Welcome to the new normal.
Conference realignments are becoming as prevalent on the area athletic scene as are the planted rows of corn in the early spring in the area’s fertile fields.
This isn’t a new trend.
Rantoul once belonged to the Wauseca Conference, then the Big 12, then the Corn Belt. In little more than a year, the school will be headed to the Sangamon Valley Conference.
St. Joseph-Ogden was once in the Illini Central, then the Sangamon-Illini Alliance, then the Sangamon Valley. The Spartans will join the nearly 90-year-old Okaw Valley in the fall of 2014.
Tuscola has gone from the Little Okaw to the Okaw Valley Conference to becoming one of the eight charter members in the recently created Central Illinois Conference.
That league — like the others that are forming or reorganizing — will kick off competition in time for the 2014-15 school year.
These won’t be the last changes.
Stability has gone the way of short, but fitted, shorts in boys’ basketball. We remember it, but we don’t embrace it.
We may even long for it, but — in many cases — we don’t value it enough to prevent the changes.
There are exceptions.
Champaign Central and exuberant athletic director John Woods aren’t about to forsake the Big 12 Conference, a league that traces its existence to 1924.
“As a charter member of the Big 12, we are loyal to the Big 12 and will remain in the Big 12 as long as it exists,” Woods said.
That doesn’t mean he likes the status quo for a league with nine members after Mattoon’s withdrawal a year ago.
“Ideally, we’d like to get back to 12,” Woods said. “We’ve been talking about this for three or four years now.”
They’ll talk again Monday, when the Big 12’s athletic directors gather for a conference.
A tough path
Adding schools for the Big 12 — especially ones with enrollments in the vicinity of 1,100 to 1,800 students — is a challenge for schools in the central section of the state. There aren’t many options, though one distinct possibility is Kankakee.
“We’ve looked at the Peoria schools, but travel would be the biggest concern,” Woods said. “When you look at Danville to Peoria, that’s a haul (approximately 130 miles).”
In an era when schools are facing mandated cutbacks, expecting the travel budget to increase is a folly. That’s as realistic as the Cubs relocating to Danville Stadium while Wrigley Field is renovated.
Transporting students to games was one reason Argenta-Oreana — which briefly accepted membership into the Central Illinois Conference — settled on the two-division Little Okaw.
“We’re constantly looking at travel,” A-O athletic director Dan Sheehan said. “We’ve eliminated $18,000 from the budget for next year for district supplies for athletics (covering such items as scorebooks, new bats, etc.)
“When I did a transportation analysis, we felt this (Little Okaw) was the best decision.”
A-O is looking at scheduling tripleheaders in basketball, with a freshman game to precede the junior varsity contest, which starts before the varsity tips off.
In football, some nonconference dates could start with a preliminary sophomore contest.
“If things don’t get better, the next to go are people and programs,” Sheehan said.
About the time fans — and coaches — get used to a new set of rivalries, there could be more upheaval in the landscape of area athletic conferences.
“I hope we see stability,” SJ-O principal and boys’ basketball coach Brian Brooks said. “It’s not good for anyone changing conferences all the time.”
He recognizes, however, what fuels recent reorganizations and doesn’t see an end in sight.
“Until the football situation gets stabilized, you will continue to see movement,” said Brooks, who will serve as the first president of the revamped Okaw Valley. “It’s unfortunate that one sport has dictated decisions by schools, but it has.”
Football — unlike every other high school sport in Illinois — limits who qualifies for postseason competition.
Schools with fewer than five wins (in nine games) will not qualify, and there’s not even a guarantee that every five-win team will join the football lottery field of 256.
In every other IHSA-sponsored sport, even if a school has lost every game, there is still the “second season” to anticipate when tournament play begins.
More fallout is expected.
“The landscape of collegiate and high school athletics is such that nothing is a huge surprise,” Unity athletic director and football coach Scott Hamilton said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see a lot of consistency.”
The new Okaw Valley could easily develop into the area’s premier and most competitive league. The schools are natural rivals and — for the most part — are thriving with athletic excellence.
“We have a great nucleus of schools,” Hamilton said. “When this started, I thought, ‘Unity, St. Joe, Monticello and St. Thomas More should be in the same conference,’ and we have that.
“We will play what are our three biggest rivals, and Rantoul brings a lot to the table.”
More games with prominent local schools should be a benefit at the gate.
“We’ll draw bigger crowds because of these rivalries,” Hamilton said.
Brooks said even schools not currently among their conference’s leaders can rise rapidly. Rantoul could be viewed as a sleeping giant, especially in football.
“Things change quickly,” Brooks said. “It wouldn’t take much, and maybe by 2014-15 they could be on board with us, if not ahead of us. It goes in cycles.
“In our conference in football, everyone will have to battle to get to the five-win mark.”
Wanted: More teams
It’s no secret that the Okaw is seeking to expand, though the ADs now are finalizing schedules for the first two years with six members.
“We’re interested in adding people sooner than later,” Hamilton said.
“Expansion is a must,” SJ-O athletic director and football coach Dick Duval added.
