Lewis Central will play Class 4-A football. It also remains committed to the Hawkeye Ten Conference.
Activities director Mike Hale said he has no desire to seek membership in a new league as his school’s football program joins its other boys teams in the state’s highest classification level.
Lewis Central has been playing 3-A football for the past few years, even though its freshman-through-junior enrollment, which is used by the Iowa High School Athletic Association to determine classification, has hovered near the threshold number (700) for 4-A football.
Three factors kept the Titans in 3-A when the last football reclassification by the IHSAA took place in 2012: Lewis Central had a smaller-than-usual sophomore class, a new 4-A school was opening in Ankeny and three 3-A parochial schools in eastern Iowa opted to play 4-A football.
But Davenport Assumption, Dubuque Wahlert and Cedar Rapids Xavier, the 4-A runner-up the past two seasons, are dropping down to 3-A in 2014, bumping Lewis Central up to the 4-A level.
“I knew it was coming,” Hale said. “We lucked out the last go-around.”
There were 47 teams playing 4-A football in 2012. That number moved to 48 this past fall when Ankeny Centennial opened its doors. This year, however, there will be only 46.
The movement of Lewis Central, Assumption, Wahlert and Xavier leaves 25 4-A teams on the western side of the state and 21 in the east. To even those numbers out, three teams from the west (potentially from the trio of Ottumwa, Marshalltown and Mason City) will start playing in the east.
The west and east will each have three six-team districts and another with five teams.
The IHSAA is expecting to release district assignments on Jan. 23. After that, schools will have a few days to submit their top choices for potential non-district opponents.
Hale said he has already contacted Harlan Community, got an email from Creston and talked to Glenwood about the Titans possibly keeping some gridiron rivalries with their 3-A Hawkeye Ten contemporaries intact. He added that it makes sense for travel purposes, also.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer, economically,” he said.
Lewis Central has played three 4-A teams twice in the past four years. It split games with Abraham Lincoln and Indianola, beat Thomas Jefferson and had another game that it was winning at halftime halted by bad weather. Its two losses were decided in the final seconds.
Titans coach Jim Duggan, who has guided his team to the playoffs in three of his four years at Lewis Central, said his program is as prepared as it can be to make the move up in classification.
“We’ve already been playing A.L., T.J. and Indianola over the years,” he said. “And I think our 3-A district is really competitive with regards to a higher level of football.
“I’m excited, and I think the rest of the coaching staff is excited, about the chance to move to 4-A. It probably won’t change much for us with regard to how we’re going to prepare, how we’re going to coach and how we’re going to get ready to play teams week in and week out.”
Hale already had an eventual move to 4-A in mind when he chose Duggan to take over the football program in 2010. The veteran coach has taken 12 Council Bluffs teams to the playoffs, won two state titles while at St. Albert and has claimed three postseason wins at Lewis Central.
“I knew I had to have somebody that was going to be ready to take us to 4-A because it was coming,” Hale said.
No public school from Council Bluffs had won a playoff game prior to 2010. Lewis Central became the first in Duggan’s inaugural year. It was a victory away from the UNI-Dome in 2012.
Sioux City Heelan, a former 4-A football school with an enrollment smaller than Lewis Central’s, kept the Titans from reaching the semifinals that season. Duggan said he understands the path to the UNI-Dome may now include a school with two or three times the students as his.
That’s of no concern, he said.
“We realize that’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s just how it goes. We’ll look at it as a challenge and use it to motivate our kids. We’ll get better from it. I think it’s a positive thing.
“It’s no different than 3-A, to be honest with you. As long as Heelan and Harlan were going to stay on the west side, that was always going to be a hurdle to advance past those. You were going to have to have a special team to beat those kinds of programs.”
Duggan said the 2014 season will be interesting for Lewis Central because it has become used to being targeted as the big school in 3-A. Now, it’ll be one of — if not the — smallest in 4-A.
“We’re going to be the little fish in the big pond now, and that should motivate us,” he said.
That won’t be true in its league for other sports. L.C. is the only 4-A boys school. The Titan girls are in 4-A in the five-class girls system in Iowa with league rivals Denison-Schleswig, Glenwood, Harlan and Creston.
Lewis Central’s enrollment for next year’s classification purposes is 733, a number that more than doubles the enrollment of six of the other 10 Hawkeye Ten schools. Yet, it is still nearly 300 shy of the five 4-A metro schools in the nearby seven-team Missouri River Conference.
Understanding his school is big for one league and would be small for the other, Hale said he’s happy to stay put. The Hawkeye Ten, he said, offers good competition and fan support from its teams.
“With the caliber of play we get in the Hawkeye Ten, I think that prepares us to play some 4-A schools,” he said. “We’re not dominating. We’re not winning every sport in the Hawkeye Ten. The Hawkeye Ten is one of the better conferences in the state of Iowa for caliber of play.”