Winds of change blowing through Okaw Valley Conference
MONTICELLO — The Okaw Valley Conference will start its 87th year of competition in August.
It won't be the last year for the venerable league, but it likely will be the next-to-last in its current 12-school setup.
A series of meetings during the past month — some involving principals and/or superintendents, some involving athletic directors — have resulted in another scheduled gathering for Monday morning with the five schools committed to preserving the Okaw Valley Conference.
In a Wednesday meeting this week with ADs from the 12 current Okaw schools, Monticello's Randy Moss said "we figured out that probably the time has come that some members need to go in a different direction than the Okaw is going."
Even if decisions about departures are made by individual school boards in July or thereafter, the league will remain intact until the 2014-15 school year. The Okaw's constitution requires a two-year notice before a school withdraws from the league.
Monticello, a charter member of the Okaw, is joined by Clinton, Decatur St. Teresa, Maroa-Forsyth and Unity as schools firmly committed to continuing the tradition of the Okaw.
"With the 12 schools we have to this day, I feel it is one of the best small-school conferences in the state of Illinois," Moss said. "The success we've had at the state level is because of the competition we've had."
A successful league
In the five years since the Okaw expanded from 10 to 12 teams — with Tuscola and Unity the newest additions — league teams have won 26 team trophies in IHSA state tournaments.
"We joined a wonderful league," Unity AD Scott Hamilton said.
With one exception (Maroa-Forsyth) the schools that plan to stay in the Okaw are the ones with the largest enrollments or, in the case of St. Teresa, the ones with the largest enrollments after the IHSA-imposed multiplier is added.
"I thought the Okaw was a perfect fit, but we found that's not the case for everybody," Moss said. "It started out as four or five schools looking (elsewhere) because of demographics or travel or they weren't able to compete with the rest of the Okaw."
Some schools that had not previously planned on leaving suddenly found themselves backed into a corner.
"We were caught off guard," Argenta-Oreana AD Dan Sheehan said, "but it's a no-brainer if five or six schools our size leave. We have no issues with the Okaw, but it may be a domino effect. If they go that direction, they know what direction we will go."
Tuscola, which was already the second-smallest school based on enrollments, could find itself in a situation similar to A-O, though Moss and Hamilton made sure their feelings are abundantly clear.
"The relationship Tuscola has with us and Unity has been good competition, and you'd like to see them stay," Moss said. "Being one of the smaller ones in the conference, I'm not sure they have a choice."
For now, Hamilton prefers to remain cautious in his predictions.
"I sure don't want one of my comments to be one that forces someone out," he said. "I don't want anyone to have reason to blame anything on us. If this does go away, we want to know we've done everything we can to keep it intact."
The first fall the Okaw crowned a football champion (1926), the winner was Tuscola. The Year 2 champion was Monticello.
The next step
Athletic directors from Monticello, Clinton, St. Teresa, Maroa-Forsyth and Unity will meet Monday morning. The idea is to be proactive and prepared for a league breakup that appears inevitable.
Moss said when he queried his colleagues for advice earlier this week, the prevailing feeling was "look for different members."
Adding to the conference is not a guaranteed win-win scenario.
"When you draw somebody else in, that hurts another conference," Moss said. "It's sad that it happens that way."
No invitations will be extended immediately, Hamilton said, because "nothing will be official until we get resignation letters. The five of us will be exploring some things."
Based on enrollments, there are at least a half-dozen possible schools from three conferences that could be considered for membership. Among them are St. Joseph-Ogden, St. Thomas More and Paxton-Buckley-Loda from the Sangamon Valley Conference, Rantoul and Olympia from the Corn Belt Conference and Mount Zion from the Apollo Conference.
There is one certainty, Moss said.
"We don't want one of the five to be unhappy with the direction we're going," he said. "Ten (schools) would be great, but you'd like to have eight for sure and then make sure those eight are happy going to 10. If someone is coming in, we want them on the same page as far as the conference.
"The consensus was we need to go to eight teams right away."
Hamilton tries to remain optimistic, but the uncertainty makes it difficult.
"Hopefully, something can be saved," he said. "Definitely some of us will be on pins and needles.
"The Okaw has always been a strong league. It has been up and down in numbers. My guess is there will be change about every three or four years, but the Okaw will always be the Okaw."
Meanwhile, the Little Okaw Valley Conference added schools from three different conferences Thursday: Decatur Lutheran, Oblong and former LOVC member Sangamon Valley. The additions give the LOVC 10 football-playing members for the 2014-15 school year.
By the numbers
A look at the 12 schools currently in the Okaw Valley Conference and their enrollments for the 2012-13 school year:
Central A&M 280
x—St. Teresa 287
x—with IHSA-imposed multiplier, official enrollment is listed at 473.55.
A look at six of the possible schools that could be in line for invitations to the Okaw, if an exodus prompts the league to seek new members, and their enrollments for the 2012-13 school year:
y—St. Thomas More 294
St. Joseph-Ogden 494
Mount Zion 752
y—with IHSA-imposed multiplier, official enrollment is listed at 485.10.