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IOWA CITY — The coaches poll in Iowa high school boys’ soccer isn’t a poll of the coaches anymore.
Rankings featuring 16 teams in each of the three classes still are released weekly by the Iowa High School Soccer Coaches Association, but an Elo ratings system compiled by Varsity Bound now determines the order of teams.
The change was implemented for the 2022 season, with the goal of a more accurate statewide picture close to the postseason. This simplifies the process and removes a bias that is natural when voters are trying to judge teams from the other side of the state on scores and word of mouth alone.
“It’s strictly mathematical,” said Walton Ponce, the vice president of the coaches association who is in his third season as West Liberty head coach.
There were some eye-popping lines in the first few sets. Four of the top six Class 1A teams in the debut rankings (released April 10), for example, are no longer in the top 16 and the No. 1 team at the time is now No. 16. Pleasant Valley, the defending Class 3A state champion with nine starters back, wasn’t even ranked.
But the shake-ups seem to get less frequent by the week. As proponents of this system would point out, beating good teams will move you up. It just takes time for more data to be included.
The coaches association is transparent about that.
“The complexity of ELO comes from when multiple games have been played,” the IAHSSCA explained on its website. “The accuracy of ELO system is seen once multiple games from schools of different regions and class sizes play each other. The ELO system is run through multiple times for accuracy thus resulting in a clearer picture of rankings for teams as the season progresses.”
A human element might help with adjustments, especially early in the season, taking things like victory margin, overtimes and other context into account. Math, though, can evaluate head-to-head result and connect the dots much easier and much faster, particularly late in the season — and that’s the whole point of the switch.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association will use the rankings to determine the top one or two seeds in each substate this week.
“I think here by the end of April, beginning of May, things will straighten out, as they should,” Ponce said.
The rest of the teams in each substate will be ordered by a simpler point system (three points for a win over a 3A team, two for beating a 2A team, one for beating a 1A team, divided by games played), the same one that the IHSAA uses for state tournament seeding.
This is a step toward the consistency Iowa City West 22-year coach Brad Stiles wants to see as a former member of the rankings committee.
“I actually stepped down before they decided to go to the automated, because the rankings committee uses one criteria and the state uses a different,” Stiles said. “I just felt like I was wasting my time.”
The weekly coaches poll was often released Tuesday or Wednesday, with games played through the previous Saturday taken into account. With this system, the rankings are released every Sunday afternoon, setting a narrative for the week ahead. Teams know where they stand and can track how results affect movement.
Iowa City Regina Coach Rick Larew praised the coaches who volunteered their time to make changes, but prefers the former method.
“I’m not a fan of it,” Larew said. “I’m hoping what they’ll do at the end of the day is, I’m gonna ask them to take a look at the top eight teams in the rankings, how many show up at the state tournament versus ours. By the coaches ranks, it was pretty high.”
The question is, should a formula or a coaches vote make that assessment?