A move to improve ¬ ¬ Rantoul hoping jump to Corn Belt revitalizes athletic program

A move to improve ¬ ¬ Rantoul hoping jump to Corn Belt revitalizes athletic program

RANTOUL  These are tough times for the Big Three sports at Rantoul High School. Collectively, perhaps the toughest ever. In the fall, a Rantoul football team that last experienced a winning season in 1998 finished 1-8 for the third straight season. Entering this weekend, the boys'' and girls'' basketball squads each remained in search of their first victory after 0-10 starts. But even as the losses pile up, this also is a time of expectancy for Eagle athletics. A new regime  with fresh ideas and an aggressive plan of attack for what ails Rantoul sports  is in place. From first-year athletic director Sally Bryan to the new, young and energetic coaches in the three major sports, a wave of change is sweeping through a department that is rolling up its sleeves. "We have a lot of work to do," Bryan said. This time of expectancy extends to another major change on the immediate horizon. Rantoul, a member of the Big 12 Conference since 1983, will move to the Corn Belt at the start of the 2004-05 school year. "We are leaving the Big 12 with mixed emotions," Bryan said. "Unfortunately, it doesn''t fit us as well as it did a few years back." Twenty-nine years ago, Rantoul''s enrollment was 1,693, and the school was among the largest in downstate Illinois. With the closing of Chanute Air Force Base in September 1993 and the resulting departure of military families and other residents dependent on base-related employment, high school enrollment has fallen virtually unabated. According to the most recent IHSA figures, which are a year old, Rantoul''s enrollment of 800 is the lowest in the Big 12 by 190 students. More telling about the growing gap between Rantoul and its Big 12 peers, however, is the fact that eight other league members exceed Rantoul''s enrollment by at least 500 students. In two cases, the difference is more than 700. "In the Big 12, there are teams that will double us in size on the sidelines because they double us in enrollment," Eagles football coach Trevor Lehnen said. In contrast, Rantoul would rank third in Corn Belt enrollment, according the IHSA figures. Even when Rantoul''s current enrollment of 766 is used for comparison purposes, that ranking remains unchanged. Bryan and her coaches say the move to the Corn Belt gives Rantoul teams a far greater opportunity to be competitive than they currently face in the Big 12. "It puts us more on a level playing field," Eagles boys'' basketball coach Brad Oakley said. "Whenever you have schools that are twice the size of you, I think you''re just putting your athletes at a disadvantage." More in common The move will bring Rantoul together with schools that face similar issues. For example, Bryan pointed to the impact the addition of one or more sports can have on a school''s ability to remain competitive in others. At a school of Rantoul''s size, such expansion typically draws athletes from other sports. When the Eagles added boys'' and girls'' soccer three years, numbers in cross-country immediately declined to the point that school officials decided to suspend fielding teams in the sport. Three years later, Rantoul remains without cross-country. "Most of the other Big 12 schools have enough kids that when they start a sport, they don''t have to pull too many from other sports, not as much as we would," Bryan said. "If the Corn Belt adds soccer as a league sport, I think they''re going to see some of the same kind of issues that we have." While Rantoul officials see the departure for the Corn Belt as necessary and beneficial, they recognize it might be unpopular with some fans. "I know a lot of people in our community don''t want to lose our ties to the Urbana-Champaign schools," Bryan said. "They''re perceived as rivals and there''s a tie there. We''re hoping we can schedule games still with them. I don''t want to lose that relationship with the Big 12." Tim Jackson, a 1991 Rantoul graduate and former Eagle basketball and baseball player, has mixed feelings about the switch. "Part of me wants to see them move to see if that helps," he said. "The other part still takes pride that, as a smaller school, we battled against those larger schools and were competitive, if not always successful, in the past. If it''s going to help the program, I''m all for switching. But, to me, I think the competition is better overall in a larger conference." Bryan knows there are fans like Jackson who perceive the move as a step down. If current enrollments remain steady, the Class AA Eagles will be joining seven Class A schools in a 10-team Corn Belt. "I think they think we''re moving to a lesser conference, and it''s not," she said. "I don''t want people to think it''s a step down. It''s a lateral move. They''re both great conferences. One just happens to be comprised of bigger schools." In the past year, the Corn Belt has produced state champions in softball (Olympia) and baseball (Olympia), state runners-up in girls'' cross-country (Olympia) and football (Pontiac), a fourth-place team in state dual wrestling (Mahomet-Seymour) and an Elite Eight qualifier in boys'' basketball (Bloomington Central Catholic). "I don''t see us walking into the Corn Belt and dominating, by any means," Eagles girls'' basketball coach Brett Frerichs said. "I think it''s comparable to the Big 12 in many sports." Work to be done If recent history is any indicator, the Eagles can expect to be more than competitive in their new league in a number of sports. Coach Heather Wilson''s volleyball team won a regional title this fall and had won a minimum of 20 matches each of the previous five seasons. The softball program, approaching its seventh season under the direction of either Marv Ideus or Terry Workman, has won eight regionals since 1988. And a traditionally strong boys'' golf program, now coached by Ray Smith, won three regional and sectional titles from 1996-98 and was fourth in the state in 1997. But clearly there is work to be done in football and basketball. Since 1999, Eagle football teams are a cumulative 5-31, including 1-19 in the Big 12. Rantoul girls'' basketball has been in a steady  and now steep  decline since it went 27-3 and won a regional in 1997-98. Entering the weekend, the Eagles were 31-87 in the five seasons since. And boys'' basketball will require a major reversal to avoid its third losing record in the past four years. "It''s kind of puzzling to me," said Jackson, who in his last two seasons played on Rantoul basketball teams that went 21-7 and 18-9. "I know the school is