When the Iowa High School Athletic Association announced its new football classifications, districts and playoff system for 2018 and 2019, Newton found itself back in Class 3A. The Cardinal football program played Class 4A competition the past two seasons.
The IHSAA’s decision to change the number of schools designated Class 4A, which is the top classification in football, from 48 to 42 for the next two-year cycle of football classifications dropped Newton back into Class 3A. Classifications are based on school enrollment. Newton is in a 54-school field of Class 3A teams similar in size.
That is all it wanted. Newton High head football coach Ed Ergenbright and Scott Garvis, the Newton High athletic director, are pleased with the change. They are also realistic — the Cardinals still have to work hard during the offseason and competition is as tough at the Class 3A level as it was in Class 4A.
Football is football. The game is played on the field no matter what classification a team is in.
Playing at Class 3A level brings its own set of challenges for Newton in 2018 and 2019. One is the change in the playoff criteria — only district champions automatically qualify for the playoffs and a team’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) provides the state a formula to fill each classification’s 16-team playoff bracket.
It means all nine games count toward playoff possibilities for football teams, not just district games. Newton has the challenge of filling its non-district game slots with quality opponents because winning and losing percentages for opponents and their opponents reflect on Newton’s RPI.
Looking at the 54 Class 3A schools for football, Newton is the sixth-largest with an enrollment of 653. It is in a district with Pella (497), Oskaloosa (496), Grinnell (408), Knoxville (382) and South Tama (344). The largest 3A school is Lewis Central at 759 and the smallest is Gilbert at 337.
The disparity between the largest 4A school and the smallest 4A school was the biggest concern for Newton’s coaches and administration in 2016. That two-year football district cycle was on a change in IHSAA policy from the 700-student cutoff determine which schools play Class 4A back to the top 48 schools play 4A football. The IHSAA policy had been schools over 700 in enrollment in grades 9, 10 and 11 play 4A football.
In 2016, Newton found itself among the 48 designated Class 4A schools. It was the smallest 4A school in the field. Newton had an enrollment figure of 631 and the largest school in the state was West Des Moines Valley at 2,170.
Then the 2016 and 2017 Class 4A districts were released. Newton was in the same district with Valley, and the eighth-largest school Southeast Polk. Also in the district were Fort Dodge, Marshalltown and Indianola.
Ergenbright and his coaching staff stressed to their players to be up for the challenge of 4A football. Cardinal players played with a chip on their shoulders and made the best out of the situation they found themselves in. They were out to prove the naysayers wrong.
The Cardinals did prove those who said Newton wouldn’t be able to compete at the Class 4A level again. Newton had been at Class 3A since 2009 until the 2016 season and was coming off a 1-8 season in Class 3A competition.
Newton posted a 6-3 season, losing to Valley, Southeast Polk and Fort Dodge in 2016. This past fall Newton had its best season in 4A competition since 2007, going 7-2. The Cardinals had a 13-5 run in its two-year stint back in 4A.
Newton opened the 2017 season on a 6-0 run which included a shootout at home against Fort Dodge in district play. The Cardinals won 71-70 on a dramatic final defensive play on a 2-point attempt by the Dodgers to win the game after a touchdown. The Cardinals capped the season with a 2-point conversion of their own on a final play to beat Indianola, 45-44.
The problem was a 7-2 record did not put Newton in the 4A playoffs — a goal of the Cardinals. Winning a district championship is the surest way to reach the playoffs at any level.
Are Newton’s Cardinals up to the challenges of Class 3A football? We think so. Newton renews several Central Iowa Conference rivalries with teams in its 3A district — Grinnell, Oskaloosa and South Tama. There are no long road trips for fans.
The Cardinals need to keep that “chip-on-our-shoulders” attitude and work hard during the offseason to prepare for the fall. The hard work needs to continue on and off the field Cardinals and success will come.