Inside the IHSAA offices during Week 9 of the Iowa high school football season
BOONE — The sun has set by the time Week 9 of the high school football season begins. The schedule features 115 games on this Friday night (Oct. 21), all with some level of importance to those here inside the Iowa High School Athletic Association offices.
Jared Chizek, the IHSAA’s football administrator, sits in a large conference room looking at an Excel sheet.
It lists all 36 of Iowa’s Class 5A football teams, their records, and is programmed with the IHSAA’s RPI formula, the three-part equation that determines a team’s overall position within the class. Because the RPI determines all 16 playoff teams for Class 5A, every result impacts every other team’s position, in one form or another.
All Chizek has to do is enter whether a game result and Excel calculates all the RPI numbers. He spends part of Friday evening punching in various results to see how it impacts Iowa high school football’s playoff pictures in real time. He calls this his “fun file.”
Here’s a weird one: Urbandale began the night 5-3 and 18th in the RPI. A win over Waukee Northwest moves the J-Hawks to 6-3 but wouldn’t guarantee a playoff berth. They’d need West Des Moines Valley and Ankeny Centennial to both lose … but Northwest could finish 4-5 and still qualify because they played Class 5A’s toughest schedule.
Here’s another: If the results break just right, all of Class 5A could have first-round games featuring central Iowa teams against others from around the state, meaning the quarterfinal round might feature only central Iowa teams. Imagine the statewide reaction to that one.
Chizek has a “fun file” each for Class 5A, 4A and 3A, since the RPI helps partly decide the 4A and 3A playoff qualifiers, too. He and the rest of the IHSAA staff have used them to figure out various playoff scenarios in preparation for Week 9.
More: Iowa high school football: Here are all the Round-of-16 and quarterfinal playoff pairings
It’s just after 7 p.m. Games have kicked off, and as they unfold the IHSAA staff trickles into this large conference room and spends all night collecting scores and constructing the postseason puzzles, culminating first with a list of playoff qualifiers for 5A, 4A, and 3A, then with the Round-of-16 pairings for all classes released on Saturday morning.
At the Register’s request, the IHSAA allowed a reporter a front-row seat on the inside to experience the madness. The schedule was full, with regular-season finales and first-round playoff games all on tap. A lot was in play regarding postseason positioning — and by extension, what the Round-of-16 pairings and quarterfinal pods will look like.
So Chizek’s “fun file” got plenty of run over the next few hours as games across the state ebbed and flowed, giving the staff a sense of what each postseason field looked like as the night progressed.
The large conference room is essentially the IHSAA’s high school football war room on this night.
There are two large dry-erase boards on the back wall. One is dedicated to 5A, 4A, and 3A playoff scenarios, with the list of teams all still in contention written out. As games go final, eliminated teams are erased and auto-qualifiers are circled. This gives them a visual of who advances and who could host first-round games next week.
The other white board is for Class 2A, 1A, A and 8-Player, where they list first-round winners and separate them by district. Another visual aid. District champs who win in the Round-of-32 will host again, but they can’t play the teams that took second in their own district next round — but they can play the team that took third.
A TV sits in the far corner where Chris Andringa, a Sheldon native and freelance sports statistician who assists the IHSAA, hooked up his laptop. He pulls up various streams of different games across the state throughout the night. The Johnston-Ames game is currently streaming. Big game, Chizek notes. Winner will host a first-round matchup.
Andringa, Chizek and Tom Keating, the IHSAA’s executive director, are the only ones in the room for the first two hours. They watch games, follow scores, discuss potential pairing scenarios. Keating, who also has one eye on Game 3 between the Phillies and Padres, jokes that coaches have texted him asking where they’re headed next week.
The conversation picks up as updates come in.
Chizek scribbled out his best guess at the final 5A RPI rankings, assuming the higher-rated teams all win their matchups on this Friday. They like the idea of a true-seeded tournament, where 1 plays 16, 2 plays 15, on and on. The visual of what the final 5A RPI might look like allows them to think about potential pairings as the night goes.
Dubuque Senior takes an early 7-0 lead on Cedar Falls.
“So much for projections,” Chizek says, laughing. (Cedar Falls rallies for a 24-14 win.)
Pleasant Valley and Iowa City West are tied 14-14 at half. What happens if the Spartans lose? Chizek pulls up the fun file. Pleasant Valley would stay at 4 and Southeast Polk would actually drop from 2 to 3. The Spartans prevail 35-14 to go 9-0, so the Rams stay at 2, behind Dowling Catholic and ahead of Ankeny.
