The celebrations cleared out and the trophies have been taken home.
Iowa’s 2015 high school season had its finale moved to Monday by weather, but all six state championship games were played in the order they were planned in Cedar Falls. And after congratulating the winners, coaches and fans can already start thinking about next year.
Changes abound that could potentially alter the prep football landscape. Qualifiers are being cut, districts are being realigned and schedules will have to follow suit.
Yet to end this chapter, three state title winners defended their crowns (Dowling Catholic, Pella, Iowa City Regina), two added to their 2012 championships (Spirit Lake, MMC) and one improved on a runner-up finish from last year (Gladbrook-Reinbeck). Football in the fall is about each team’s journey and experience, but Iowa didn’t exactly end up with a group of bracket-busters.
So, how much will change in 2016, really? Let’s recap the playoffs and find out with this year’s final Take Five.
Forecasting the 2016 playoff field
A few facts for next season have been mapped out by the Iowa High School Athletic Association.
Each class will have 16 postseason qualifiers instead of 32. Playoff games will occur on Fridays instead of every five days. This offseason falls in the two-year cycle of redrawing districts.
But how those districts will look, how those district will get their qualifiers, and what teams do with those extra days and hopefully, extra health, is to be determined.
“I don’t think there’s any question it’s better for the kids and it makes preparation a lot better,” Dowling coach Tom Wilson said before the quarterfinals. “The exact number of playoff teams there should or shouldn’t be, I don’t know what the magic number is. But I think every coach would tell you they’ll take that extra preparation time and the extra rest time.”
Perennial contenders shouldn’t go anywhere. After October’s first round, a game that will be eliminated next season, 44 of the 48 district champions advanced anyway. But second or third-place? A 7-2 or 6-3 finish will put teams on the playoff fringe. It adds emphasis to district formatting and could adjust how some programs schedule non-district games. Good football teams will undoubtedly get left out when only consistently great will advance.
The reign of Catholic powers Dowling and Regina continues
The Maroons became the first 4A team to win three straight state titles on Monday, while Regina won 1A for its ridiculous sixth consecutive crown. Dowling is 40-1 over the last three seasons and went unbeaten again. The Regals only lost on an absurd comeback by 3A contender Cedar Rapids Xavier and have won 82 of their last 84 games.
The parochial powers continue to reload with talent and deal with shouts about recruiting every time they win. It doesn’t matter. Dowling and Regina compete in IHSAA classes based on their enrollment and have put together two of the more impressive runs in Iowa high school football history. Hats off.
The UNI-Dome is perfect November place
Last week’s weather postponement of Friday’s finals should be all the evidence fans need for the IHSAA keeping its semifinals and championship games indoors. The UNI-Dome was a temperature-controlled nest when the November wind and cold got nasty, and the turf and ample locker room area has held up well with three or four games per day plus UNI football practice. Geography worked well for participating teams. Fans could spread out on their respective sides. Parking was as good as could be expected with UNI events happening simultaneously. The giant new video board looks great, and the IHSAA even played “The Chicken Dance” less. This reporter’s only request: concession stand options that won’t cause intestinal distress over 12-plus hours of prep football.
The inaugural Iowa Eight played pretty well
Picked in the preseason by The Register as Iowa’s best prep football players, the first Iowa Eight class performed well. Pella quarterback Noah Clayberg shined brighter leading the Dutch to back-to-back 3A titles. Valley’s Rocky Lombardi and John Raridon, North Fayette Valley’s Juan Harris and Mount Vernon’s Tristan Wirfs all had strong seasons in helping lead their teams to the UNI-Dome. Talented offensive linemen Spencer Williams and Jake Heinrich had good falls for Cedar Falls and Urbandale, respectively. But Williams mostly played wide at tackle with the Hawkeyes expecting their commit to play inside, and Heinrich, an Arkansas commit, missed a few weeks with an arm injury. Chariton’s T.J. Hockenson hit his own sky-high expectations as the Iowa tight end recruit will graduate as the state’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Let’s hope next year’s crop has similar yields.
Injuries can change the game
Spirit Lake quarterback Logan Backhaus laid on the UNI-Dome turf for 15 minutes during Monday’s record-shattering 2A title game, hit hard after completing a two-point pass in the highest-scoring title game ever. The eventual championship round MVP was stretchered off as a precaution after a likely head injury, and raised his arms to give the crowd a thumps up before he exited.
The senior star was up-and-about after the game – with a suspected concussion – but showed how slim the margin on in-game safety can be. Plenty of seasons and playoff games were altered by injury, even at the UNI-Dome. Albia’s star running back Carter Isley was hampered by an ankle issue and quarterback Blake Bayer was stretchered out after a leg injury. One of Pella’s top players, Iowa recruit Austin Schulte, only played a few snaps in August before hurting his knee.
Football is a whole lot of fun, but if the extra couple days between rounds next season can add any semblance of safety, it will be worth it.