By Phil Brozynski
NORMAL - It’s safe to say that only some reasonably entertaining championship matches saved what otherwise would have been a weekend of anguish for even the most dedicated volleyball fan watching the Illinois High School Association girls volleyball tournament at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
Simply stated, it was a bad, boring tournament. Only three of the 16 matches played at Redbird Arena went three games, either an indication of competitive imbalance or an indictment of the Illinois High School Association’s policy of geography first, competition second.
Only one of Friday’s eight semifinals went to three games - and eventual champion Breese Central defeated Maroa-Forsyth 25-8 in the third game of that Class 2A match.
The average score of the 14 remaining semifinal games was 25-17, and only twice did the losing team come within four points (Deer Creek-Mackinaw lost its first game to Mt. Pulaski 26-24, and St. Charles East lost its first game to Mother McAuley 25-23).
Saturday’s early third-place and championship matches were also one-sided affairs. Both 1A matches were decided in straight games as was the third-place match in 2A. The early session was saved only by Breese Central’s taut three-game victory over Hampshire in the 2A title match.
What’s to blame? The IHSA’s policy of geographic representation, couple with the new four-class system, produced a watered-down tournament. Compare this year's semifinals to the quarterfinals and semifinals of the past four or five years and argue differently.
The new four-class system forced some of the best volleyball teams in the state to meet at the regional and sectional level. The problem was not isolated to Chicago, where most of the area’s top 20 Class 3A and 4A teams were wiped out in two sectionals.
In Class 3A, three of the best downstate teams - Morton, Bloomington and Normal U-High - were assigned to the same regional. Class 4A strongholds Collinsville and Edwardsville met in a regional final. There will likely be a push for sub-sectionals to avoid those injustices in the future.
Even many of the supersectionals lack competitiveness. Of the 16 supersectionals throughout the state, the losing team won a game in only six. One of the six was Immaculate Conception, which lost to 1A runner-up Keith Country Day 25-21, 22-25, 28-26.
Naperville Central had a harder time escaping the Naperville North sectional than it did winning its second state title in three years.
Although the four-class system was not among the items being discussed, there were some good ideas being debated by members of the IHSA volleyball advisory committee and coaches at a meeting between Saturday sessions.
Among those ideas was a return to the Tuesday-Thursday sectional format, at least in Class 3A and 4A where travel isn’t always an issue, and playing supersectionals on Saturday. A Tuesday-Thursday sectional format would certainly be more fan- and player-friendly than some of the marathon sectional sessions produced this year.
Playing supersectionals on Saturday would allow more fans to travel. Fewer than 400 fans attended the Pekin supersectional Monday match between Naperville Central and Collinsville.
Of course, Naperville school officials failed to provide a fan bus and early release for students after determining that a supersectional does not constitute a “state tournament” match. No, only the IHSA record books do that.
But some of those same officials sure basked in the glory of the Redhawks’ state championship during the school's pep assembly and in the press.
Brother Paul Ickes of Brother Rice, a new member of the volleyball advisory committee, said he planned to recommend seeding the eight quarterfinalists in boys volleyball, an idea that would be difficult but not impossible to adopt to the four-class girls format.
“We seed regionals and sectionals, so why are the state quarterfinals paired by chance?” he said.
Seeding the final eight teams in girls volleyball might create some travel difficulties, but none that don’t already exist in football where destinations for Chicago-area teams include such exotic locations as East St. Louis. Moving the supersectionals to Saturday would certainly relieve some of the travel concerns.
Seeding the final eight this year also might have allowed Collinsville in 4A and Joliet Catholic in 3A to reach Normal, which might have produced better crowds and better volleyball. Another idea might be to change the assignment process to avoid “loaded” sectionals.
An IHSA official privately admitted that the organization might someday have to look at other factors beside enrollment to create competitive balance among its members. Those factors include geography, school boundaries and access to non-school training opportunities.
While the change might be welcome in some sports like basketball and football where downstate public schools are at a serious disadvantage against non-boundaried Chicago-area private schools, in volleyball terms, Chicago-area schools could be penalized because of their students’ access to clubs.
The IHSA did not release official attendance figures for the two-day tournament, but buoyed by busloads of students looking for release from attending classes, Friday’s early semifinals were well-attended.
A sea of white T-shifted St. Francis students filled lower level sections J and K for the Spartans’ match against Sycamore. Chicago Christian fans also turned out in force including a contingent of purple-clad football players.
However, the media, IHSA officials, players, coaches and vendors nearly outnumbered fans for the Friday evening semifinals, particularly the day’s final game between Naperville Central and Libertyville.
And what would a state tournament be without a lack of communication between tournament officials and participants?
The start of Saturday’s first match, the third-place Class1A game between Deer Creek-Mackinaw and Edwards County, was delayed 20 minutes when both teams failed to report to the arena on time.
Saturday’s morning session, which included two trophy presentations and three two-game matches, took more than five hours. Saturday’s 4A championship between Naperville Central and Mother McAuley, scheduled to begin at 7:45 p.m., started more than a hour late.
Playing continuously throughout Saturday might be one way to avoid starting the final championship match late. Imagine if the 3A title match and third-place 4A match had gone three games? The 4A title game might have tipped off at 9:45 p.m.
Finally, fans from all four 4A teams were annoyed when they were literally “chased” from the building at the conclusion of the trophy presentations. The IHSA wants to hand out more trophies. They just don’t want anybody to enjoy them.