The excitement in Zak Huston's voice was easy to detect.
Huston learned Tuesday morning the Illinois High School Association member schools approved 11 amendment proposals to their by-laws, including a proposal to implement a district scheduling system for football starting with the 2021 season.
"I'm proud to say today that Illini West is a member of the IHSA," he said. "I think we did right thing."
The district football proposal passed by a vote of 324-307, with 69 schools casting a "no opinion" vote. Voting on the by-law amendment proposals this year was at an all-time high, with 702 of the 818 member schools (85.8 percent) casting a vote on at least one of the proposals.
"It is a historic change," IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a release. "The narrow gap in the voting indicates that there are pros and cons that impact our diverse football-playing membership in a multitude of ways. We hope that it will effectively address conference realignment and scheduling concerns, while helping create long-term sustainability and growth for high school football in the state."
The district football proposal appeared to be in danger of not passing. Nearly 73 percent of schools had participated in straw votes at 28 town hall meetings held throughout the state in November. Anderson said about 53 percent of the votes cast at those meetings did not support the proposal.
"I was optimistic (that the proposal would pass), but as I talked to more and more people, you start having doubts," Quincy Notre Dame athletic director Bill Connell said.
The IHSA will assign football teams to eight- or nine-team districts based on classification and geography. Previously, schools did not officially know their postseason classification until the completion of the regular-season.
For the first time in its history for any sport, the IHSA will assign each school's regular-season games against their district opponents. Districts will be set for two years. Schools will schedule their non-district opponents for any open weeks, but those non-district games will not count toward playoff qualification.
Illini West is a member of the 12-team Prairieland Conference based in the Peoria area, and Huston hopes a few old rivalries against neighboring schools can be played on the non-district openings on the schedule.
"I've heard people say about districts, ‘You're going to lose your rivalries.' No you're not," he said. "You might see other rivalries resume. We'll probably play West Hancock again in a district. We might be able to play Central. We could play Macomb again. We want to get some more local flavor."
The switch to districts will change the playoff system in that the top four teams in each district will qualify for the playoffs. Under the system in effect through the 2020 season, conference champions in eligible conferences and any team that wins six, seven, eight or nine regular-season games automatically qualifies for the field.
However, the format will continue to have eight classes with 32 teams per class in a single-elimination tournament.
The process used by the IHSA to assign schools to regionals and sectionals in other sports will be used to create districts.
Scheduling problems caused by unbridled conference swapping is at the root of why schools voted for district play. Teams have swapped conferences to either join a league where it would be easier to earn five victories to become playoff eligible, or they've joined to large conferences to make sure their nine-game schedules are filled every fall.
Quincy Notre Dame, West Hancock and Macomb can't find a spot in any of those conferences, so they are forced to travel all over the state (or to other states) to find games.
"Hearing this news brings me great happiness," Connell said. "It's going to help us tremendously to put together a schedule.
"As a whole for the state, it may be not be in the best interest of some, but in the big picture, they've made the right decision."
Huston thought the district setup creates a consistent schedule for all schools each year.
"Schools can't be blackballed from a conference," he said. "If you're comfortable in a conference right now, like Illini West, Macomb and West Hancock were (in the West Central Conference) five years ago, I guarantee you that you won't be comfortable five years from now. Something's going to change. A team will drop out, a team will co-op, a team will start to play 8-man football, and that sends ripple effects.
"Now you're not going to have to worry about that."
The Western Big Six Conference is set to add Geneseo and Sterling to create an eight-team league starting in 2019, which in part is why Quincy High School voted against the district proposal, according to athletic director Scott Douglas. The WB6 has teams in multiple classes, so district play will make conference play impossible to continue.
"I would have loved to see what our conference football would have been like with the new teams," he said. "Now we only get two years to see what it looks like."
Douglas said the WB6 schools did not vote as a bloc.
"The conference wasn't completely unified on this topic," he said.
The IHSA didn't announce which weeks on the schedule would be used for non-district games, but assistant executive director Sam Knox said that "it's been a general thought to have them be the first two weeks."
The IHSA also recently announced the classes that each school will play in for all sports for a two-year period starting in 2019-20. District football will begin in the fall of 2021, and the next two-year classification announcement won't be made until December 2020, which means schools can't schedule ahead for several years like they may have before.
"We need to wait until we see where all the non-boundaried schools fall, some schools in the Chicago Public League might choose not to participate (in the IHSA playoffs), and we don't know how many teams might start playing 8-man football," Knox said. "But no one will have an advantage. Everybody will find out at the same time."
Most school officials agree that getting used to district football will take time and patience.
"The quicker we can get questions answered, the better," Connell said. "Trying to get those dates filled in a short time might be challenging, but once we get the rhythm going, it's going to save us a tremendous amount of time."