The Duneland Athletic Conference girls basketball coaches were like kids making out a Christmas list when the official word came in: the double round robin was ending.
They gave their wishes to athletic directors, who started making phone calls.
"We sat down with our AD and came up with a list of 16 teams we wanted to play," Portage coach Chris Siebert said. "We tried to find some in the area, some not and teams of all different levels of competition. (The ADs) went through and called as many as could, but with all of us looking at games at the same time, some had already filled."
Five openings on the schedule was almost a dream situation for most Duneland teams.
Seven of the eight teams play in Sectional 2, so those that already see each other twice in the regular season will play for a third time in the postseason.
Merrillville, which reached a regional final last year, played three teams three times — Portage and Michigan City in the sectional and Lake Central in the regional — and Hobart, the sectional semifinal opponent, twice.
Eliminating the double round-robin not only opens up more spots for region teams to play the highly ranked DAC teams, but the rest of the state. It also makes the DAC more competitive for the postseason.
Valparaiso, with a 3-18 record (1-13 in the conference) last season, had the best-ranked schedule in the state's Sagarin ratings. Ranked 30th in the state, the Vikings played not only all of the DAC schools twice, but also Fishers and Hamilton Southeastern -- who are ranked 23rd and 16th in the state, respectively -- and Plymouth (110).
Merrillville, which reached the farthest in the postseason and had a schedule ranked 45th, played only Elkhart Memorial (53) out of the area.
When the principals finally voted to allow the schedules to be opened with the elimination of the double round-robin, the coaches started their lists.
Merrillville's first order of business was to improve it's non-local opponents. With five open opportunities, the Pirates went after the best.
They added South Bend St. Joseph's (66), Penn (36), South Bend Washington (99), Northridge (84) and the Fort Wayne Snider Kilmer Classic to the schedule.
"We were pretty lucky with everyone that we contacted were like, yeah, absolutely," Merrillville coach Amy Govert said. "We tried to get the best competition possible. There were a lot of schools it either didn’t just work out because of the dates or whatever, but we’re not backing down, we want to be challenged. This is important, we’ve tried to get out of (the double round-robin) for how long and we need to take advantage of it. I feel we did a great job of going out there and getting quality teams that will prepare us for the postseason. Regular season, you need to prepare for the postseason."
The Pirates had a 39-1 regular-season record over the past two years, but couldn't repeat the magic of the 2010 state runner-up run.
In part, Govert said a change in schedule should help that.
"Who cares if you go 20-0 against an easy schedule and you’re not ready for the postseason," Govert said. "I want my kids prepared, I want them ready to play. I really think last year Warsaw slowed the game down for us and we really hadn’t seen that much and I don’t know if we really panicked in that game, but also that was the first time we’d played two games in one day.
"This year, we’re going to have the shootout in Fort Wayne and the (Duneland) holiday tournament so at least we have the experience of playing in the morning and at night. You just try to get your kids ready for anything, that’s what you play for, you play for the titles in the postseason."
Exposure vs. wins
For teams without the lofty regular-season records, the opportunity was open to add wins to the schedule. They didn't necessarily bite.
Crown Point, which was 5-16 last season, added the Warsaw Tournament, Kankakee Valley, Hobart and Hanover Central.
The Bulldogs lost to Carmel, a team with the 12th-best schedule last season, after the two-year contract expired.
"I love the exposure game, but we really were exposed," Crown Point coach Anne Equihua said. "I can’t be so worried about my win-loss record. If I wanted to do that, I could have added easier teams. I don’t really care about my coaching record, it’s about getting better and better every game. If it means taking a loss so be it. That’s just how it is."
Portage, a team in a rebuilding year, picked up Lowell, Griffith, Andrean and the Tippecanoe Valley Tournament.
"We tried to balance both (strength of schedule and youth of team)," Siebert said. "We had played Griffith and Andrean previously, and I have a lot of respect for both of those teams. Those were teams we wanted to get back on schedule."
The region teams that benefited the most from the opening of the DAC schedules were E.C. Central, Lowell, Andrean and Munster, all of which play five of the eight teams. Hobart, which already played six DAC teams, is the only nonconference team in Sectional 2.
"What was great is that Chesterton and Valpo had already called us," E.C. Central coach Eric Kundich said. "They were thinking ahead and wanted to play us and I, of course, welcome that. The Duneland Conference is an excellent conference and the competition is tough. Playing the Duneland Conference helps you prepare for the sectional and beyond."
The biggest hiccup that the change in the DAC scheduling has created is the loss of holiday tournaments. A compromise to the elimination of the double round robin was the invention of a four-team one-day tournament. The date, Dec. 27, corresponded with other tournaments across the state, including the Hall of Fame Tournament, Columbus North and South Bend Clay. Michigan City had previously been in the South Bend tournament.
It also means that some teams would again be playing each other three times, after the regular-season matchup, the tournament and then the sectional.
"I think the thing was that the double round robin became tiresome, especially to those of us that are in the sectional together," said Valparaiso coach Joe Otis, who was previously the Vikings boys coach and coach of the boys team at LaPorte. "Especially when you could play three of those teams three times."
Lake Central, the only team not in Sectional 2, benefited from adding more sectional teams, like E.C. Central and playing West Side for the first time in the regular season.
The Indians, who won a state championship in 1994 and played in the finals in 1998, have won two sectional titles since the double round-robin began during the 2003-04 season.
The latest came last year, when they faced Merrillville for a third time in the regional semifinal.
"It’s nice to play the team you’re going to see in sectionals in the regular season to get a feel for what it might be like come February," Lake Central coach Marc Urban said. "I think (the new scheduling) is good for our whole conference. Fourteen of our 20 games are against each other, we beat up on each other so much that it’s going to help the Duneland Conference go out and be represented more than we might be in the past. It’s good to go out and play other teams instead of the Duneland teams over and over."
More than wins and losses
Though there are DAC coaches on selection committees across the state, exposure for postseason accolades has been difficult.
The conference has 12 sectional titles since the double round-robin began in 2003-04 and two regional championships.
"My thing is always to get these kids some exposure from other coaches, because to be honest, only the Duneland coaches see them," Equihua said, "so when you’re trying to talk about all-state kids and even area coaches are saying 'we never played you so I don’t know that you’re kid is good.' Now that somebody else can see them, it’s a good thing."