Upheaval in Illinois high school football: The domino effect of COVID-19 forfeits

How COVID forfeits are shaking up Illinois high school football

Rochester’s Ian Lichtenberger (43) eyes the Loyola Academy offense in the second half at Hoerster Field in Wilmette, Ill., Saturday, September 4, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]
Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

Many Illinois high school football teams this fall have sat at home on Friday nights after opponents forfeited their game because of COVID-19 exposure

The feeling is nothing new. The pandemic postponed last season from fall 2020 to spring 2021 and shortened it from nine games to six — with no postseason. Many teams also missed games in that spring season.

Now schools are missing games again. Football coaches from Springfield, Rockford and Peoria — as well as one of the state's top high school football experts — say current Illinois High School Association policies are leading many teams to take a forfeit win instead of making a concerted effort to find new opponents.

To play or not to play? 

According to IHSA policy, if a football team's opponent must forfeit because of a coronavirus outbreak or a quarantine caused by exposure, the healthy team can either take the forfeit win and lose a game played on the field or find a replacement opponent.

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IHSA executive director Craig Anderson says he is concerned with teams taking forfeits. 

"That’s not what we want,” Anderson said in a phone interview with The State Journal-Register on Sept. 9. “We’d like to see teams finding opportunities for kids to play, that’s really what this is about.” 

State-ranked Rochester lost its Week 2 opponent to COVID-19 protocols and filled it with a game against another state power in Wilmette Loyola Academy, No. 2 in Class 7A. Rochester coach Derek Leonard said he was turned down by six other teams — all of which were either closer to Rochester geographically or by enrollment.

Rochester head football coach Derek Leonard smiles as the Rockets force a fourth down against Sacred Heart-Griffin and take over the ball securing a 45-41 victory at Rocket Booster Stadium in Rochester, Ill., Friday, September 10, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

“I was kind of angry; I’ll be honest,” Leonard said following the Sept. 4 game. “The IHSA, I think they have to look at this. No one would play us. ... I get it, these other teams, because the IHSA rule, they shouldn’t want to play us, they shouldn’t want to play Loyola, I understand that. But I think they (the IHSA) should step up and say, ‘Hey, this is not a good rule for the kids.’”

What about exhibition games?

Football is the only high school sport in Illinois which requires a minimum number of wins (five) to qualify for the postseason. That means some coaches might be judicious in sacrificing a guaranteed win with a potential loss.

Leonard said one solution to the problem would be to allow teams to fill COVID-19 openings with exhibition games. Each team still would receive the forfeit win afforded to them by the loss of the regularly-scheduled game. But scheduling a tougher opponent wouldn’t force teams to sacrifice a possible postseason berth or a higher playoff seed.  

“All other sports, we’ll have all teams qualifying for opportunities to compete in the state series,” the IHSA's Anderson said. “The challenge of football, and only weekly competitions available and make-ups not possible, really has created the circumstance we’re in with playoffs and so on.”  

Anderson added that the IHSA is not prepared to force teams to fill openings when another team is available.  

Background:Rochester football to face Loyola Academy this week after previous game canceled by COVID-19

“It didn’t even cross my mind to demand upon a school that they go find an opponent at any time," Anderson said. "Now, in most years, if you don’t have a game, it doesn’t count as a win or a loss. The uniqueness of this is if they generally had time to go find somebody.”

Rescheduled games also create an unbalanced number of wins and losses, which likely will affect how the playoffs are constructed.

“My question is now, whoever loses that game between the two teams that are picking up to play each other because of the COVID forfeit, well now out of those four teams, three of them have losses,” Springfield Southeast coach Matt Lauber said. “To me, that doesn’t seem fair; that doesn’t seem right.” 

Southeast football head coach Matt Lauber, right, talks to his quarterback during a home game against Lanphier on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

What is the IHSA policy? 

Anderson affirmed that exhibition football games were not an option this fall. He said the board looked at the policy before the season began. The board of directors also discussed it again at the monthly meeting on Sept. 13. They ultimately decided to leave current rules in place. 

“It’s based upon the tradition that when a game is played, that’s a contest that counts,” Anderson said. “Under current practice, until membership for our board would create an adjustment, we don’t have scrimmage contests; every contest counts (in the win-loss record). There are no such things in any of our sports as scrimmages.” 

But language for exhibition football games exists in the IHSA bylaws, but only specifically regarding games lost because of teachers' strikes.  

The 2021-22 IHSA Handbook, section 2.140.3, reads, in part: “A school which has a football game scheduled with a school which is on strike on the Monday preceding the scheduled game shall have the option to cancel the game with the striking school and schedule a game with another school provided it has a pending alternative contract. If this option is exercised, the striking school shall forfeit the scheduled contest and receive a forfeit loss. The non-striking school shall receive a forfeit win and may play the alternate contest, which shall not count as a win or loss for the non-striking school.” 

High school football expert asks 'Why?'

Steve Soucie heads up fridaynightdrive.com, a high school football vertical for the Shaw Media Group. He's one of the state's foremost experts on the the sport and the IHSA playoff system.

