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Who’s who in district football zoo

The big question about the recent Illinois High School Association district football plan for 2021 and beyond is this: Who are the teams going to play?

Several mysteries remain unsolved with the plan’s passing on Dec. 18, which was favored by 383 schools and opposed by 307, with 69 voting “no opinion.”

Gone is the familiar knowledge of who to expect every year in conference play. Since teams will be geographically lumped into eight-team groups by similar enrollment with district play, expect to find that familiar schools much larger or much smaller than your school will not be on your 2021 schedule.

Projections can be estimated in the meantime, but the makeup of each district will not officially be known until late 2020. Enrollment figures for 2021 will be the average of the enrollments of each school in the 2 preceding school years. The groupings will last for 2 years before enrollments are readjusted for 2023.

Weeks 1 and 2 will be reserved for non-district games, but that isn’t a lot of room to try to retain as many rivalries as possible.

Local schools are represented in four football conferences: the Northwest
Upstate Illini, Three Rivers, Big Northern, and the Western Big 6 (which will be Sterling’s new home, briefly).

The NUIC had played for more than a decade in enrollment-based divisional play, but will switch to geographic north-south play this coming season. Milledgeville, a 1A school, will be in the same division as Eastland-Pearl City and West Carroll, both 2A schools. That won’t be the case with districts.

Dixon and Rock Falls (4A) are the BNC’s largest schools. Districts will make them no longer play 3A conference foes Oregon and Winnebago.

Sterling (5A) opened this past season with 4A Marengo, then 7A Pekin, 3A Alleman, 6A Kaneland, 4A Geneseo, and 6A Ottawa before playing three 5A teams. Opposing enrollments ranged from Alleman’s 440 to Pekin’s 1,824 – the max to be upped to Moline’s enrollment of 2,000-plus for 2019 and 2020. Districts will limit such a disparity down to about 400.

Playing against schools with similar enrollments may make for balanced competition, but what others are around them to form eight-team groups?

The general idea to figure out groups is to find the closest 15 or so schools in a similar class in recent years. Your school may or may not be the center of the grouping; it could be along either a geographic or enrollment edge. Perennial
local playoff bubble schools, such as Bureau Valley, Fulton, Morrison and Newman, may expect teams from the other side of their respective cutoff lines.

Sterling is the biggest question mark when it comes to which side of town to depart from. Let’s find 15 schools closest to the Golden Warriors within the 5A enrollment parameter, roughly between 800 and 1,200 students.

Belvidere, Rockford Boylan, Freeport, Geneseo (which was projected to be in 5A this year after a few years in the 4A ranks), LaSalle-Peru, Rochelle and Sycamore are within about 60 miles. Within about 100 are Burlington Central, Metamora, Morris (another typical 4A team in the 5A mix this past season), Peoria Notre Dame and Streator. Another three possibly included in that group are Joliet Catholic, Glenbard South or Wheaton St. Francis.

The area’s 1A contingent – Ashton-Franklin Center, Fulton, Milledgeville, Morrison – may be lumped together, either with schools in the NUIC North, Lincoln Trail, or Northeastern Athletic in the same class.

Look for the area’s 2A schools – Amboy-LaMoille, Bureau Valley, EPC, Newman, West Carroll – to be lumped with the larger schools of those aforementioned conferences.

The mystery grows deeper as the schools get larger. Erie-Prophetstown and Oregon, the local 3A duo, are on opposite corners of the Sauk Valley. It is quite possible that one, or both, go with either similar-sized western suburban schools, or those in extreme western Illinois.

Thankfully for Dixon and Rock Falls, there are enough similary-sized schools around to likely make travel less of a hassle. They have conference foes Genoa-Kingston, Rockford Lutheran and Mendota within close range. In 4A, Geneseo and Kewanee are just a little farther to the southwest, Plano and Sandwich to the southeast, and Harvard and Marengo to the northeast.

Classes will be determined before the season. The eight closest 1A teams to the Illinois-Wisconsin border at Lake Michigan, spreading inward, will be a group. Then the next eight closest gets bunched, and so on until there are eight groups of (ideally) eight. The shape could be anything.

While we may not know what the 2021 football schedule will look like at this very point in time, the best idea is to keep tabs on similar-sized schools within a certain radius. It’s hit-or-miss at best, but should ease some confusion.

• Welcome to a new weekly sports feature at Sauk Valley Media. This is the first Cutter’s Corner column of the year.

This column will be my sports presence for now, because I have officially moved to the front of your newspaper to the ‘A’ section. I am now covering education and business news at SVM.

However, since I will never fully get my mind off of local sports, a couple of hours of my day will be dedicated to putting this weekly column together – for your enjoyment, I hope.

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