Four of the perennially weak 4A programs dropped out of the classification, leaving one large Northern 4A league that led to competitive football week in and week out.
Eight teams still qualified for the postseason, but it was the best eight teams rather than the top four teams from the Sierra and High Desert Leagues, even though historically the two leagues were not equally competitive.
The biggest complaint of many heading into last fall was that not every team played each other on the new Northern 4A League’s master schedule. Two teams were left off each member school’s schedule due to the 11-team league and the limits of a nine-week schedule. That left some programs with easier schedules and it made breaking ties a little more difficult.
However, what it did cause was a challenging gauntlet for teams to traverse in order to qualify for the postseason. That was evident by seven of the eight playoff teams finishing the league schedule with at least a .500 record. Tiebreakers were needed to break a pair of three-way ties. The top three teams were all 7-1, while the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-place squads all sat at 4-4.
Spanish Springs finished with a 4-4 league mark, but was the seventh seed for the 4A Northern Region playoffs. The Cougars then competed with co-league champion Carson, falling by a touchdown in the opening round.
SSHS coach Scott Hare still doesn’t like not playing every team, but there’s no way around it with 11 teams.
“I would rather have that than a league with only five teams,” Hare said. “To have eight teams, then it really would have been watered it down. There would have been one league with only one team not making it. Now, you’re at least getting a good idea on who should make the playoffs. We were seventh and obviously we took Carson to the brink.”
There are still some coaches that don’t care how the league is set up. It’s all about playing their best on Friday nights in order to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“Honestly, I have no opinion on it. The cool thing is we have games to play. That’s all that matters. That’s all I’m looking forward to,” Reed football coach Ernie Howren said. “We know what the league setup is. We understand what the ramifications are of where you place. Go out there and play ballgames. That’s what it’s all about. We have a full slate of 10 games. That’s all that matters to us.”
The domino effect of four teams dropping out of the Northern 4A caused the 3A to become much more competitive. South Tahoe, Fallon and Elko joined the 3A ranks, while Wooster chose to play an independent schedule.
Despite the realignment making it harder for Sparks to reach the postseason, coach Rob Kittrell enjoys getting his team ready for battle each week in a nine-team league.
“I loved it,” Kittrell said. “It was interesting to watch those scores come across on Friday nights to see who that upset was going to be. We had a shot to make the playoffs at the end of the year. With the wins we got and with the wins we needed at the end to get in, you would have felt like you deserved to make the playoffs. There were years in the past where you went 1-4 or whatever and you definitely didn’t feel like you deserved to make it. I think if you crack one of the top six, you’ve earned a playoff spot.”
Kittrell said he expects Truckee to be tough once again after winning the past two state championships. But he also believes now that Elko and Fallon have tasted success at the new classification, they will build on that and be even stronger this fall.