“The reason I was given why you can’t have exhibition games or you have to release the forfeit to play that game, is every game — according to (the IHSA) — can only have points assessed to the two opponents in the game,” Soucie said. “My opinion is 'Why?'”

Soucie thinks applying something similar to the teachers' strike rule for the 2021 fall season would help eliminate many of the current scheduling issues. 

“I understand the policy, I just don’t know why it has to be enforced in this particular situation, why every team can only have one result per week,” he said. “Who cares? It’s a computer fix; I could fix it in a half an hour if you told me to do it myself.” 

And Soucie said there’s still time to alter the policy, but he doesn’t expect the IHSA to do so.

“I don’t think it’s too late to fix it,” Soucie said. “Ultimately, I think they will fall back on the position of, ‘There’s not a bylaw for it, so we can’t do anything about it.’” 

Back again:Petersburg PORTA football lost 3 games to COVID. The team is excited to be back

Coaches think exhibitions work

Leonard understands the spirit of the no-exhibitions rule in a normal season, but this is anything but.

“This (pandemic) is such a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Leonard said. “They (the IHSA) talk about the (Do What’s Right sportsmanship) program for the kids, and this is just so wrong by them and (the IHSA won’t change its policy) just because you have a rule which doesn’t help the kids.

“I get it, you shouldn’t have exhibitions (in normal seasons) but man, get the kids out there playing nine games and keep the system kind of the same.”

Lauber added players wouldn’t take an exhibition game any less seriously.  

“Let’s say we go play somebody (as an exhibition) because someone else is out with COVID, the kids are going to play as hard as they can, they still want to win, they still want to compete,” Lauber said. “Even if it would count as an exhibition game, you’re still going to see kids compete. As coaches, we’re going to try to execute and have our kids get better. That’s what’s frustrating.

"I think it solves a lot, I think it helps. I don’t think you should penalize a team for going and playing because they had a COVID forfeit. If they lose the game, they got penalized.”

Southeast’s Tyrin Currie (7) tries to bring down Sacred Heart-Griffin's Kole Kersting (58) after he picks up a fumble on his way for a touchdown in the second half at Ken Leonard Field in Springfield, Ill., Friday, September 3, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Openings go unfilled 

Soucie keeps a spreadsheet with every football result across the state. According to him, Week 1 had 11 forfeit losses, 10 forfeit wins, two games that were double-forfeits and four opponents picked up new games. Some of those might have been open dates and not necessarily through COVID-19 cancellations, he said.

The numbers spiked in Week 2: 20 forfeit losses, 11 teams took forfeit wins and seven teams were able to schedule a replacement game. In Week 3, there were 16 forfeit losses, eight wins by forfeit and eight teams created a replacement game.

As of Wednesday last week, Soucie said six teams had announced they wouldn’t play in Week 4, including Jacksonville, which lost a game against Springfield Lanphier.

Jacksonville athletic director Ryan Van Aken said in an email last week he waited until Tuesday morning to find a replacement opponent. On Tuesday, Van Aken confirmed his school did not find a new opponent.

Peoria Notre Dame had a Week 3 opening after Big 12 Conference opponent Urbana forfeited its season due to low numbers. Ultimately, the Irish took a forfeit victory after being unable to secure a team prior to a self-imposed deadline.

"If we can get a Week 3 game, we probably will take it if we can," PND coach Pat Armstrong said after its Week 2 game. "It's kind of hard, because you're looking at probably some type of Chicago, northern Chicago, some COVID school. ... 

"The last thing we want to do is try to prepare for a game on Wednesday and say we're going to play Friday night. That would be awful." 

Peoria Notre Dame players huddle before the kickoff of Friday night’s game with Richwoods.

Springfield Southeast also sat at home when Decatur MacArthur forfeited its Week 3 game.  

“We didn’t really find a whole lot of geographical fit,” Lauber said. “People reached out to me with certain things, and we didn’t find a whole lot of fits in terms of where it would be to where our kids could go and play. It was kind of a weird week, too, because there weren’t that many who were out in our area.” 

Sometimes, a cancellation is made so late that it’s next to impossible to schedule something in its place. Hours before Springfield Lanphier’s Week 3 scheduled game on Sept. 10 against Normal U-High, Springfield Public School District 186 put out a statement that four players on the Lions had tested positive for COVID-19 and the team would be under a mandatory quarantine.

U-High had no time to find an opponent. 

Playoff points altered 

While the IHSA policy doesn't incentivize teams to find a new opponent, problems also arise when new games are created.  

To become playoff eligible in Illinois, teams need to win five or more of their nine games. But if the 256-team playoff field — eight classes with 32 teams each — is filled without using all five-win teams, the IHSA determines tiebreakers using opponent wins, commonly referred to as “playoff points.” 

Week 4:The top performances from Week 4 Illinois high school football in the Springfield area

When an opponent of a forfeited team finds a new game, the forfeited team loses that playoff point. It’s as if that team had an eight-game (or even less) schedule. Even if a team with a forfeit during the season wins the minimum number of games to be playoff eligible, it may not have enough points to be selected for the postseason field.  