Class 5A is an obvious draw, but the white boards reveal the chaos that looms in the smaller classes, too.
In Class 4A, Pella, at 2-6, can still finish as District 4’s runner-up. The Dutch began the night 26th in the RPI, so an auto-bid is their only way in. They do their part in trouncing Cedar Rapids Washington 47-14, but they also need Clear Creek Amana to beat Newton. Wouldn’t that be something?
In Class 3A, Atlantic, an RPI bubble team, plays Creston. The Trojans need a win plus some help because of the weirdness coming out of Districts 1, 4, and 5. Davenport Assumption, another bubble team, won on Thursday, and currently sits 13th in the RPI before the other scores come in. Atlantic ties it 14-14 at half.
Around 8:45 p.m., Andy Umthun, the former Ankeny athletic director who joined the IHSAA this year, and Chris Cuellar, a former Des Moines Register reporter who’s now the IHSAA’s communications director, both walk in. Keating pumps his fist as the Phillies take a 3-1 lead in the fourth.
Cuellar is holding a large drink from Scooter’s Coffee. It’s going to be a late night.
The energy picks up around 9 p.m. as games go final. Everybody shouts final scores they find from reputable Twitter sources. Coaches and athletic directors text and call with more. Andringa finds the streams of close games. Southeast Warren executes a double-reverse touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and beats East Mills 38-32.
Atlantic scores late and holds on to beat Creston 26-21. The Trojans finished third in 3A’s District 6, ahead of Creston but behind Harlan and ADM. Andringa plugs the result into his own Class 3A RPI sheet. For the time being, Atlantic jumps to 14th and is safely in the playoffs.
Dowling Catholic beats Waukee 43-7 to secure 5A’s top spot. Davenport West tops Muscatine 35-13 for their first playoff berth since 1999. Some athletic directors call in scores, then lobby for their teams to travel to certain parts of the state for their first-round games so as to avoid playing certain teams for an easier postseason path.
Newton beats CCA, ending Pella’s auto-bid dream, but chaos ensues. In Class 3A’s District 1, Carroll beats Sergeant Bluff-Luton 24-19, then Sioux Center beats MOC-Floyd Valley 21-20 to win the district outright — and because MOC-Floyd Valley beat Sergeant Bluff-Luton 27-26 in double-overtime in Week 6, they end up second anyway.
More results. Johnston thumps Ames to secure a home playoff game. North Polk beats Nevada 35-14, forcing the RPI to decide Class 3A’s District 2 champ (Humboldt). The Phillies beat the Padres to take a 2-1 series lead. OABCIG wins 29-23 over Unity Christian and the staff refers to them as “Ida Grove” the whole time.
More: Here are the top performers from Week 9 of Iowa high school football
As scores roll in, Cuellar and Chizek constantly update the white boards. Cuellar lets out a small cheer at 9:55 p.m. All 2A scores are in.
More consequential games are finishing. Grinnell rallies from down 20-7 to beat Fairfield 27-20 and earn an auto-bid. Central DeWitt beats Benton 21-14 in overtime, forcing the RPI to break a three-way tie for the District 4 runner-up. Linn-Mar secures a playoff berth with a surprising 28-13 win over Cedar Rapids Prairie.
A phone rings with another score. Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson beat Des Moines Hoover 9-7. Both teams finish 1-8.
“Somewhere, that impacts something or someone,” Andringa says, and everybody laughs.
By 10:08 p.m., all the Class A scores are in. At 10:16, all 5A scores are in (Northwest beat Urbandale 20-7). Bettendorf and Waterloo West are the last to report. Both finish 3-6. Bettendorf will miss the postseason for the first time since 1997, but, again, all 16 playoff teams in 5A are decided by the RPI, so these results both matter.
By 10:21 p.m., all scores from 1A are in, and the final 3A and 4A scores quickly follow. Cuellar calls a few athletic directors to track down 8-Player scores. Montezuma beat Iowa Valley 44-42. Iowa Valley returned a fumble for a touchdown to lead late, then Montezuma drew up one big play and kicked a field goal to win and advance.
At 10:31 p.m, every score from all 115 games are in, so everybody gathers around the white boards to look at the final district standings and automatic qualifiers. Andringa and Chizek both pull up their separate RPI sheets and start plugging in results. In walks Todd Tharp, another IHSAA assistant director who was working in another room.
