SALINA — Hundreds of high school athletic directors, principals and football coaches huddled in small groups shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Bicentennial Center. All were waiting for one thing: The 2010 and 2011 football district assignments from the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
The meeting, which takes plays every two years, has been in Salina since 2000 and brings together school officials who find out their assignments in the season's final three weeks, then scramble to fill the rest of their schedules.
"Those who are veterans will tell you this used to be extremely difficult," KSHSAA executive director Gary Musselman said. "It stretched out over weeks, months, with phone call after phone call."
Wednesday, a possible opponent was often a table away.
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Many had taken steps to ease the final process by calling other schools ahead of time. Most leagues came with multiple schedule options in hand; Wichita's City League had at least eight schedule scenarios.
But before Rick Bowden, an assistant executive director with the KSHSAA, released the districts, he had a few comments.
He pointed out the difficulty of assigning teams to districts, dealing with geography, travel issues and accommodating league requests. He said he knew some would leave unhappy.
He also had specific rules, telling the group to be flexible and their word is their bond when scheduling since no formal contracts are signed.
"If you make a promise to schedule a game, fulfill that," he said. "Be a man or a lady about your word."
A few minutes later, a crowd swarmed Bowden and Musselman, who handed out copies of district assignments. One person had multiple copies and was hounded by those who hadn't received copies.
It was briefly quiet as everyone digested the assignments.
Bishop Carroll coach Alan Schuckman saw that Carroll was still with Liberal and West in 5A-District 8 but had also been placed with... Hutchinson. Yep, the Salthawks, winners of five straight state titles — most recently in 6A — will play Carroll the next two seasons.
"I think if you (are assigned) the best program in the state, I don't know if you're ever excited about it," he joked. "But they will definitely give us a gauge of where our program is at, so we'll see."
The City League's 6A schools stayed the same, while Kapaun Mount Carmel was placed with Andover, Andover Central and Arkansas City in 5A-District 7.
Some schools — those bigger or smaller than the rest of their leagues — had it easy filling in schedule holes.
The City League's 6A schools easily filled their schedules, too, helping bigger western Kansas schools — Garden City, Dodge City, Great Bend and Hays — with all six of the City League's non-league games.
"In two years, this will not be easy," Southeast athletic director Mark Lamb said. "We'll have a new school in."
The recently passed Wichita schools bond issue included two high schools, the first of which will be built in the northeast part of the district. It's expected to open in 2012.
"We won't be as relaxed," Northwest athletic director J. Means agreed.
McPherson athletic director Shane Backhus was not relaxed.
He had a game to fill in Week 6, usually one of the toughest to fill because most teams leave open weeks 1, 2 and 3 for non-league opponents. He wrote on the projector screen that McPherson (5A) was looking for a Week 6 opponent, then walked around to 6A, 5A and 4A schools, asking for openings.
"We were surprised with the district we were put in," said Backhus, whose team was placed Emporia, Newton and Valley Center. "Valley Center was our Week 6 league opponent. We thought out a bunch of scenarios (before the meeting) and that wasn't one of them."
Scheduling isn't just about filling a hole. A good fit is also considered.
"You want to make sure the games are competitive," Campus athletic director Richard Elliott said. "You don't want them to be lopsided, where it won't be good for anybody."
After working the room for a little more than a half hour, McPherson's Backhus worked out a deal with Gardner-Edgerton.
He had talked to Gardner-Edgerton before the meeting, but the Blazers, coached by former Salina Central coach Marvin Diener, didn't have a Week 6 opening.
"They rearranged their league schedule to accommodate us," Backhus said. "I had talked to them before, seeing if we could hook up because they're one of the state powers in the east. (McPherson coach Tom Young's) philosophy is we want to play 5A or 6A schools that are good."
In a little more than an hour, most teams had filled their schedules. Many stuck around, though, to finalize league schedules, figuring out who was home or away each week.
"It went well, judging by the feedback we've gotten," the KSHSAA's Musselman said. "I had one person who said they had their schedule figured out in six minutes."