Playoff points determine which teams advance to the postseason, and also help determine seeds among all teams with the same record in each class.

In a closed, 10-team league, such as the Central State Eight Conference, every win by a team during the nine-week schedule becomes a point for the other nine teams.  

“Rochester went and played Loyola, and as a conference, that hurts us because now we don’t get an extra (playoff point),” Lauber said. “And nothing against Derek — that’s commendable — but everybody in our conference lost a (playoff) point.” 

The Rockets are a state power, winners of eight state championships since they joined the CS8 in 2010. Leonard said he felt it was important for his players to have a game.  

“They’ve been sitting out all this time and that’s why, honestly, we took (the game) because I thought it was great for the kids,” Leonard said. “I knew it was going to be hard. It was an experience. Man, they’ll never get this (again).” 

Soucie said some teams are even withholding their plans to forfeit until later in the week in order to preserve their playoff point and prevent an opponent from rescheduling. 

“There’s no advantage to a school saying on Tuesday, ‘Guys, we’re not going to be able to play on Friday.’ And actually, it’s a hindrance to admitting you’re not going to be able to play, because if you don’t tell them and they don’t get another game, you get to keep them on your schedule, and you get to keep your points,” Soucie said.  

“But if you do tell them and they do find another game, they get removed. ... That’s why a team forfeiting a game may be reluctant to admit they are forfeiting a game because there is no incentive for them telling their opponent — it’s actually a deterrent.  

“As soon as I found out about it, I called (IHSA football director) Sam Knox and I said, ‘This is the policy, right?’ He confirmed it was the policy, and I said, ‘You’re sure about this?’ 

Looking for an edge 

Theoretically, a team can make the playoffs through forfeit wins alone. A team could also jeopardize a postseason berth by refusing an automatic forfeit win and then losing in a newly-scheduled game. 

When Southeast didn’t fill its Week 3 hole, the Spartans’ record grew to 2-1 (Southeast lost to Normal U-High on Friday and dropped to 2-2). If four-win teams do qualify for the postseason this year, Southeast is halfway there with five games left. Since 2002, the Spartans have qualified for the playoffs just once — 2014, Lauber’s first season.

Jacksonville is 2-2 after taking the forfeit win against winless Lanphier, a game in which the Crimsons would have been favored. But if Jacksonville had scheduled a different opponent and lost, the Crimsons would face a difficult challenge to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Soucie says some teams, especially those on the playoff bubble, just aren’t making enough of a concerted effort to fill openings. 

“It varies from program to program,” Soucie said. “Derek (Leonard) was willing to play on the moon if he had to. The majority of the programs are more concerned about the rule that takes away their ‘W,’ and they don’t want to risk getting to the end of the season and having rescheduled that game and finished 4-5 because of it ... rather than playing a team on the make-up that was maybe a little above their reach. Instead if they would’ve stayed home and not done anything, they’d be 5-4 and in the playoffs. 

“Your bubble programs are the ones — and they’re the same teams every year — are the ones going, ‘I’m not going to try real hard to schedule another game unless I can get a cookie.’ They’re not saying it like that, but there are some schools that have been very selective in the process. They want to play, but they only want to play if it’s a team they definitely feel they’re going to beat.” 

Rockford affected in the spring

Rochester isn’t the only school to risk a forfeit win to play a top-caliber opponent.

In the spring, Machesney Park Harlem coach Bob Moynihan put his perfect record on the line and scheduled a tough opponent in Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge.

Harlem eked out a 43-42 last-second victory to earn its first-ever state ranking in the final poll, No. 3 in Class 7A, as the Huskies (6-0) had their first perfect season in school history. There were no playoffs in the spring — that game sort of was the Huskies’ playoffs — but Moynihan said he would have scheduled it even if Harlem was on the playoff bubble. 

More:How Williamsville football ended up with a Wisconsin school as its Week 1 opponent

“The kids know when you are trying to back into something, and they don’t respect that,” Moynihan said. “Kids are resilient. They think they can play against anybody. It behooves you as a coach to play whoever you can get because of those factors. If you dodge somebody, your kids don’t think you have faith in them.” 

Harlem's head coach Bob Moynihan walks along the sidelines during the game against Hononegah in the first quarter of their NIC-10 game at Harlem High School Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Machesney Park.

Williamsville also had an opening in Week 1 when Sangamo Conference opponent Petersburg PORTA had to cancel. The Bullets — on a 20-game win streak which included the 2019 Class 3A state championship — traveled to LaSalle to play a game against Union Grove (Wis.). Williamsville lost.

“Let the kids play," Rochester's Leonard said, "then everything would be legit: the playoff points, the win-losses will be more of the same if one team wins and one team loses.

"In the end, it doesn’t get kids out there playing, and that should be the whole point of this right now. You have to make it so they can get out on the field.” 

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR. Matt Trowbridge of the Rockford Register Star and Adam Duvall of the Peoria Journal Star contributed to this story.