Posted Online: June 16, 2012, 6:40 pm
Shaky ground: Local conference landscape changes dramatically in recent years
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By Daniel Makarewicz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Up until seven years ago, conference shifting amongst high schools was almost nonexistent.
Photo: Photo illustration: Kermit Stevenson / staff|
Up until seven years ago, conference shifting amongst high schools was almost nonexistent. Maybe there was occasional movement, but nothing drastic that impacted every league in the Illinois Quad-Cities region. In an unexpected twist beginning in 2005, the landscape changed and the conference ground grew shaky. Suddenly, conference shifting became a trend.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck|
The Riverdale and Rockridge volleyball teams meet in a nonconference volleyball game last September in Edgington. Those two programs will be league rivals once Rockridge joins the Three Rivers Conference for the 2013-14 school year.
Maybe there was occasional movement, but nothing drastic that impacted every league in the Illinois Quad-Cities region. In an unexpected twist beginning in 2005, the landscape changed and the conference ground grew shaky.
Suddenly, conference shifting became a trend.
"It's been crazy," former Sherrard athletic director Brady Stromquist said. "You can't even go through six months without a conference changing or a school exploring options. There's always going to be something going on. I'd love to go back to the old days -- you were in your conference and you were set."
As recent developments indicate, change now is part of the conference culture. Look at the collegiate level for more examples: Nebraska in the Big Ten? Mizzou going to the SEC? Boise State joining the Big East?
Local changes have yet to reach that scale, but the turnover since 2005 is prolific.
"It's been almost a revolving door," Geneseo athletic director Travis Mackey said.
Since 2005, seven local high schools have moved into new leagues. By this time next year, all five local conferences -- Lincoln Trail, Northern Illinois Big 12, Three Rivers, West Central and Western Big 6 -- may have shrunk or expanded in a seven-year period. From 1995-2005, only the Lincoln Trail and Three Rivers experienced changes.
"It's not surprising," former Mercer County athletic director Brian Dennison said. "It's the nature of the beast."
Why is this happening?
Answering that question is not complicated. Ask anyone associated with all the movement and the first response is football scheduling. To them, all the conference changes are triggered by the need to fill nine regular-season football dates.
Other reasons include economics and distance, but those directly involved in recent conference changes believe all this movement is driven by football.
"If your conference has the right number of schools," recently retired Riverdale principal and Illinois High School Association board member Jim Boyd said, "that puts everybody at ease."
Ten-team conferences -- rare not too long ago -- are the dream. Join one and all scheduling headaches are over.
Finding the right one plays a factor, though. Proximity, enrollments and competition level are keys to a successful union. Since most schools around the Q-C share those descriptions, three of the five local conferences will have at least 10 teams once the 2013-14 school year begins.
Ten teams work perfectly for all other sports since an even amount of schools allow schedules to be easily filled. For football, the entire conference slate will cover the nine-game schedule and end all nonconference dates.
The convenience of that is too hard to pass up.
Valentine's Day 2005 appears to be the starting point for all the recent movement. On that day, Aledo -- now called Mercer County after the school consolidated with Westmer three years ago -- was unanimously approved for membership in the Lincoln Trail Conference.
With the move official, the Olympic Conference was without Aledo, putting the league down to seven schools when the 2006-07 school year started.
"We wanted to stay in it," said Dennison, the Aledo athletic director at the time. "But they wouldn't allow us to do what was right for our kids."
A numbers crunch due to dwindling enrollments at the two Mercer County school districts brought the idea of Aledo and Westmer serving as co-ops for some sports, including football. Olympic bylaws prevented co-ops for its members. So Aledo -- one of the eight founding Olympic members in 1976 along with Westmer, which had already moved to the Lincoln Trail -- searched for a better fit as it prepared for what ultimately became a consolidation.
Outsiders may view the move as being selfish. Aledo saw it as a way to survive and provide better opportunities for its students.
Plus, the demise of the Olympic was inevitable.
"If Aledo stays, we still eventually would have lost Knoxville or Farmington," Stromquist said. "We may have picked up Kewanee or somebody else, but it's hard to say. Eventually, it would have changed."
Everything did. Since that Valentine's Day, four local schools -- Monmouth-Roseville, Orion, Rockridge and Sherrard -- which were Olympic members, have changed leagues at least once. Farmington and Knoxville both left for the Prairieland Conference, forcing the Olympic to fold after the 2009-10 school year as it was left with five members.
When that happened, those four aforementioned schools joined the West Central Conference.
"I thought (those four schools) were all good fits," Pittsfield athletic director and West Central president Don Bigley said. "Everything about them was ideal."
Turns out, more changes lie ahead.
'So much change'
Most of the conference changes have occurred within the last seven years, but 1994 appears to be the last time everything seemed normal. That year, eight leagues comprised every football-playing school in the immediate Illinois Quad-Cities region, with 26 local teams as members.
