HOIC addition creates division

HOIC addition creates division

The Heart of Illinois Conference has avoided the hassle of conference realignment the past five years as nearly every other league in the area experienced one upheaval or another.

While the Okaw Valley Conference broke apart after the 2013-14 school year and is set to dissolve in 2017-18 with a merger with the Corn Belt to form the new Illini Prairie, the HOIC has remained steady.

The only change? Adding Eureka starting this fall.

The stability of the HOIC was front and center with the release of the 2016 football schedules on Thursday. The conference now has 12 football programs, compared with 11 last season, and is split into two divisions based on enrollment.

“That’s something that’s really good for us being one of the smallest, if not the smallest,” first-year Fisher coach Jake Palmer said. The Bunnies have the second-smallest enrollment among HOIC small-division schools for 2016-17, behind Flanagan-Cornell. “Sometimes it’s tough when you’re a school of (190) kids and you’re playing a school with 300 kids or more than double.”

The HOIC formed in 2006 and has built itself into one of the premier Class 1A and 2A football conferences in the state. Seven of the 11 conference teams made the 2015 playoffs, four (Tri-Valley, Deer Creek-Mackinaw, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley and LeRoy) reached at least the quarterfinal round, and Tri-Valley won the 2A state title.

“That just says a lot when you’re talking about playoff readiness when you’re getting ready for the postseason having played some of the best teams
in the state of Illinois,” Palmer said.

Adding Eureka doesn’t provide an immediate boost to the HOIC’s football profile — the Hornets have won just 10 games the past seven seasons and boast just eight playoff appearances in the last 30 years — but it does lock in an already-stable conference.

Each HOIC team will play one nonconference game. The other eight are against HOIC opponents, but only those against division foes count toward the conference standings.

“It really is nice to have that set schedule and be able to set it out two, three, four, five years from now and know it will still be a solid schedule,” GCMS athletic director and football coach Mike Allen said.

Allen is entering his 16th season at GCMS. He saw the HOIC form and has been there every step of the way as it’s stayed together the last decade while other conferences have split apart.

“I think that the leadership amongst our administration in the conference has really done a lot to make our conference appealing — not only athletically but the fine arts programs and scholarship programs,” Allen said. “It’s a nice, well-rounded conference that brings a lot to the table besides athletics. I think that’s what kept it very stable for all the schools involved.”

Allen said the HOIC is set as a conference. For now. Should overtures from other schools come, the HOIC will listen, but that doesn’t mean change is in the league’s immediate future.

A Week 1 showdown with Paxton-Buckley-Loda is in Allen and GCMS’ future. That particular rivalry game between the only two high schools in Ford County has bounced around the schedule — sometimes happening in Week 9, other times in the middle of the season.

Allen isn’t exactly thrilled with a Week 1 showdown with the Panthers, who reached the Class 3A playoffs last season and advanced to the second round, but that’s what the Falcons, who went 11-1 and reached the 1A state quarterfinals before losing a one-point game at home against eventual state champion Arcola, will have to handle. The Falcons won last year’s meeting 51-0.

“You can’t put too much emphasis on a Week 1 game, but it is a big game for both schools,” Allen said. “I would rather start off with someone else than PBL for Week 1. That’s a big game for Week 1 with both teams having good seasons last year and both teams hoping for good seasons this year.”

Fisher faces a tough task in Week 1, too, traveling to Tuscola. Games against GCMS and Fieldcrest follow.

“It’s exciting to kick off my head coaching career in my old stomping grounds,” said Palmer, a Villa Grove graduate. “It definitely presents some challenges, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m excited for my kids to see how we embrace and attack that challenge. We’re looking forward to getting after it and playing some of the best teams in the state of Illinois, we think, for 1A and 2A.”

A different look
The Heart of Illinois Conference divisions for football as a result of Eureka joining this season:
HOIC Large Division
Eureka    493
El Paso-Gridley    369
Fieldcrest    343
Deer Creek-Mackinaw    333
Tri-Valley    330
Ridgeview    149

HOIC Small Division

Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley    334
Tremont    283
Heyworth    254
LeRoy    244
Fisher    190
Flanagan-Cornell    140