The Iowa High School Athletic Association threw a nasty curveball at the Marshalltown football team on Thursday afternoon.
The expectation leading up to the release of the new football district pairings was that the Bobcats would likely be sent to the eastern half of the state - along with Ottumwa - to form new rivalries with some fresh competition.
Instead, the Bobcats remained in the west and were paired with a few long-time rivals and a few other teams from the Central Iowa Metropolitan League.
The Bobcats will play in Class 4A District 4 along with Fort Dodge, Mason City, Indianola, Waukee and Urbandale.
"We were just as surprised as most people, but we were not completely shocked because we knew we had the chance to go either way being so central in all of it," said Marshalltown coach Aaron Shipley. "It looks like they followed a similar practice, too, in that the 4A districts have a lot of parity.
"They put two traditional powers in with two teams in the middle and two teams on the bottom of the standings."
Waukee is a traditional power that just keeps better. The Warriors gave state champion Dowling Catholic its best game in the playoffs. Urbandale also will be another challenge on the schedule. Fort Dodge and Mason City are old rivals dating back to the old Big Eight Conference.
The rest of the area gridiron teams also were paired with old and new rivals.
West Marshall and South Tama County both dropped down a class. West Marshall will now play in 1A District 6 along with three-time defending state champion Iowa City Regina, Pella Christian, Columbus Junction, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, Highland and Sigourney-Keota.
South Tama will now play in 2A. The Trojans join some of West Marshall's old district rivals in District 6 that includes East Marshall, South Hardin, Union Community, Aplington-Parkersburg, Iowa Falls-Alden and Roland-Story.
"We were pretty sure that we were going to drop down," said West Marshall coach Ken Winkler. "It doesn't really make a difference to us. It is what it is. I don't think anyone wants to be in the same district as Regina but it's something we can't control."
The two biggest challenges for West Marshall moving forward involves travel and teams at the sub-varsity level. Road trips against their new district foes will be long, but that also creates trouble scheduling junior varsity and freshman games.
"We had been fortunate when it came to travel in recent years, so I guess it is our turn to travel for a while," Winkler said. "It does make scheduling JV and freshman games harder. I just don't see us going to Columbus Junction for a JV game in the middle of the week."
The rest of the area teams were placed in either A or 8-player.
Colo-NESCO and Meskwaki Settlement were paired in the same 8-player district. The Royals and Warriors were joined in District 5 by Don Bosco, Dunkerton, English Valleys, HLV, Grandview Park Baptist and Tri-County.
GMG will be the only area squad in Class A District 7. The Wolverines also are joined by Belle Plaine, BGM, Iowa Valley, Colfax-Mingo, Lynnville-Sully, North Mahaska and Montezuma.
The other five area schools will all compete in A District 4. That list includes AGWSR, BCLUW, Grundy Center, North Tama and Gladbrook-Reinbeck and also features Denver and Wapsie Valley.
Every high school team in the state will now have a little less than a week to turn in requests for the non-district season.
Shipley said they would have made a strong effort for Mason City and Fort Dodge if they hadn't been placed in the same district. Long-time rival Ames as well as Newton are a couple possibilities for the Bobcats.
"Our focus will be to play teams we'll be able to be competitive with," Shipley said. "We want good gates and good games."
The IHSAA voted against making a change to the regular season and postseason schedules Wednesday when it decided to not pursue an eight-game regular season for the time being.
"I am glad they pumped the brakes on that one," Shipley said. "They need to hold off until they get more data. More research is needed."
Winkler, who is in his 20th season as executive secretary for the Iowa Football Coaches Association, said everybody from the IHSAA to athletic directors and coaches had input into the decisions this time around.
The idea behind the eight-game schedule and change to the playoff format was to spread out those first few rounds of the postseason because of safety concerns to the athletes.
"Teams play four games in 19 days if you are fortunate enough to get that far," Winkler said. "There were concerns of losing revenue for that ninth game. I was in favor of spreading out the playoff games, but I see it from both sides. At some point, I hope we can find a way to spread it out, whatever that is."
Another change made by the IHSAA involved the playoff brackets themselves. There will no longer be pre-determined matchups in postseason play. The idea behind that change is to cut down on the travel teams have to make. The maximum distance the state will allow for now will be 125 miles.
"It is a unique set-up, but I understand the travel thing," said Shipley. "It won't change a lot for 4A because I don't think they are going to be able to keep that number at 125."
It is not the first time the state has eliminated the postseason brackets. Both Winkler and Shipley said the playoffs used to run on that format several years back.
"It is definitely easier the other way because you know who you will play all the way through," said Winkler. "For years, we didn't know though. This is designed to eliminate long road trips in the middle of the week."