Isn't it about time the IHSA created a 'true' girls state volleyball tournament?

You don’t always have to go to Normal to see what could be the game to determine the state champion. Class 4A powers Mother McAuley and Marist will likely meet in a sectional final November 3 at McAuley, while St. Thomas More and Norris City-Omaha-Enfield are perhaps destined for a supersectional clash November 5 at Casey (Westfield). (Photos by Dave Ruggles)

(Editor’s note: Several coaches asked to remain anonymous, so decided to protect all the identities of all contributors).

It’s time for the IHSA to take another look at the girls’ state volleyball tournament.

For years, high school volleyball coaches have been complaining about the way that the IHSA conducts the girls state volleyball series. Too often, many of the best teams are left behind in the name of “geographic representation.”

They argue that volleyball is treated much differently than football, even though volleyball is the fastest growing high school sport in the country and is the most popular sport among high school girls in Illinois with more than 21,000 participants.

But in Illinois, football reigns supreme.

From five classes and 90 total participants in 1974 to eight classes and 256 participants in 2001 (now nearly half of all teams playing football), every effort has been made to accommodate the demands of coaches and athletic directors regarding the football playoffs.

Even two eight-man football leagues — North and South — have been established to allow smaller schools to field teams.

Of course, the IHSA argues that football is unique in that not every school that competes in 11-man football participates in the state series. However, several years ago I argued that since the field was expanded to include teams with 6-3 records (now some 5-4 teams also qualify), only one such school had won a state title.

That probably has changed since (I really don’t pay that much attention to football anymore), but I imagine those cases are still extremely rare. So other than increasing the IHSA’s revenue stream, what has football playoff expansion really accomplished?

Meanwhile, the changes the IHSA has instituted to the volleyball tournament have met with a lukewarm to bitterly cold reception.

One of those changes is assigning regional hosts based on which school requests to host rather than having the top four seeds in that particular sectional host a regional. Why was this change made? Perhaps hosting a regional was just too much trouble for some administrators.

“Host schools for regionals should be based upon top seeds, and then schools go to these sites based upon seeding, not random placing,” said one veteran coach who has taken a number of teams to Normal.

“The season should matter in placement for postseason,” she said. “We used to do this.”

The IHSA’s goal of geographic representation at the state tournament draws an ever colder reception.

“The fact that most people, except the IHSA, would like the four best teams to be playing at the state tournament is an understatement,” said another longtime coach, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The IHSA statement, ‘That the state tournament is a regional representation of the best teams in the state.’ is antiquated. They changed football, I don’t see why they cannot change volleyball.”

Geography doesn’t seem to be an issue in football. In 2019, St. Charles East traveled to Edwardsville (281 miles one way) for a first-round game in Class 8A. Normal Community traveled at least 130 miles one way to play (Chicago) Phillips in a Class 7A second-round game.

And in the 2019 Class 3A semifinals, Wilmington traveled to Byron (260 miles round trip) and Paxton-Buckley-Loda hiked it to Princeton (also 260 miles to and from).

If geography is such a concern, Wilmington should have been sent to Paxton (68 miles one way) and Princeton and Byron (60 miles one way) should have met. Apparently, geography is NOT an issue in football.

So here are some numbers to ponder – 42, 100, 116, 150 and 257.

Forty-two miles is the distance from Normal, the site of a Class 4A regional, to Pekin, where the corresponding sectional will be played.

One hundred miles is the distance from Moline, whose regional feeds into the Pekin sectional, to the home of the Dragons.

116? Normal to DeKalb, where a Class 4A supersectional will be played, assuming someone from that side of the sectional bracket advances to the supersectional.

Not great rides, but doable distances.

But here’s some more numbers.

150. The distance from Granite City, where a Class 4A regional will be played, to its corresponding sectional at Pekin. A little more than two hours if you put the pedal to the metal. Of course, a team will only have to make that ride once, although Springfield might have been a better choice.

But here’s my favorite number. 257.

Let’s say Edwardsville – or somebody from that side of the sectional bracket — wins the Pekin sectional. Their reward? A 257-mile trip to DeKalb.

DeKalb, you say? DeKalb, where – assuming Edwardsville wins the Pekin sectional, and my guess is they will – they will play the winner of the Fox Lake sectional for the right to advance to Redbird Arena.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to send the Pekin winner, no matter what part of the sectional bracket they emerged from, back to Pekin? Or even Normal? Which are almost equidistant from the St. Louis area?

Of course, that would mean you would be sending the Fox Lake winner to Pekin – 193 miles – or at best, Normal, about 40 miles shorter.

So the IHSA decides to send the Fox Lake winner to DeKalb (55 miles) to face the winner of the Pekin sectional, which could come from either the St. Louis area (266 miles) or the Bloomington-Normal area (116 miles).

Or, if the IHSA gets lucky, maybe Moline or Rock Island gets through the Pekin sectional, which would certainly make for a much shorter ride to DeKalb.