In Class 2A, three teams from Districts 3 and 5 advance to the Round-of-16. In Class A, Districts 1 and 7 both get three teams through. Bedford, an at-large bid in 8-Player, puts a scare into undefeated West Harrison, but the Hawkeyes ultimately win 29-27. Of the 64 first-round playoff games in the four smallest classes, 16 were decided by one score.
Class 1A isn’t nearly as interesting. All the district champs and runners-up advance.
“The chalkiest chalk,” Cuellar says.
Attention goes back to the larger classes — specifically, 4A and 3A. Once all the district champs and runners-up are decided, Andringa and Chizek pull up their updated RPI lists — the actual files, not the fun ones. They double-check to make sure everything matches (it does), then go over the final results to see who earned playoff bids.
Class 5A goes mostly as expected. At the top: Dowling, Southeast Polk, Ankeny, Pleasant Valley. Prairie drops to 7 after the loss to Linn-Mar. Johnston climbs to 5 and Cedar Falls to 6, but Cedar Falls beat the Dragons in Week 1, so they flip. Davenport West is the last team in at .5499 — well ahead of Waukee, the first team out at .5232.
In Class 4A, No. 9 Western Dubuque and No. 10 Indianola are separated by two hundred-thousandths of a point (.59487 to .59485). Marion jumped to 16 after beating Waterloo East 42-13, but Cedar Rapids Washington finished 17th. Washington beat Marion 41-13 in Week 2, so they flip. The Warriors get the final playoff spot. Brutal.
With all the Class 3A scores in, Assumption slipped from 13th earlier in the night to 15th now. Atlantic went from 14th to 16th. Grinnell and MOC-Floyd Valley finish 17th and 18th, respectively, but earned auto-bids because they finished second in their districts. They’re in over Assumption and Atlantic.
Cuellar looks over the final 3A RPI list again. It’s impossible to know with all the math involved, but he reckons that Central DeWitt’s overtime win over Benton pushed out both Assumption and Atlantic. It solidified the Sabers’ at-large spot at 13, whereas a loss might’ve dropped them far enough down to help both Assumption and Atlantic.
“That DeWitt result shook up a lot,” Cuellar says. “That’s wild.”
The staff feels for Atlantic. The Trojans won their last three games to climb from 22nd to 16th in the RPI and finish 5-4 overall. Their Week 9 win ensured a third-place finish in District 6, ahead of Creston but behind Harlan and ADM.
But Creston finished 10th in the RPI to earn an at-large bid. Atlantic will stay home.
“That’s a hard one to explain,” Tharp says.
By 10:58 p.m., Cuellar has made up formal PDF documents for the final RPI rankings and playoff qualifiers and has typed out the results from the first-round playoff games. He asks others to review to make sure everything looks correct and clean.
At 11:05 p.m., he gets the all-clear: “We’re going live,” he says.
The list of qualifiers and winners are posted on the IHSAA website. They share the links on their social media accounts.
“First retweet comes from Andy Unthum,” Cuellar says, “and he’s in the room!”
Unthum laughs: “Gotta get it out to the masses.”
🏈Final RPI and #iahsfb playoff qualifiers are in for 5A, 4A, and 3A! Matchups at 10 a.m. tomorrow. https://t.co/cwMb3wvGrf— IHSAA (@IHSAA) October 22, 2022
They all take a minute to relax. Those exhilarating four hours were really the easy part. The hard part comes next: deciding the actual playoff pairings.
They head to another conference room on the other side of the building, one they call the “map room” — which, as the name suggests, has large maps of Iowa, another visual aid to see where all the qualifying teams are located compared to one another. That's a factor in deciding the pairings, but how large of a factor varies by class.
On their way down the hall, they joke about testing Unthum’s knowledge on all of Iowa’s small towns. Initiation for the new guy. Twitter is on fire with the list of qualifiers and pairing possibilities. Everybody's phone pings, including some with messages from coaches and parents wanting an explanation about why their teams didn't qualify.
This is where the front-row seat experience ends, unfortunately.
The map room is where the good stuff happens — where they decide the Round-of-16 games and four-team quarterfinal pods. But not even board members or well-connected administrators are allowed in the map room for this meeting.
This will be the IHSAA’s second trip to the map room in as many weeks. They spent Friday, Oct. 14 deciding the Round-of-32 matchups for the small classes. Cuellar says they finished around 1:55 a.m. that night. They anticipate finishing around 2:30-3 a.m. this time, since seven classes takes longer than four.
“We need to be done by 7,” Tharp says as he walks into the map room, “because I need to be in Johnston for a meeting in the morning.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.