CEDAR RAPIDS - This time, Iowa City West was the best.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — It would be difficult to argue that the boys’ state tennis tournament should represent the best statewide talent.
Yet, when the Iowa High School Athletic Association released its district assignments last month, another significant logjam was created in Class 2A.
By grouping top-ranked Iowa City West and second-ranked Cedar Rapids Washington with individual standouts Joe Hoff of Iowa City High and Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s Rami Hemaidan, championship-quality players will be left out of the individual state tournament, and one of the top two ranked teams will not advance to the team state semifinals.
“Our number-one criteria is always going to be geography,” IHSAA executive director Alan Beste told The Gazette. “And then within that geographical area, we’re going to do our best to spread out the power to the extent possible. So there are always going to be good teams, good individuals that are going to be paired against each other in district tennis.”
Class 2A contains eight six-team districts. The champion and runner-up in singles and doubles who emerge from the May 11 district meets qualify for the individual state tournament.
West has won four of the last five team state championships, has a two-time defending singles state champion in Jiung Jung and a tandem of Cole Schneider and Jack Wenzel that placed runner-up last year in state doubles.
While Hoff lost to Jung in the 2016 singles state final, he enacted a token of revenge with a three-set victory in a Tuesday dual.
Hemaidan is a two-time district champion who placed sixth at state singles in 2015, while the Warriors have a pair of returning singles state qualifiers in senior Parker Muller and sophomore Rami Scheetz.
Another sophomore, Ty Sherman, is having a breakthrough season atop the Washington lineup. With such a large cluster of upper-echelon players in the same district, some will be noticeably absent from this year’s state tournament bracket.
“It should be tough to make it to state,” West Coach Mitch Gross said. “But at the same point, you want a good tournament. It is not fair that you have the possibility of a two-time defending champion not seeded, or a defending runner-up champion not seeded. Either one of those is ridiculous.”
A district runner-up, no matter how accomplished, is not eligible for one of the four seeds in the state bracket. As a result, Hoff, who was both a district and state runner-up to Jung last year, was forced to navigate through a much-tougher 2016 state path to the final despite being widely considered the second-best player in the state. For either Hoff or Jung, that is again the task at hand this season.
“The whole idea of seeding is to reward a player by reputation or points and you end up with better matches at the end of the tournament,” City High Coach Chip Hardesty said. “It would be a better tournament if they ditched the district runner-up rule.”
District assignments also affect the team race. The district team champion receives a bye into the substate round, while the runner-up and third-place team face off in the preliminary substate round.
Geography appeared to be a secondary consideration last season when No. 2 Cedar Rapids Washington was jettisoned to Pleasant Valley for a district that included the host Spartans, who were ranked third. Washington won the district, which sent PV to the preliminary substate round and guaranteed one had no chance to advance into the “final four.”
This year, PV is ranked sixth and despite its two-mile proximity to fourth-ranked Bettendorf, the two were assigned separate districts while the Warriors — again ranked second — were grouped with No. 1 Iowa City West. As a result, either Washington or West will be on the outside looking in at the team state semifinals May 30 in Ankeny.
“We try to get a number of people taking a look at it so that we can see if there any red flags in terms of where we’re sending schools or what the sites are or some of those kinds of things,” Beste said. “So typically it’s a group of people who are looking at it. The tennis administrator has the primary responsibility to do the research and to put things together.”
For the past three years, the position of tennis administrator has been absorbed by the IHSAA director of communications, Kylie Swanson.
The research has been called into question due to the fact that, with a few exceptions, this year’s assignments mirrored the 2014 grouping and the annual tennis advisory committee — comprised of head tennis coaches from across the state — were not consulted this year as customarily had been done. Both prevented consideration of the strengths of specific 2017 teams and players.
A little over three weeks following the release of this year’s district assignments, Swanson resigned her post to accept a position outside the IHSAA. Beste, who served as tennis administrator from 2004-14, will assume the role for the remainder of this season and insisted Swanson’s resignation was entirely her decision.
“Since she is leaving toward the end of the regular season and going into postseason, it just makes sense that I be the one to take that over because I have some knowledge about what’s been done in the past,” Beste said.
While Beste plans to meet with the tennis advisory committee in the summer or fall and pledges to use resources like Quikstats and the Iowa Tennis Coaches poll to improve competitive balance, he maintains any thoughts of changing the 2017 assignments in time for May 11 — which coaches insist could be done without changing host sites — are not under consideration.
“Once we put the pairings together and once our board approves those pairings and once we release them to the public, at that point we do not go back and make changes,” Beste said. “It may seem to some that it’s unfair to those students who are in that district because it’s fairly loaded. It has a lot of good athletes who are going to be competing in that one district. But once we do that, once it’s approved and we make it public, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to then make changes because then there is a perceived unfairness for others.”
To many, this reluctance only compounds the original problem.
“I think everybody would say the district pairings were ... there were mistakes made,” Gross said. “And it’s one thing to acknowledge the mistake, but not to try to rectify the mistake to me, is worse than the mistake in the first place. I think there would have been no harm or foul to say, ‘We goofed up, we’re going to fix this.’ I get that it would be unprecedented, but I would also say it’s unprecedented for the No. 1 and 2 teams to ever be placed in a substate final, as well.”
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