach Mark Sandstrom said the move to 3A has meant making some major adjustments in scheduling, including finding tougher tournaments.
“(In 2010) we went from playing 1A and 2A to playing a predominantly 3A schedule,” Sandstromg said. “Now we play almost all of the 3A schools around here besides Jerseyville, and then we’ve added the Belleville East Tournament. Schedule-wise I think we’ve done a good job with it. We’re transitioning the best we can.”
Sandstrom helped put together an IHSA proposal to change the four-class playoff cutoffs to more of a 20 percent cutoffs for 3A and 4A and 20 percent for 1A and 2A. It did not advance far enough to be put to a statewide vote.
The state tries to hit close to the 25 percent cutoff for each class, but there are disparities. There are 216 schools in 1A, compared to 179 in 2A, 177 in 3A and 178 in 4A.
In addition, there is an enrollment range of a whopping 811 students for the 3A playoff cutoff (557 students to 1,368) compared to a difference of 287 for 2A (270-557) and 270 for 1A (zero students to 270).
“It’s not a 25 percent split across the board,” Sandstrom said. “You’ve just got to deal with it. I wasn’t necessarily a happy camper about it, but it’s the IHSA’s decision, and you’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to make the schedule changes, and we’ve done that.
“Last year, being in the (Belleville) East Tournament paid its dividends towards the end of the season when we beat Central, and we won a regional with Cahokia and Mater Dei in it.”
Freeburg, which has an official enrollment of 634, has also struggled since moving to 3A. The Midgets’ last boys basketball regional title in any class came in 1999 (Class A), and they have only one winning season (16-11 in 2013-14) since 2002.
Columbia has found some success by beefing up its schedule.
“A lot of it has to do with expectations,” Sandstrom said. “If you step on the floor and you’ve got a class change and you’re worried about playing a 3A team, you’re already beat. By going to the East Tournament, we’re going to get a lot better. We might go 1-2 or 0-3 or whatever, but at the end of it we’ll be a lot better for it.”
Where are they now?
Former Edwardsville High standout Garret Covington, a senior guard at Western Illinois University, shared Summit League Player of the Week honors last week after averaging 28 points and five assists in two games without a turnover.
The 6-foot-5 senior guard leads WIU in scoring at 19.9 points per game as well as 3-pointers (53). He is averaging 4.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the 6-11 Leathernecks.
His best outing this season was a 34-point night Jan. 7 against Oral Roberts. Covington hit 12 of his 16 shots overall, including six of his eight 3-point tries. He also scored 30 points Dec. 3 against Chicago State.
Covington was the Summit League’s “Newcomer of the Year” as a freshman and earned second-team all-conference honors as a sophomore and junior.
University of Illinois-Chicago freshman and Althoff High graduate Tarkus Ferguson had his second double-double in his last three Horizon League games Saturday with 15 points and team-leading 10 rebounds in the Flames’ 92-89 win over Youngstown State.
Ferguson leads the Flames (10-8) in conference scoring, averaging 13.3 points and 3.6 assists. He is fourth overall in the team scoring race, averaging 9.8 points along with 4.2 rebounds while tied for the team lead with 63 assists.
Former Belleville East standout Darreon Reddick is the fourth-leading scorer for Tennessee-State, averaging 9.2 points. The 6-4 junior guard is also second on the team with 29 3-pointers.