Why some IHSA basketball regionals are so much tougher than others — and how to fix it

Richwoods coach Todd Hursey gives his player some pointers as they battle Peoria High Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 at Richwoods High School.
Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

There are 141 girls basketball schools in the Illinois High School Association Class 3A playoffs. Six of the top 20 according to MaxPreps will start out in the same nine-team Peoria sub-sectional.

“It is ridiculous how loaded it is,” Peoria Richwoods coach Todd Hursey said.

Every corner of the state seems to have its own outlier.

In Rockford, the vast majority of NUIC powers get clumped into two Class 1A regionals each year, while the other two regionals are far less loaded. In Springfield in Class 2A, top-five ranked Petersburg PORTA (26-1) and Pleasant Plains (22-6) are in the same regional and No. 7 Sacred Heart-Griffin often gets thrown in with No. 1 state-ranked Quincy Notre Dame.

“No way we should drive two hours to Quincy when Quincy has 20 teams around them,” Sacred Heart Griffin coach Steve Klunick said.

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How the IHSA decides its regionals

The “overriding principle that has always guided us is geography,” said Kurt Gibson, the association's associate executive director. “People have always been clustered at the beginning with people in their area.”

But there is more to it than geography.

The IHSA uses a formula that considers how good teams are and where they are located. It then divides the eight sectionals in each class into four regionals, but seeds half of those sectionals from top to bottom while dividing the others in half before they seed.

That’s how you get six strong teams crammed into two 3A Peoria regionals. Or four 20-win teams in last year’s Stockton Regional that saw top-10 ranked teams Orangeville and River Ridge/Scales Mound both lose in the first round. Orangeville (24-4) has another tough road this year, paired in the same regional with Lena-Winslow (22-8) and Morrison (21-8).

Orangeville junior Whitney Sullivan, shown driving against Pecatonica on Jan. 22, 2022, is a 6-foot-3 wing whose varied skills have earned her a scholarship offer from Wisconsin.

“It makes zero sense,” Orangeville coach Jay Doyle said. “We wouldn’t care if we had to go (60 miles) to Amboy every night. What you want is the four best teams in the sectional. You work all year to get that No. 1 seed. You shouldn’t have a tough road to get to a sectional.”

The IHSA only makes sure the top four seeds are divided, putting 1 and 4 in one regional of a sub-sectional and the 2 and 3 seeds in the other.

“The rest of the schools are assigned without regards to their seeds,” Gibson said. “Our program maps out the total amount of travel for the remaining teams under every other combination and assigns the teams based on the least amount of travel for the entire group. It can get a little wonky. Sometimes there are five or six strong teams in that sub-sectional. We’re not apologetic, but that can be a tough break.

"There always seems to be a year or a sport or an area where the perception is this group is really strong and another group, maybe right next to this strong group, is really weak. But a little of that is in the eye of the beholder."

How good teams get grouped together

The primary cause of lopsided regionals is clearly the practice of seeding some areas by the entire sectional and dividing others into two sub-sectionals. River Ridge/Scales Mound, seeded fourth in its sub-sectional has beaten the No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the other Rockford 1A sub-sectional by 29, 24, 23 and 39 points.

Amboy, the top seed in the other half of that sectional, lost to No. 6 Eastland by 21 and 10 points and to No. 3 Lena-Winslow by eight in its only three games against the top three teams in the other sub-sectional.

Sacred Heart-Griffin girls basketball coach Steve Klunick calls out a play to his team as they take on Effingham in the first half during the Class 3A Springfield Supersectional at UIS' The Recreation and Athletic Center, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Springfield, Ill.

And it’s even more imbalanced in Class 2A in Springfield and Class 3A in Peoria.

“Our sixth-seeded team would be a No. 1 seed on the other side of the sub-sectional,” SHG’s Klunick said. “Easily. Easily. And they are 10 miles away. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I wish everybody was seeded by sub-sectional, or everybody was not," Richwoods' Hursey said. "We don't care about driving. We drive all year. We know if we win a regional it's almost equivalent to a state championship.”

Coaches have proposed that the IHSA dump sub-sectionals several times, but the board has refused, always citing travel. But that could change.

“I see the day coming — and it might be in the not-too-distant future — where there is going to be less worry about the distance of travel,” Gibson said. “I see a day coming when we are just going to live with the travel.”

Contact:, @matttrowbridge or 815-987-1383. Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa City.