Five of those eight leagues -- NCIC Northeast, NCIC Southwest, Olympic, Indian Valley and Bi-County -- no longer exist. The Indian Valley dissolved following that season, the Bi-County in 1997 and the Olympic and two NCIC leagues after the 2009-10 school year.
Consolidations and co-ops were the culprits for most of those conferences falling apart. The old days of every little town having a high school are gone, which has spurred all this upheaval. Since 1994, those 26 local football teams are down to 19.
Every current area conference, other than the Western Big 6, has at least one co-op or consolidated school as a member, with the Lincoln Trail featuring four. With that happening, there were fewer teams to play and conferences lost members. A direct result was conferences merging, expanding or disbanding.
"There's been so much change," Boyd said.
All of it contributed to the conference shakeups.
'A domino effect'
Aledo's departure from the Olympic Conference forced the remaining schools to find a new home. Kewanee was considered to be a savior, but it left the NCIC Lincoln to be the ninth school in the Three Rivers Conference after the 2009-10 school year.
Monmouth-Roseville, Orion, Rockridge and Sherrard became West Central members for the 2010-11 school year. That same year, Geneseo and the six other NCIC Reagan members merged with five schools from the Western Sun Conference to form the Northern Illinois Big 12.
Those three leagues, plus the Big 6 and Lincoln Trail, appeared stable and set for years. Pretty soon, another wave hit.
Within the last year, the Three Rivers added Orion, Rockridge and Sherrard for the 2013-14 school year. Those three leaving the West Central meant the league was down to five football-playing schools, one short of it receiving a guaranteed IHSA playoff berth. Being proactive, the West Central invited and ultimately accepted Chillicothe IVC and Quincy Notre Dame from the Peoria-based Mid-State 6. Those two join next year.
"A domino effect," Boyd said. "It just rolls and rolls and rolls."
West Central's expansion could impact the Big 6. In late March, the league began talks with the Mid-State 6 since it was left with four football-playing schools. The Mid-State 6 -- now consisting of Peoria High, Manual, Notre Dame and Richwoods -- offered a merger proposal for all sports with the Big 6, meaning the conference could expand for the first time in its history.
The Big 6 meets Wednesday in Galesburg to discuss the proposal. Many believe the merger proposal could be approved or denied at that time.
"It's been exciting, interesting," United Township athletic director Mike Tracey said of the discussions with the Mid-State 6. "If I had to pick a word, it would be frustrating."
Geneseo feels the same way. Three years ago when it joined the newly created Northern Illinois Big 12, the Maple Leafs felt this league was safe with 12 members of relatively equal size and ideal locations. Now the future is cloudy since Dixon was approved to join the Big Northern Conference in 2014. Streator also has expressed interests in other leagues.
"We have 11 teams (moving forward)," Mackey said. "Whether we look to expand to 12 or it goes to 10, I just don't know. ... Right now, we're sitting at 11 and trying to expand. We're looking to try and get more teams in our conference."
With that being said, another conference could possibly lose a member to fill the vacancy.
Take a look at all the conference changes both locally, statewide and nationally. All are done for a myriad of reasons, but an overlooked one may be stability. No one wants to constantly move.
Sometimes, it just happens.
"It's kind of interesting," Boyd said. "It's fascinating."
For some it is, but not everyone. When the current editions of the Northern Illinois Big 12 and West Central conferences started two years ago, there was the hope the marriages would last.
"Going into it, we had talked about this being a long-term solution," Stromquist said of Sherrard's move into the West Central. "We had approached it as a long-term solution."
When a better opportunity came from schools such as Orion, Rockridge, Sherrard, Chillicothe IVC, Dixon and Quincy Notre Dame, each jumped at the chance. All those decisions had repercussions, but none of them regret what happened.
Presented with stability and a logistically better conference, no one would turn that down.
"Each school has a reason to make switches," Rockridge athletic director Scott Daly said. "From our standpoint, we're very excited and comfortable with the move. For the foreseeable future, we're wanting to stay in the Three Rivers Conference."
What lies ahead
Truth is, no one knows what lies ahead.
By this time next week, there is a chance the Big 6 could be different. The Northern Illinois Big 12 obviously will change in two years. Bigley concedes the West Central could have a new look in the future.
Even worse, the shakeup is not isolated into this region.
"It's everywhere," Stromquist said. "It's not just here."
Conferences throughout the state are hearing rumors of schools looking elsewhere. The reality is nothing can prevent movement unless something is done to corral it.
Since most believe football drives the changes, some hope the IHSA becomes involved and creates the schedules for every team in the state.
"They've talked about it. There have been proposals," Boyd said. "Whether it comes or not, I'm not sure. I wouldn't think it would be any time soon, but I could be wrong."
Efforts to reach IHSA executive director Marty Hickman for this story were unsuccessful.
"I know four or five years ago, I would have been totally against the IHSA assigning games," Bigley said. "But what our conference has gone through the last few years, I'm not sure I'd be against it."
Not all conferences have experienced change recently, but that number seems far less than the ones who have. Times have changed and so have conferences.
Actually, lots of them.
"In a way," Boyd said, "it's kind of sad."