Personal touch

Coaches have something to say about it.

So do the powers-that-be at the Iowa High School Athletic Association headquarters in Boone.

Of course, journalists throw in their two cents.

And fans certainly don’t keep quiet on the matter.

When it comes to the topic of our state’s prep football playoff system, the button isn’t just hot – it’s scalding.

On Monday, the IHSAA reversed its 2007 decision to expand the tournament field to 32 teams per class. Beginning in 2016, the number of qualifiers will be sliced in half – back to the original ”modern” number of 16.

We will wave good-bye to the watered-down version of the postseason, where programs with losing records were commonplace. In return, we’ll welcome back the controversy of keeping many 6, 7 or even 8-win schools on the sidelines. Nice try. Thanks, but no thanks.

So long, first-round blowouts in half-empty stadiums. Hello, country-club mentality of exclusivity.

The IHSAA is in a no-win situation here for a variety of reasons. There are glaring weaknesses in the expanded version of the playoffs. Long nights of weekday travel. Very little rest for players. Simply too many teams involved.

Just as many holes dot the old version, which is about to become the new version again. It’s difficult to justify leaving legitimate contenders behind based on tiebreakers, points and an overbearing cutoff line. In every other sport, athletes are encouraged to do their best in a playoff format, regardless of regular-season performance. In football, teams that win at a 70-percent clip must sweat out even being able to participate.

Most of us reacted strongly one way or another to the breaking news on Monday. We hear over and over again that our student-athletes are the top priority. What is best for them? And why?

Answers come from any and all directions. Opinions flow just as freely. Adults all have their say, based on their own experiences, notions and stereotypes.

But what do the kids think?

Recently-graduated seniors Austin Halligan and Cal Twait are on the same page as the IHSAA, but not necessarily for the reasons given by the governing body on Monday.

”It makes the regular season that much more important and exciting – the sense of urgency is there from start to finish,” said Halligan, a three-year, two-way starter at Fort Dodge. ”I’d go with the 16-team format if I had to choose. That’s the best of the best. You know every one of them is deserving.”

Twait, an all-state lineman at Manson Northwest Webster and University of Northern Iowa recruit, concurred.

”You’re seeing the top teams in each class make it, without question,” Twait said. ”You’re either a district champion or runner-up. It really magnifies the importance of every game. You have no margin for error. As a competitor, that’s what you play for.”

Safety wasn’t viewed as a concern for either player, though.

”The extra rest would be nice; playing (as many as) four games in a two-week period of time just to get to (the semifinal round at the) UNI-Dome is definitely a grind,” Twait said. ”I didn’t mind (the short turnaround time), though. The adrenaline keeps you going. You’re sore at that point, of course, but is it dangerous? I don’t see it that way.

”I don’t really think, from a safety standpoint, playing every seven days automatically puts you in better position than every five. Football is a contact sport, and injuries happen. We weren’t at risk under the (current rules). You’re going to work hard and give it everything you have, and with (32 qualifiers), a lot of teams had the opportunity to extend their season because of it. That was a good thing.”

Halligan thinks society is being ”a little too cautious” with football, and the recent reputation shift is ”blown out of proportion.”

”We’re all more aware of concussion symptoms, weather-related concerns and everything else that could change how we are allowed to play the game,” Halligan said. ”Safety is definitely a point of emphasis. There’s a perception that football is too violent, but that we don’t care and play through it anyway. That’s not true. We talk about this stuff all the time, and the trainers and coaches deserve a lot more credit than they get.

”Is it harder to recover with a short layoff between (postseason games)? Sure. Everyone’s pretty banged up at that point in the year. But does an extra game and short week (to prepare) mean it’s less safe than before? I don’t see it that way at all.”

Both Halligan and Twait would have experienced heartbreaking conclusions to their respective seasons under a 16-team format. The Dodgers were 6-3 a year ago, but placed third in their district and would have been on the outside looking in. The same goes for the Cougars during Twait’s junior campaign, when MNW went 7-2 but finished third in the district standings.

”That would have been tough, but I still think 16 teams is the way to go,” Halligan said. ”It’s not always about being the most fair. It’s about creating a competitive environment. And more often than not, you’d see (programs) with losing records get that extra game when they really didn’t deserve it. We were in that boat ourselves for a few years (at FDSH as a sub-.500 qualifier), so it all evens out.”

Twait said his Cougars were ”absolutely a playoff team” in 2013, and that it would have been ”really hard” to miss the postseason after landing behind only eventual state runner-up St. Edmond and 8-1 Ridge View.

”Yeah, it hits close to home when you come up with examples like ours that season,” Twait said. ”Overall, I still like the change more than keeping it (at 32). There’s no perfect system. You have to draw the line somewhere. It’s just hard to argue that at 2-7 or even 4-5 or 5-4, you belong. That should be a big deal, but it had lost some of its legitimacy (since 2008).”

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net