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Prep football: Iowa tightens playoff qualification rules

Where do you draw the line in deciding who's in and who's out in high school football playoff competition? The question, once decided, never seems to be really decided in states that hover between two philosophies. On the one hand, it's all about...

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Where do you draw the line in deciding who’s in and who’s out in high school football playoff competition?

The question, once decided, never seems to be really decided in states that hover between two philosophies.

On the one hand, it’s all about inclusion. The high school athletic experience is enhanced when more, rather than fewer, participants are exposed to state tournament competition.

On the other hand, some say, if state tournament exposure is made too easy, the entire experience is cheapened.

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What’s a state to do?

This football season, the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) will go with a new playoff format, cutting the number of state qualifiers from 32 to 16. It’s actually an “old” format. The number was set at 32 since 2008, and bringing it back to 16 returns it to the levels of 1984 to 2008.

What it means is that teams with records under .500 will no longer make it to the postseason. District champs and district runners-up will still qualify automatically, and two wild card teams will be added to the mix.

Even though Iowa is moving toward more exclusivity, until this year the system was still more exclusive than the way things continue to be done in Minnesota. Qualifying the top four teams from each district occasionally rewarded teams with sub-.500 records, but not regularly.

In Minnesota, teams with 1-7 and 0-8 records routinely get into the postseason scrum, usually with disastrous results since they are paired with top seeds in the first round of the tournaments.

Minnesota’s inclusive system remains in place for 2016.

But in Iowa, the new changes are being met with skepticism from Harris-Lake Park head coach Lane Gunderson.

“I don’t care for it from where we’re at. We’ve got some really good teams here,” Gunderson said. “I think teams up here are so strong, we could possibly leave out some teams that have a chance.”

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Two years ago, in fact, Harris-Lake Park qualified a playoff team that finished fourth in its district but defeated the No. 1 team in the first round of the postseason.

Under the former rules, Gunderson said, even the lower-seeded playoff teams had a realistic chance of winning at least one postseason game. In some years, key injuries turn a talented team into an average one during the regular season, but with the team finally healthy at playoff time it can show what it’s really made out of.

The driving change to the 2016 changes, Gunderson said, was that the Iowa football leadership received “a lot of heat” about having to schedule three games in about 11 days. The playoff season became a safety issue.

Back when Gunderson was a high school player, he recalled, Iowa playoff qualification was even more stringent. Back then, it was even possible for 8-1 teams to miss the extra season.

No team can complain about being left out in Minnesota. What happened in southwest Minnesota in 2015, for instance, was typical.

In Minnesota, the more the merrier

In Section 3A, eighth-seeded Russell-Tyler-Ruthton went up against top-seeded Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in the first round of the playoffs and lost 44-14. R-T-R lost to T-M-B during the regular season, too, 55-12, and finished the year with an 0-9 record.

In another first-round Section 3A game, Adrian (the second seed) beat Sleepy Eye 33-6. Sleepy Eye also finished 0-9.

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In Section 3-Nine Man, top-seeded Hills-Beaver Creek, which beat Heron Lake-Okabena 46-6 in a regular season game, beat HL-O again to start the postseason, 58-28. HL-O finished the year 1-8.

Elsewhere in Section 3-Nine Man, No. 2 Madelia beat No. 7 Fulda 60-6. Fulda, a 66-14 loser to Madelia in the regular season, finished 1-8.

In Section 3AA, top-seeded Pipestone Area -- which later played in the state championship game against Caledonia -- opened the playoffs against eighth-seeded and winless Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop to the tune of a 56-0 result.

In Minnesota as in Iowa, opinions vary on how state football qualifiers should be determined. Patrick Freeman, head coach of the Murray County Central Rebels, who went 2-7 in 2015, says he can see other sides to the issue. But he believes it’s generally better competitively for teams to finish the season with teams of comparative ability.

Freeman favors a cut-off so where the least competitive teams are allowed to lick their wounds and look forward to next year rather than get paired in the playoffs against powerful first-round opponents. It’s an idea he’d like to see considered by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL).

“It makes it something that you need to earn. I definitely think the idea should be discussed and talked about,” Freeman said. “That’s what the regular season is kind of for, too, that you should have to prove what you can do.”

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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