a lot smaller than when I went there, but I would still think it would be a little more competitive than it has been. "When I was in grade school and junior high, there were a few lean years, but they still won a fair share of games. It wasn''t nearly as desperate a situation as it is now. When you''re talking about those three sports, I can''t think of anything to my knowledge that compares." While enrollment is an uncontrollable factor, Bryan and her staff have identified three major areas that can be addressed in their quest to improve Rantoul sports: Coaching turnover, multisport participation and relations with the middle schools. Bryan considers it no coincidence the Eagles'' recent struggles in football and basketball have been accompanied by considerable coaching turnover. Lehnen is the third different football coach in as many years. Frerichs is the second girls'' basketball coach to follow Greg Burk since he resigned in 2000. And, following a long period of stability under Mike Novell, there have been four boys'' basketball coaches in a seven-year span. "A kid learns to play one way and then a new coach comes in and changes things," Oakley said. "I think it''s just confusing and tough for the kids to adapt, year in and year out, with that. They need some stability. Then the kids, year after year, they know what to expect. They know how hard they have to work. They know what the coach''s goals are and just what he expects out of them. I think that only helps the kids." Bryan recognizes that maintaining coaching stability at a school Rantoul''s size might be easier said than done. The Eagles lost Brian Cupples, a much-respected boys'' basketball coach, when Normal West had an opening for the same position after last season. For younger and upwardly-mobile coaches like Cupples, Bryan said: "We''re a training ground, and they move on to bigger schools." But Bryan is hopeful that the current group of new coaches will remain at least long enough to put their sports back on solid footing. "To right the ship, we all need to be here for a number of years," she said. Oakley said Rantoul officials raised the turnover situation during interviews for his position. "They''re not going to stand in the way (of a greater opportunity)," Oakley said, "but part of their feeling was we need to find somebody who is committed to Rantoul and making it better. ... It is important for the program and important for the kids." Spreading thin All schools, to some degree, face factors that work against interesting athletes in several sports. There is an increasing pull toward specialization, fed by the presence of club programs that occupy athletes during seasons when they could be playing other prep sports. Somes athletes need or want to get jobs during at least one of the sports seasons. Some just want to take a break during a given season. And some resist coming out for a second or third sport if that team has a recent history of failure. The largest schools are best equipped to deal with any decline in multisport athletes. For a school of Rantoul''s size, the impact is far harder to absorb. "Some schools can specialize," Bryan said. "Because of our numbers, we have to have as many athletes as possible participate in as many things as possible." Just as vital, Bryan says, is establishing stronger ties to the feeder schools in its district. Athletes from middle schools in Rantoul, Gifford, Ludlow, Thomasboro and Flatville represent the future of Eagle athletics, a fact Bryan concedes hasn''t been as strongly acknowledged as it could or should. "In the past, there hasn''t been as great a connection as we would like to develop," she said. Eagle coaches are trying to do something about that. For Rantoul''s last home volleyball games, all junior high volleyball teams that feed into the high school were invited guests. A schedule is being arranged for each of the boys'' and girls'' basketball teams at the middle schools to attend a high school game. Frerichs took his team to a girls'' basketball game at Rantoul''s J.W. Eater, where his players met with their junior high counterparts. Middle schools coaches, if they aren''t already, will be encouraged to become involved in offseason youth camps run by the high school. Such contact and interest has been too long in coming, according to one veteran junior high coach. "It''s about time," said Mary Ann Day, in her 21st year as girls'' basketball coach at Eater. "I know with the (Rantoul) girls'' program, I was never talked to about what they would like us to emphasize or if they wanted a certain defense or a certain offense incorporated at a younger age. "I''d be more than happy to work with their coaches. I think it''s their job to come to us." Eater boys'' basketball coach Chris Wagner said his contact with Rantoul coaches in the past also was limited. "A small amount of communication, nothing major," he said. "They would come see a few games here and there and ask about players, but not too much." That appears to be changing. "I think it''s going in that direction because Coach Oakley has come and spoken to me three or four times, come to some games," Wagner said. Day and Wagner both said they would be open to implementing systems used at the high school level. Since there is no organized basketball for Rantoul girls until seventh grade, Day said, the focus at that level must be on fundamentals. However, she said a system that mirrors the high school''s could be implemented for Eater''s eighth-graders. Eater does offer boys'' basketball starting in sixth grade, so Wagner said his seventh- and eighth-graders could be running systems similar to the high school''s. "I would be agreeable to that," he said "I think that''s a good thing. As far as a main style of play  playing up and down (the court) or a zone  I am definitely open to his suggestions and philosophies." Since the feeder schools do no offer football, Lehnen is attempting to establish a close relationship with the Falcons'' program of the Central Illinois Youth Football League. Because the Falcons draw players who feed into three high school districts, "the key thing is we need to get more Rantoul kids playing on that team," Lehnen said. "It''s how many kids from Rantoul that come from that program that is going to be crucial for our success." No doubt, some Eagles fans are growing impatient for that success. For them, a 1990 Rantoul graduate and ex-Eagles basketball player has this message: "I''ve lived here all my life and I''ve seen the cycles," Frerichs said. "I know we''re going to bounce back. The talent level does go in cycles."

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