Kroner: Okaw Valley shakeup sure to leave a mess
There will be more stories to tell before the nine schools leaving the prestigious Okaw Valley Conference start playing games among themselves.
The next chapter remains under construction, but there's no shortage of themes.
Will a 10th school join the nine who are bolting?
Will Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello and Unity convince other schools to join the Okaw and keep it intact?
Will those three schools be accepted into conferences that currently exist?
Will they wind up as independents without any league affiliation?
Whatever develops, there is one certainty.
"Unfortunately, what you do for your school is not always best for other schools," said Meridian Principal Jack Blickensderfer, one of the advocates of getting the Okaw Valley to disband. "You've got to make decisions sometimes and, unfortunately, you hurt other people. That's not your intent."
Change of direction
The as-yet unnamed league that will start operating in 2014-15 will include Argenta-Oreana, Central A&M, Clinton, Decatur St. Teresa, Meridian, Shelbyville, Sullivan, Tuscola and Warrensburg-Latham.
That's nine schools.
"In an ideal world, we're a team short," Blickensderfer said.
In a football-driven search for an additional team, remaining at nine schools means each league member would have an open week to find a football game.
"Trying to get games between weeks 3 and 7 is pretty tough," Monticello athletic director Randy Moss said.
Among the schools the departing Okaw schools are courting are Arthur-Lovington, Cerro Gordo, Sangamon Valley and Kincaid South Fork, but Blickensderfer said "we've had no success at this time."
Though Moss said "it was inevitable it was going to happen," that doesn't mean he's pleased by the direction things are heading. "From the get-go, it left a bad taste in your mouth," he said, "the way it started in May, very secretly, not including everyone. When the smoke cleared, it's probably the best thing. You knew it was coming. You just didn't know when it was coming."
While smaller schools in the Okaw felt overmatched against schools whose enrollments were nearly twice theirs in size, the bigger schools had problems of their own.
"This year, we had to find two freshman football games because some conference schools didn't have a (freshman) team," Moss said. "Last year, one school didn't have a JV girls' basketball team. They weren't offering enough things for all of our students. That's why I say in the long run, it's probably best."
Monticello, Unity and Maroa-Forsyth will evaluate options but can't exist as a three-school league. The IHSA doesn't grant football playoff berths to conference champions with fewer than six schools.
"We'll make contacts and see what we come up with," Moss said. "I'm pretty confident we will find something somewhere."
Hurdles to clear
Whatever path is pursued, there are potential roadblocks. The Corn Belt and Sangamon Valley have been mentioned as possible fits.
The SVC has seven football-playing schools, so adding three more schools would solve a scheduling problem in football. Each school would have its nine-game schedule automatically filled. However, there are other sports to consider. Imagine going from Maroa to Clifton for a weeknight volleyball match or from Watseka to Tolono for a 4 p.m. school-day baseball game.
Also, imagine where the votes would come from to admit schools that have emerged as recent football powers. Unity has won 177 football games in the 18-plus years that Scott Hamilton has coached, Maroa-Forsyth has won 79 in the past seven years and Monticello has reversed its fortunes under Cully Welter's coaching tenure with three straight playoff berths.
The Corn Belt, with eight schools, wouldn't be a good fit for three additions, so which two might be the best choices? What happens to the other school?
Again, there are the same travel concerns that exist when looking at the SVC. Who would look forward to a weeknight trip from Tolono to Eureka for a 4 p.m. softball game? Or driving on wintry roads from Olympia to Monticello for a Thursday night girls' basketball game when the return home would likely include an after-midnight arrival?
The best solution, of course, would have been status quo. That alternative is no longer available. Perhaps a possibility that Moss never favored in the past would solve problems.
"Hopefully the IHSA will be smart and figure out to let everyone in the (football) playoffs and we won't have to worry about this," he said.
It is interesting to note this isn't the first time the Okaw Valley has endured a mass exodus. In 1971, the seven smallest league members left to form the Little Okaw Valley Conference. The schools that left were Arthur, Atwood-Hammond, Bement, Cerro Gordo, Newman, Oakland and Villa Grove. Five years later, Arcola dropped out of the Okaw to join the LOVC.
"Now the trickle-down has hit our league," Hamilton said. "Eventually, the trickle-down will hit someone else. We've been down this road before. I'm confident our coaches and administrators will do what's best for our student-athletes, and we'll be stronger in the end.
"The Okaw has been a great league for a long, long time. Those who are left will do what we can do, but it will be a battle trying to figure out where you can go."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school column. Reach him by phone (217-351-5232), by fax (217-373-7401) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.