Praise whatever deity it is that you believe in, because high school sports are back! I’ve been waiting a long time to type those words, and boy am I glad that the day finally came.
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) approved the start of all medium and high risk sports in a meeting on Jan 28. The IHSA also rearranged the structure of the seasons due to the lost time between November and now. The new schedule allows for traditional spring sports that didn’t get to play at all last year an opportunity at as full of a season as possible, with many sports still having a chance at a state series, but that hasn’t quite yet been decided.
In terms of the right here, right now, basketball is a go. Football is a go. Girls Volleyball is a go. OPB, OVB, OFB. It’s all back, and it is GLORIOUS.
Unfortunately basketball, football, and volleyball are all not going to get a state series this year. So now the question is, how are schools going to get a “playoff” experience? The answer is simple, and it is one that the Southwest Prairie Conference (SPC) was more than ready to implement (at least for basketball and volleyball): A conference tournament. The SPC’s very own “March Madness”.
Basketball and Volleyball
As soon as the news of the SPC adopting a single elimination tournament for the 2020 season broke, I went right to Twitter:
Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but I am hyped out of my mind to say the least.
Every year at the collegiate level, no matter if you’re Division I, Division II, Division III, JUCO, or NAIA, you have a conference tournament in every team sport. In the state of Illinois, there are no conference tournaments. The conference champion is determined purely by the regular season. Who ever has the best overall record is the champion. “Well shouldn’t the best regular season team win the conference championship and the automatic bid into the state tournament?” Yes. And also no. Just, hear me out.
To answer the first portion of the question, I will use another question: If they really are the best team in the conference, shouldn’t they be able to win a tournament within that conference? Most of the time the answer is yes, but when that answer is no, that means the unbelievable has happened. There’s been an upset. A team gets to storm the court and celebrate doing the impossible. Isn’t that what sports are about? That great team will still get an at-large bid into the state tournament almost certainly, but that team that made a run and won a conference championship against all odds deserves an automatic bid into the state series.
Now for structure. What should this look like? Here’s my proposal for the SPC. You have two “regions” in the bracket, one for each division. Seeding is based on regular season standings in each division. The bracket for each region would be a six team single elimination bracket, with the one and two seeds getting first round byes. Each division should play games at the higher seeded school’s gym, until the “division championship” or semi-final, depending on which way you would like to reference the last game in each region prior to the tournament championship game. At this point, the remaining three games in the bracket should be played at a predetermined neutral site (this site could rotate around conference schools every year much like the Final Four rotates cities in the NCAA).
Try and tell me this won’t result in high-level competition. I dare you. A format like this is going to bring out the very best in each and every one of the 12 SPC member schools. It not only gives the best of the best their shot at winning some hardware, but it also gives those schools that may have had a down year, and aren’t going to make the state bracket a chance at the playoff experience. A chance to perform in the atmosphere of a win or go home game. The stuff that kids dream about.
This idea shouldn’t just be left to basketball and volleyball. Other IHSA-sanctioned sports like baseball, hockey, water polo, softball and soccer would all benefit from conference tournaments.
This format is great for the 2021 season. It gives all the senior athletes one last chance at playoff glory, but the conference tournament shouldn’t be allowed to leave us any time soon.
Football conference tournaments are never going to be a thing. But you know what can be? A bowl weekend. This year there are going to be seven football games. Six regular season, and one “playoff game.” That last game is a perfect opportunity for the SPC to put some competitive and enjoyable football on display.
That last week should become a “bowl game” week. The SPC should schedule matchups between teams of similar records and rankings and allow them to compete for something. Name the games, associate a trophy with the games, give it a playoff atmosphere. But the bigger opportunity lies in the chance to have an actual SPC Championship Game. One that definitively tells all the schools, teams, and fans, who the best in the conference is. How should that be decided? Well, there are two possible methods.
The first method would just be to use running standings throughout the season (no divisions), and rank the teams one through 12 based on records and other tiebreaker criteria normally used in standings. Then, have the top two teams compete in a championship, and match up all the other teams in descending order to play one another in different bowl games (three plays four, five plays six, etc.). I’m not a particular fan of this idea. I much prefer one that encompasses the divisions, much like you see in college football conferences such as the Big 10.
In my preferred structure, the top team in each division will face off in the SPC Championship game. This way the East and West Divisions are both represented in the championship game. It also gives the game a true Championship feel. In the other games, each seed from one division would play the matching seed of the opposite division, hopefully resulting in even matchups and competitive games.
Come next year when (hopefully) all sports can play a full season, the SPC will keep this type of format in place. It is in the best interest of the conference to keep the postseason structure past this year, and after it all plays out, hopefully everyone will see why.