Travel is only part of the problem. There is the question of “regional representation.”

“Once again, the IHSA has done some creative ‘regional’ representation for the IHSA’s annual ‘make sure the best four teams in the state don’t make it downstate’ tournament,” said one discouraged coach. “Or maybe the IHSA thinks we are wearing masks over our eyes as well as our mouths?

“If the IHSA wants the people it serves to trust them, then they should stop blatantly lying to everyone and hiding behind their antiquated rules and by-laws, which they themselves clearly  do not follow.”

For example, is there a Class 4A school any further north that whoever emerges from Fox Lake? And are there any Class 4A schools farther south than whoever emerges from Pekin?

One entire section of the state – either the northern part of the state or the southern half — will be eliminated. The IHSA calls that regional representation?

Isn’t regional representation all the IHSA talks about?

Under the heading, “Administrative Procedures, Guidelines and Policies, the first sentence reads, “The cornerstone of IHSA state tournaments has long been geographic assignments to the state series leading to geographic representation at State Final tournaments.”

Further down, under, “The Geographic Principle of IHSA State Tournament Series,” it reads, “The State Series is designed to determine a State Champion. The State Series is not intended to necessarily advance the best teams in the state to the State Final.”

OK, How can you determine a state champion if the best teams in the state are not advancing to the state finals? Isn’t the winner then no more than the best of the four teams that make it to Normal?

For all practical purposes, the state champion may have been decided weeks earlier, say in the case of Benet and Mother McAuley, who met in a classic 4A supersectional at Hinsdale Central in 2014, won by Benet, 27-25, 37-35. Benet’s scores in Normal? 25-15, 25-22, 25-10, 25-10.

Or Decatur St. Teresa in 2019, when it defeated Orion, 19-25, 25-19, 25-14, in a heart-stopping Class 2A supersectional. That was the only time St. Teresa was pushed to three sets during its entire tournament run.

Orion, meanwhile, which finished 37-2 and had lost only three sets all season prior to the supersectional, was out.

And by the way, if you are looking for regional representation, how do two schools nearly 160 miles apart meet in a supersectional? St. Joseph-Ogden, which advanced to the state finals from another supersectional, is only 60 miles from St. Teresa.

There is also the question of private vs. public schools.

“The gap between private school and public school volleyball is continuously growing,” said one coach. “There has not been a public school Class 4A champion since 2011. So if we aren’t going to do a separate state champions , how about one sectional of private schools and seven of geographic public schools.

“That levels the playing field a little bit,” he added.

One the other side of the coin, a coach believes one particular private school conference, the East Suburban Catholic Conference in the metro Chicago area, is unduly punished by the IHSA for its dominance in volleyball.

The East Suburban Catholic Conference has produced six of the last nine state champions in 4A as well as a two 3A champions during the same time frame.

“The East Suburban Catholic Conference is very spread out throughout the state, and yet the IHSA always seems to group a couple of those teams together,” the coach said.

“The strength of the conference is undeniable, and if the goal of the tournament is to get the best teams to play downstate, then teams like Marist and Benet shouldn’t meet in a 4A sectional or supersectional final. The same is true in 3A for teams like Joliet Catholic, Nazareth, Marian Catholic and St. Viator.”

But as we know, the goal of the IHSA tournament is not to get the best four teams to Normal.

So what would I like to see?

I would like to see volleyball and football treated equally. There are eight sectionals in each class, so seed the top 16 teams, make sure no No. 1 seeds share the same sectional, and build your tournament around them by grouping them with schools that are within geographic proximity.

It can be done. Coaches know who is good and who isn’t. Records don’t mean anything. Level of competition does. Why should the two best teams in the state meet in a sectional final, or a supersectional, when in football, the field is designed to have the two best teams meet for the championship, or at least no sooner than the semifinals?

And if the IHSA refuses to seed the top 16, at least seed the supersectional qualifiers 1-8 (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5) so that the two, three or four top teams still have the best chance of reaching Redbird Arena. Nobody would care about travel if it increased their opportunity to advance.

Few people would care if two teams from the Sangamo, the Northwest Upstate Illini, the Big Twelve, the Cahokia, the Heart of Illinois, the Illini Prairie or the Vermillion Valley met for the state title. If their representatives are the two best teams in their class, play on.

But nobody (OK, vitually no one) wants to see the gift horse that is the Class 3A (Chicago) Little Village supersectional, especially those teams that will be lucky to make it out of their regionals or sub-sectionals.

A more equitable state tournament would increase interest and attendance, and enhance the student experience for so many who never have the chance to play under the bright lights of Redbird Arena because their team is victimized by some antiquated by-law or arbitrary administrative decision.

“The lack of thought that is put into organizing the regionals and sectionals by the IHSA to make it a fairer tournament has been extremely frustrating for the past 39 years, since I played in high school,” one coach said.

It’s time for a change.

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