By Mike Considine
This isn't a column to criticize the IHSA for assigning five of the top 10 teams in the state -- and seven who had a least an outside chance of qualifying for the state meet -- to the same sectional.
It's really not.
The reason is because the IHSA (almost) corrected half of the major dilemma it's faced for the last decade or so. Of course, it was a dilemma of the organization's own making. But that's not the issue at hand. Examining what can be done to fix the rest of the dilemma is what this is all about.
First, the half that the IHSA sort of rectified with a couple of moves this year (as long as it's willing to make one or two of them in reverse in the next couple of years).
For years, I've said that what the IHSA needed to do to make things more fair and equitable in terms of sending worthy teams to state was to combine the northern two sectionals (this year, they're at Stevenson and Niles North) and the southern two (Lake Park and Hinsdale Central) and distribute the traditional best teams evenly between the two. Then re-evaluate the relative strengths of teams every two to four years and reassign teams as necessary to maintain relative competitive balance.
We at SGS have been making the data available to do exactly that for eight years now. The last four years are posted on the website in the form of state rankings by regional and sectional scores. OK, this year's aren't there yet, but the regional rankings should be in the next day or so.
I don't have time to do a complete analysis until right now, since making the regional and sectional results available to you is a higher priority to my colleague Bill Stone and myself. But there's a graphic on the SGS homepage in a color somewhat close to burgundy that gives you an idea of the imbalance of power between this year's sectionals. Well get to that in a second or two.
Let's give the IHSA and the gymnastics advisory board a pat on the back first.
In our view, the sectional
complex shouldn't merely be designed to get the best teams to state. It's also
important for the entire 16-team field to be as balanced as possible, so the
135- to 138-point teams out there have an equal chance of qualifying for
sectionals and the individuals in each sectional have a roughly equal chance of
qualifying to sectionals and state regardless at any of the other three
sectional complexes. Sure, it's a Utopian concept, but it's just the ideal we'd
like to see the IHSA strive for, not the expected result.
Let's consider the sectionals held Tuesday at Lake Park and Thursday at Hinsdale Central. Traditionally, the one at Lake Park has been a little deeper and the one at Hinsdale Central has been a little stronger at the top. The offseason moves between those sectionals were to move the Naperville-Aurora-Oswego area schools from the Lake Park Sectional to the one at Hinsdale Central and some of the middle-of-the pack teams (at least one of which usually qualified for sectionals each year) from Hinsdale Central to Lake Park.
The, let's call them Naperville region, teams swung the balance of power a bit too heavily to Hinsdale Central. But, hey, that's part of the cost of doing business. As long as it balances out over time, which it can with some minor tweaking, then I don't believe most people would have a problem.
Up north, we've got a problem. Or maybe it's a travesty.
Not only is the Stevenson Sectional significantly stronger in every way I could measure than its counterpart at Niles North, when it begins tonight it's going to set in motion a chain of events that I believe will impact all of the other sectionals.
Now it's time to get numerical.
We'll start with the simplest, easiest to digest math to illustrate our point. In the Stevenson Sectional, the highest-scoring team in the state that didn't qualify for a sectional put up a 140.725. You could point out that Libertyville didn't perform up to its usual standards. However, if the Wildcats were assigned to a sectional about 15 miles (or less) to the south, they'd still have a theoretical chance to qualify for state as the third seed at Niles North. It's worth noting that Libertyville has ranked in the top 10 in every statistical category we measure (except the improvement rankings) every week this season.
I don't necessarily mean to single out Libertyville, no matter how much sympathy I feel for the team right now, but to zero in on the point that it shouldn't take a 143.55 to qualify for state in one sectional when it takes a 129.00 to qualify in an adjacent sectional. It's an indication that the system we're currently operating under is intrinsically unfair (by the way, the qualifying cut was 132.925 at Lake Park and currently is 136.40 at Hinsdale Central. Which is a reversal of roles. Again, MINOR tweaking is needed).
It also indicates to me, because of the proximity factor, it should be easy to fix when there's been a big disparity between the strength of the two sectionals. And there has. It's just wider than it ever should be this year.
As for the graphic on the SGS homepage, what it shows is not only that it's rough at the top in the Stevenson Sectional, but it's also the roughest throughout. Averaging the rankings for the 16 teams assigned to Stevenson as of Sectional Seeding Day, produced a norm of 22.75. That means that the average team at Stevenson ranked about 23rd among the 64 IHSA-sanctioned teams this year (keep in mind that 24 teams qualify for sectionals each year). The average ranking for the Hinsdale Central and Lake Park sectionals was in the 32 range. The average ranking for the Niles North Sectional was 39.313, or roughly 16.5 points lower.