In sports such as basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball, there will be no Okaw Conference tournament, and the regular-season league titlists will be determined by a home-and-away series with the other members.
In football, the schools have four nonconference dates to fill. The open dates are weeks 1, 2, 3 and 9.
“We’ve filled three of the four,” Hamilton said. “It’s a little further than we’d like to travel, but at least we’re getting games with people our own size.
“Considering it’s a year and a half away, we’re not in a terrible situation.”
Okaw administrators are in agreement they’d like more teams, but there are no schools being courted.
“As we currently speak, there’s not any one we are leaning to,” Hamilton said. “We’re waiting to see where the shuffle fallout comes from with the Corn Belt and the LOVC. How this works for us is that once things start shuffling, things will fall into place.”
Unity will open its football season with Decatur St. Teresa in 2014, play Monmouth Roseville in Week 2 and close out the regular season against Illini West, from Carthage. The two-year nature of the contracts means Unity will travel to those schools one time.
SJ-O has scheduled Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Clifton Central for its first two football games and still is searching for opponents in weeks 3 and 9.
“We are trying to see if some other conference would like to partner up for nonconference games,” Duval said.
Argenta-Oreana has contracts with St. Thomas More and Dwight for two of its non-league football games. CIC schools will have two crossover games with schools from the other division. First up for A-O is Oblong and Villa Grove.
PBL was able to keep its traditional rivalry game against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley in place and also added non-league football games against SJ-O, St. Thomas More and Bismarck-Henning.
An attitude of patience
With Rantoul’s departure from the Corn Belt, that league will have seven members. The league recently hosted three prospective newcomers (Chillicothe IVC, Lincoln and Streator) in a question-and-answer session. Corn Belt administrators will meet Feb. 7 to gauge the interest in expanding.
Meanwhile, the Central Illinois Conference is taking a wait-and-see attitude. They won’t turn down requests, but they are not actively pursuing newcomers.
“An eight-team league will play out fine in all of our sports,” Tuscola athletic director Ryan Hornaday said. “We can still host a conference event in golf and cross-country. The conference basketball tournaments have a nice balance.
“The schools committed to the league are strong in athletic tradition. These schools are on stable financial ground and not going anywhere any time soon. That said, if we ever did want to expand, there are a few schools between the Decatur and Champaign areas that would fit in well with the CIC.”
The Vermilion Valley Conference is content with its current 10-team makeup, a lineup that features seven or eight football-playing members depending whether Schlarman re-establishes its program after forfeiting its final six games in 2012.
“We are happy with the status of the VVC in terms of travel distance, school sizes and overall team competitiveness,” Oakwood athletic director Tim Lee said. “For the VVC to expand, I think the school would have to be a good fit in all three of those categories.”
The VVC loses its alliance with the LOVC for nonconference football games after the 2013 season, so league ADs face many of the same obstacles as those in the new Okaw as far as scheduling early-season games.
Okaw legacy intact
Brooks believes the Okaw may not need to solicit new members once the conference is operational.
“We feel, as a group, it will be a great conference,” he said. “Once the conference gets going, that may appeal to other schools within driving distance.
“Most if not all of us will field freshman and JV teams, and that is a big deal to programs who want to continue to be successful. We’re excited about the six schools we have and how we’re moving forward, but in an ideal world we’d have at least eight.”
Four schools already declined invitations to join the Okaw, and Duval said, “Candidates are slim, but we must get the conference to eight teams as soon as possible.”
Brooks said it was a “no-brainer” to keep the Okaw Valley Conference name rather than create a new one.
“The Okaw has been around a long time and has a great name across the state,” he said. “It has a great reputation.”
Since three current Okaw members (Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello and Unity) never pulled out of the current Okaw, they were able to continue it. Current conference records also will be carried over.
“We didn’t have to start over from scratch on the bylaws,” Hamilton said. “We wanted to keep that tradition. Everything will stay as it is.”
If only that were true across the board.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
That was then ...
Fred Kroner started covering sports for a daily newspaper in the 1975-76 school year, writing part time for the Champaign-Urbana Morning Courier. A look at what area conferences looked like 37 years ago, when his beat was Centennial athletics.
Bloomington; Champaign Central; Danville; Lincoln; Mattoon; Springfield; Stephen Decatur; Urbana
COMMENT: Team nickname for Stephen Decatur, which had an enrollment of 1,590 in 1975 but closed in the 1990s, was the Runnin’ Reds. Students from that district now attend Eisenhower or MacArthur.
Centennial; Decatur Eisenhower; Decatur MacArthur; Jacksonville; Normal Community; Springfield Griffin; Springfield Lanphier; Springfield Southeast
COMMENT: Centennial cut its travel expenses tremendously when it joined the Big 12: instead of three trips to Springfield per sport, made excursions to Central, Danville and Urbana.
ABL; Armstrong; Bismarck-Henning; Catlin; Chrisman; Jamaica; Oakwood; Ridge Farm; Rossville-Alvin; Shiloh
COMMENT: Team nickname for Rossville-Alvin, enrollment 200, was the Bobcats. Some students from that district now attend Bismarck-Henning, and some attend Hoopeston Area.
