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Well, the pairings are out.

What do you think?

Some of my thoughts on the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s pairings for the first two rounds of the 2020 high school football playoffs. A lot of ground to cover, so here we go:

  • The Class 2A field looks pretty balanced, and along with Class 3A could be the best top to bottom. If Atlantic wins its first round game against either Albia or Des Moines Christian, they’ll be in some very excellent company.

The Trojans have looked strong, especially its line play and defense. A strong post-season run by beating some excellent teams would continue to validate their success.

  • I predicted incorrectly that, in Class 3A, North Scott and the loser of Harlan-Council Bluffs Lewis Central – Harlan won, by the way – would get first-round byes, despite not being district champions. This could be a by-product of geography and that there was no easy way to give either the Lancers or Titans a well-deserved bye.

That said, both teams (are heavy favorites to get out of the first series of games and move to the round of 16. It’d be really neat to get a border-to-border battle – Lewis Central in Pottawattamie County in western Iowa, North Scott in Scott County in eastern Iowa – if both teams make it to the UNI-Dome.

  • While Class 2A is very strong, I’ve often thought of Class 3A as having a reputation of being the strongest class, if not most competitive, from top to bottom.

Speaking of teams that have struggled, I mentioned the possibility that a now-winless team in Class 4A can, by virtue of a win this Friday in a first-round game, could advance.

As it turns out, there are four winless teams playing first-round games, all paired against once-victorious teams. Ottumwa, Davenport West, Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Sioux City West have yet to win this year, and they’ll get their chance against – respectively, all one-winners – Iowa City High, Davenport Central, Ames and Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson.

Like every other class, though, there are some outstanding teams in Class 4A. Ankeny, Iowa City West, Pleasant Valley and Southeast Polk all get to play teams that play this Friday, while teams like West Des Moines Dowling, Cedar Rapids Prairie, Johnston, Urbandale and Waukee will play fresh opponents on Oct. 23.

  • Once the second round of games are completed, the IHSAA will redraw the pods and place the 16 surviving teams in each class into four pods of four teams each.

Some, including the Des Moines Register’s Cody Goodwin, noted that the IHSAA seems willing to, in some cases, send teams traveling for first-round games, as Class 4A bears out. An example: the Cedar Rapids Jefferson-Ames first-rounder, with the J-Hawks making the 100-mile trip west along U.S. 30 to the land of Iowa State University. Additionally, Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln is going to suburban Des Moines for its first-round game, roughly 125 miles.

The idea being, of course, to pare things down enough so the round of 16 has the best teams, just like every other class.

The smaller classes this isn’t so much an issue, at least initially, although there are some good travel distances. For instance in Class 2A, if Albia beats Des Moines Christian, that’s still 100 miles for Albia to come to Atlantic. In eight-man, Bedford has to go to Audubon, an 85 mile trip, 12 more than if it were the crow flying.

Without getting too far ahead of matters, it’s more likely Atlantic’s road to the UNI-Dome goes through Monroe (south of Newton) and second-ranked PCM. Long enough drive at 110 miles, but at least much of it is along Interstate 80.

However ... there’s also the distinct possibility that if Atlantic goes that deep into the post-season, the Trojans might have to go to far northwest Iowa to earn a spot in the semifinal round at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. That’s right, a possible showdown Nov. 6 with one of two top-5-ranked teams – Central Lyon/George-Little Rock of Rock Rapids or Inwood-based West Lyon, the latter as far northwest Iowa as you can get.

This brings about a point I made earlier this year about my concern of teenagers driving – often with three or four of their friends to a car – long distances to away games, often late at night and along sometimes narrow two-lane highways. (This was especially true for Atlantic for the year’s first six games since the Trojan Bowl was still under construction.)

Now, picture a four-hour, 200-mile drive, including 80 miles north of Sioux City along a mostly two-lane U.S. Highway 75, to Lyon County. Assuming a quarterfinal game gets over at 9:30 p.m. and a stop at a McDonald’s or Hardee’s to eat, to get gas and use the restroom at a Casey’s or Kum n’ Go along the way, you’re likely not getting home until 2 a.m. ... or later.

Falling asleep behind the wheel becomes the latest in a myriad of possible concerns: Distracted driving, drunk drivers, harvest traffic, the presence of deer. The list goes on.

Again, no matter if the game is across the state or border-to-border, down the street and around the corner, if it’s teen-agers or adults behind the wheel, please drive safely this post-season. This year’s been hell enough, and nobody wants to write a bunch of posthumous tributes to our youth and have 2020 be even more so.

At least if one of our local teams makes the semifinals – and there’s a strong possibility more than one area team could reach the Cedar Falls promiseland – most of the way is along modern, four-lane highways: Interstates 80 and then 35, and then U.S. Highway 20.

Just beware of road construction, especially if you’re going westbound through Cass County between the Anita and U.S. Highway 71 exits.

  • Going back to a possible North Scott-Council Bluffs Lewis Central border-to-border battle: Wouldn’t it be something if Atlantic (representing southwest Iowa) did make it to the UNI-Dome, and so did either Central Lyon-GLR or West Lyon (northwest Iowa), and then Waukon (from far northeast Iowa)?

You could almost have a “state corners” semifinal for Class 2A.

The only exclusion is going to be be the southeast corner. Central Lee of Donnelson (between Fort Madison and Keokuk) is winless, and is likely to face elimination by a continuous clock margin. Top-ranked Williamsburg, more east-central Iowa, is the huge favorite from that area.

  • In the end, 61 eight-man teams are in the playoffs. Neither Audubon nor CAM were given first-round byes – again, a likely by-product of geography.

Of the initial field of 67 teams, one (Clarksville) dropped its varsity schedule midway through the season. Two southern Iowa teams decided to play an eighth game and call it a year. Three others were eliminated for other reasons.

It is worth noting that eight-man District 8 was especially hit hard by the coronavirus or other health issues at some point. Griswold didn’t play its last two games, at least initially due to health issues not related to COVID-19. Fremont-Mills lost almost half of its regular season. East Union was sidelined for its last game and its quarantine continues into the first weekend of the playoffs, effectively ending their season.

Coaches have, I’m sure, stressed time and again the importance of staying health and making smart choices. While things do happen that are out of anyone’s control, I’m sure that every school’s coach will be stressing things even more now, knowing a positive test and enough thinning of the ranks due to contact tracing will mean an unwanted post-season exit.

  • Could this be the first year of something permanent?

IHSAA administrators said earlier this year this year’s playoff format is to be a one-year thing. But a few years ago, when the field was reduced from 32 to 16 teams, the idea being to stretch out time between games and reduce the chance of injury, there was some pushback. Some coaches and administrators liked the 32-game format and said an eight-game regular season, with Week 9 being the first playoff, would work well.

So is expanded playoffs a possibility? I can’t answer that right offhand. But assuming the Iowa football season goes back to nine weeks in 2021, I could maybe see that happening, with one additional tweak: The teams that don’t make their class’ field of 32 would then get a Week 9, “nothing to lose” regular-season game against a non-qualifier of their choice, from any class, from the pool of non-qualifiers to complete their nine game schedule.

It’ll be interesting to see if the IHSAA chooses to revert or decide that this year’s format was such a success they’ll expand to a 32-team format.

  • The games all start this Friday at 7 p.m. We’ll be at the games – social distancing and with masks, of course! Hope to see you there.

To reach Brian Rathjen, send correspondence to sports@ant-news.com or phone (712) 243-2624.