PAXTON — It wouldn’t have been the least bit unusual earlier this century to see Paxton-Buckley-Loda’s athletic teams squaring off against those of St. Joseph-Ogden and St. Thomas More.
It still isn’t in the present. There just aren’t conference records at stake, like in the past.
That soon could change.
PBL athletic director Brock Niebuhr confirmed Friday that his school placed an all-sports bid to join the Illini Prairie Conference. Friday was the deadline to submit such applications.
Officials of the 10-team league that includes Monticello, Prairie Central, Rantoul, SJ-O, STM and Unity publicly posted in February that the IPC was seeking a football-only member school while also keeping the door open to adding an all-sports member. This was in response to STM in January leaving IHSA 11-man football to join the Illinois 8-Man Football Association, though the Sabers will remain in the IPC in all other sports.
Prairie Central principal Brad Allen, the IPC’s president, told The News-Gazette on Friday that four applications had been received from schools wanting to join the IPC. He added that he couldn’t share any specifics on the identity of those schools.
“At this time, the IPC principals have determined the top priority is to replace St. Thomas More on the football schedule, which will allow us to have 10 football members and 11 total conference members,” Allen wrote in an email. “We will be sharing all letters of interest with Illini Prairie Conference principals on March 16. Principals will vote on March 23.”
PBL has been in the Sangamon Valley Conference since 1990, formerly with rivals such as SJ-O and STM.
The league currently consists of seven all-sports schools and Seneca in a football capacity, and PBL has the largest IHSA-listed enrollment of the seven all-sports members at 472. None of the other six possesses an enrollment larger than 344.
This, Niebuhr said, was the impetus behind PBL looking for a change.
“We’re playing a lot of 1A schools within our conference, and we’re clearly and solidly 2A,” said Niebuhr, who also noted PBL was a 3A football program in 2019. “At this point, it seems like a good fit (with the IPC).
“We have a lot of confidence ... that we’re going to be able to go in the Illini Prairie and compete.”
PBL would rank eighth in this year’s IPC by enrollment, ahead of SJ-O (467.5), Bloomington Central Catholic (324) and STM (281). The seven larger schools hold an IHSA enrollment between 511 and 763.
Niebuhr said PBL would not apply for a spot in the IPC if it was a football-only position, adding that the school wasn’t actively seeking to change leagues before STM’s 8-man football announcement.
“That was kind of a situation that all evolved really quickly,” Niebuhr said.
PBL as an SVC member is accustomed to facing IPC schools in several sports. During the 2019 volleyball regular season, for example, the Panthers matched up with Monticello, Prairie Central, Rantoul, SJ-O, STM and Unity. Niebuhr also described any changes in travel time and distance as “almost going to be a wash.”
“I don’t want to discredit the history of PBL in the Sangamon Valley,” Niebuhr said. “Obviously, we’ll do everything we can to keep the rivalries and things going (with those schools). ... There are absoluely no hard feelings with anything going on in the Sangamon Valley. We think the time is right to make the switch.”