HEART OF ILLINOIS
Bloomington Central Catholic; Chillicothe IVC; Clinton; Metamora; Morton; Normal University High; Olympia; Pontiac; Washington
COMMENT: Four of these schools stayed together to form the nucleus of the Corn Belt Conference: Bloomington CC, Normal U-High, Olympia and Pontiac.
Buckley-Loda; Cissna Park; Crescent-Iroquois; Donovan; Potomac; Rankin; Sheldon; Wellington
COMMENT: Team nickname for Wellington, enrollment 82, was the Dukes. School is now part of the Hoopeston Area district.
Bellflower; Saybrook-Arrowsmith; Urbana University High; Wapella
COMMENT: Team nickname for Bellflower, enrollment 85, was the Dragons. School is now part of the Blue Ridge district.
LITTLE OKAW VALLEY
Arthur; Atwood-Hammond; Bement; Cerro Gordo; Homer; Newman; Oakland; Villa Grove
COMMENT: Team nickname for Homer, enrollment 147, was the Panthers. School is now part of the Heritage school district.
Arcola; Decatur St. Teresa; Monticello; St. Joseph-Ogden; Sullivan; Unity; Warrensburg-Latham
COMMENT: One of the state’s oldest continuous conferences, charter was drawn up Dec. 12, 1925. Monticello is the lone remaining charter member.
Argenta-Oreana; Colfax Octavia; DeLand-Weldon; Fairbury-Cropsey; Farmer City-Mansfield; Fisher; Heyworth; LeRoy; Mahomet-Seymour
COMMENT: Team nickname for Fairbury-Cropsey, enrollment 440, was the Tartars. School is now in the Prairie Central district.
Chatsworth; Cornell; Forrest-Strawn-Wing; Gilman; Melvin-Sibley; Milford; Onarga; Piper City Ford Central; Reddick; Saunemin; Tri-Point
COMMENT: Team nickname for Forrest-Strawn-Wing, enrollment 220, was the Eskimos. School is now part of the Prairie Central district.
Georgetown; Gibson City; Hoopeston-East Lynn; Paxton; Rantoul; Schlarman; Watseka; Westville
COMMENT: In 2014-15, these eight schools will be scattered between five different leagues
... This is now*
The dynamics of area athletic conferences will change in time for the 2014-15 school year. Here’s a glance at how things will look (* — unless there are additional changes):
Bloomington; Centennial; Champaign Central; Danville; Decatur Eisenhower; Decatur MacArthur; Normal Community; Normal West; Urbana
COMMENT: No changes on the horizon, unless a third public high school is built in Normal or unless the Decatur schools (which talked with the Central State Eight last fall) go elsewhere.
Central A&M; Clinton; Decatur St. Teresa; Meridian; Shelbyville; Sullivan; Tuscola; Warrensburg-Latham
COMMENT: All eight league schools are ones that will break away from the Okaw Valley Conference after 2013-14.
Bloomington Central Catholic; Eureka; Mahomet-Seymour; Normal University High; Olympia; Pontiac; Prairie Central
COMMENT: Only certain change is Rantoul’s departure, although contact has been made with other schools that could yet be interested.
EAST CENTRAL ILLINOIS
Bloomington Cornerstone; Buckley Christ Lutheran; Decatur Christian; DeLand-Weldon; Judah Christian; Normal Calvary; Urbana Uni High
COMMENT: Only certain change is Decatur Lutheran’s departure. DeLand-Weldon’s only standalone sports are volleyball, boys’ basketball and track.
HEART OF ILLINOIS
Blue Ridge; Deer Creek-Mackinaw; El Paso-Gridley; Fieldcrest; Fisher; Flanagan/Cornell; Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley; Heyworth; LeRoy; Lexington; Ridgeview; Tremont; Tri-Valley
COMMENT: No changes in the works for area’s original mega-league.
LITTLE OKAW VALLEY
Arcola; Argenta-Oreana; Arthur-Lovington; Bement; Cerro Gordo; Decatur Lutheran; Okaw Valley; Sangamon Valley
COMMENT: Schools coming together from four different conferences.
Cumberland; Heritage; Hutsonville/Palestine; Martinsville; Oblong; Shiloh; Tri-County; Villa Grove
COMMENT: Schools from two leagues joining forces.
Maroa-Forsyth; Monticello; Rantoul; St. Joseph-Ogden; St. Thomas More; Unity
COMMENT: In this league, conference championships will be meaningful.
Cissna Park; Clifton Central; Dwight; Iroquois West; Momence; Paxton-Buckley-Loda; Watseka
COMMENT: Tri-Point, which doesn’t field a football team, has an invitation to join.
Armstrong-Potomac; Bismarck-Henning; Chrisman; Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Hoopeston Area; Milford; Oakwood; Salt Fork; Schlarman; Westville
COMMENT: For football purposes, could be just seven schools unless Schlarman resurrects program.