To further illustrate the point, nine of the state's top 24 teams by sectional seeding formula on Jan. 12 were assigned to Stevenson. So what happened to Libertyville and Barrington (despite scoring 139.45 in the Lake Forest Regional) inevitably was going to happen to a couple of teams in that sectional. Hinsdale Central and Lake Park each have six teams rated in the top 24. Niles North has three.
In fairness, Niles North sectional qualifiers Prospect and New Trier have raised their performance level since then -- but so have Stevenson qualifiers Prairie Ridge/District 155 co-op and Palatine. None of that has lessened the disparity.
Before we get to the IHSA concept of regional representation, let's take a guess at how things will play out this week to show why it's not good to have a disproportionately strong as the first one that's going to be contested during Sectional Week.
We all know that the scores tend to be tight early in the week so that the judges have somewhere to go with their scores to reward outstanding performances later in the week -- and that's done to ensure that the best teams and gymnasts get to state. We're not giving away secrets here.
The fallout will be that there will be more pressure on four of the state's five top-ranked teams and their counterparts tonight than their would be under a more equitable system. The margin for error will be slim. But, unless I miss my guess, that's going to be true at Lake Park Tuesday and Hinsdale Central Wednesday, too.
There's such an outstanding collection of individual (and collective) talent at Stevenson, that the judges are going to be forced to loosen the lid on those scores a little bit. So I expect that the only realistic response they can make is to clamp down the next two nights.
If or when this happens, don't blame the judges. Their hands will be tied. With a state-caliber sectional at the start of Sectional Week, they've got an ominous task ahead of them.
It says here that the simple solution to this is to study the two northern sectionals during the off season, see which teams are traditionally most powerful and even out the strength of the sectionals. For kid's sake.
That isn't the solution I'd recommend, but it's the most likely to be palatable to the IHSA. After all, they've already unwittingly attempted to do it by shifting the Naperville area schools in the southern sectionals.
Why the long word in the previous paragraph?
Well, when I did a column about a similarly imbalanced situation in cross country five years ago, the words I heard from the IHSA official in charge of the sport (and the organization's party line) indicated that it could never happen, no matter how much sense it might make. The IHSA official told me, and the coaches, that the organization doesn't have an interest in getting the eight best teams to its state meets. Priority No. 1 for the IHSA is, and has always been, (say it along with me coaches) REGIONAL REPRESENTATION.
My response is that the precedent already has been set to throw away that concept, which no longer makes a lot of sense downstate where there can be 100 miles or more between Class 3A or 4A schools. In gymnastics at the present time, literally all of the teams are from the extended (to include newcomer DeKalb) Chicago area. Therefore, REGIONAL REPRESENTATION should be a minor consideration.
In my eyes, it already is.
As proof I offer the example of South Elgin/Bartlett/Streamwood co-op, which the IHSA shipped past closer sectionals this year at Lake Park (the one that made sense) and Hinsdale Central (unjustifiable in any way except proximity) to Niles North. That's about a 2 1/2-hour bus ride. To add insult to injury, the fourth-year program was assigned to the New Trier Regional, literally the entire width of the Chicago area away (and then about 10 miles north).
When I did the cross country column, literally every coach I asked said he was willing to be shipped as far away as Rockford if it helped bring about a better system. My guess is that gymnastics coaches would feel the same way.
If that doesn't work for the
sport, then why not borrow from boys gymnastics?
In boys gymnastics, the top teams are seeded according to strength before the sectional bids are issued. Then the remaining teams are assigned geographically (or at least as the IHSA perceives geography). It's not a perfect system, but several years in, I've not heard many complaints that it's unfair.
Regardless of which system is adopted, I think it's time for the gymnastics community to demand change that it can believe in.
The good news is that the problems can be fixed and a better system can be in place in time for next year's state meet (as has hopefully been done with merging the state prelims into one session). Unfortunately, that's not much consolation for Libertyville senior Leah Herchenbach and her teammates. Or any of the state-worthy teams at Stevenson whose seasons will end tonight.
The math tells us there's likely to be at least one, if not two, if they perform anywhere near as well as they did at their regional.
Meanwhile, I guess we can all sit back and watch to see whether one of the sectional teams that doesn't quite get an at-large berth outscores one of the sectional champions.