AUBURN, Ala. – Time flies when you’re having fun.
This weekend, several SPHL teams hit the halfway point of their 2018-19 campaign, with the Macon Mayhem logging a league-high 29 of 56 games already this season.
Every day this week, we take a look at five big takeaways from the first half of the schedule in the SPHL this year. Here’s the first one:
Peoria may be the class of the SPHL, but woeful scheduling has made it difficult for them to prove that.
It doesn’t take a geography major to look at a map of SPHL teams and see a far-flung league footprint. A few teams are close to the East Coast; one is on the Gulf Coast; there’s a few more in the interior part of the Southeast, and there’s a triumvirate of teams located in the Midwest. Until three years ago, the Rivermen were on an island while the other SPHL teams were firmly south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Evansville Thunderbolts came along in 2016, with the Quad City Storm joining the league this season.
While an unbalanced travel-friendly schedule is to be assumed when three teams are on an outpost, the percentage of play among those teams this season is head-scratching. Twenty-eight matchups out of the expansion Storm’s 56-game slate this season – exactly half the schedule – are against either Evansville or Peoria. While the Thunderbolts will face Quad City 12 times and Peoria 11 times, the Rivs and Storm will play each other a whopping 16 times – roughly 30% of the schedule in a 10-team league.
League pundits have handicapped Peoria throughout the season because of the unfortunate schedule that has befallen them. Evansville and Quad City carry a combined 13-37-4 record at the halfway mark of the season, leading many to believe games between them and the Rivermen are akin to an FCS team walking into a Power 5 team’s stadium in college football. So, in the eyes of the critics, the Rivs have to have “style points” when defeating the Storm and ‘Bolts. So far, Peoria is a combined 16-1-1 against the Midwestern duo, with a perfect 9-0-0 mark against hapless Evansville. The argument may be that the Rivs ARE winning with style, as half their wins against the two have come by four or more goals.
Fortunately, after another back-to-back weekend against the Storm in Peoria, only seven of the Rivermen’s last 26 games are against either Evansville or Quad City, with three-game sets coming up on the road in Pensacola, then Macon.
What has been UNfortunate, however, is that some in the media have incorrectly placed the blame on the Rivermen themselves as if they were the ones who hand-picked their opponents like a college football power schedules sacrificial lambs from schools with compass directions in their name.
I get the league’s vision to ignite the “Cold War on (I-)74” between Peoria and Quad City, but isn’t 30% of the schedule against one opponent out of nine a little bit over the top? The rest of the league itinerary suffers as a result. For example, Macon faces the Storm just once this year, a February 15 contest in Moline; Quad City won’t face the Mayhem in Georgia at all this season.
Here’s what I proposed a few years ago with a ten-team league: two five-team divisions. For the current league makeup, add Huntsville and Birmingham to the three Midwestern teams for a “west” division. (Yes, Pensacola is further west than Huntsville and Birmingham. Remember when Atlanta had pro teams in the WESTERN Division?) Pensacola, Macon, Knoxville, Fayetteville, and Roanoke comprise the “east”. Teams play an unbalanced but EVEN schedule – 56 games, so nine games each against the four divisional opponents (36 total) and then four games each against the five teams from the other division (20). For the nine games, go five home, four away; alternate the extra home game between the two teams each year assuming the league membership stays the same from season to season (which hasn’t happened in a while).
I fully believe, especially given recent missteps from Birmingham and Macon, that the Rivermen are the class of the SPHL halfway through the season. Over the next three months, as Peoria faces teams from the South as opposed to in-state and a neighboring state, they will finally have a chance to prove that notion against the best teams in the league. I’m sure no one wants to do that more than Jean-Guy Trudel and his Rivs.