ROCK ISLAND — It was one of the most exciting things to happen during the 2018-19 school year for Illinois Quad-Cities sports fans in a long time.
When the Western Big 6 Conference invited Geneseo and Sterling into the league, it made for a lot of talk and a lot less headaches for scheduling in several sports.
The most excitement, obviously, came from football. No longer would the questions be asked about what if Rock Island played Geneseo or Moline played Sterling. That is going to happen starting in the next few weeks.
Sadly, that may all come to an end after just two gridiron seasons with the vote last December that will have the IHSA playing in districts which would put teams in groups based on their enrollment. That means WB6 teams will be scattered all over the map and very few will play each other starting in 2021.
Does that mean Wednesday night's Western Big 6 Football Banquet will also go away? Let's hope not, but you never know.
"We had finally gotten to the point where we could play the Iowa schools and we had the conference schedule that left us with no conflicts and a full schedule," Moline coach Mike Morrissey said. "It is really sad to see such a great tradition potentially going away. The Big 6 is a special conference and I'd hate to see it go away in football."
And that is something Rock Island coach Ben Hammer worries about. All other sports for boys and girls will continue to play in the Big 6, with the additions of Geneseo and Sterling. Those rivalries will live on, those in football could go away.
"We feel like we have always been Quad-Cities located so we have always compared our program to the Rock Islands, Molines and UTs," Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. "It is great for our fans and the media coverage from the Quad-Cities will only add to it.
"I know some programs, including Alleman, where districts would be beneficial, but it would be fun to play those (Q-C) teams all the time."
In the IHSA mock district plan, all the local teams would be in eight-team districts, leaving just two open dates for non-district games. There would just be not enough dates for long-time rivalries such as Rock Island-Moline, Moline-United Township, Alleman-Moline, Rock Island-Alleman, let alone the new rivalries with Geneseo and Sterling or the much-anticipated cross-river games.
"I'm an old-school guy who grew up playing the teams from the Iowa side every year," Alleman coach Todd Depoorter said. "That was a great experience and I was really excited when that became possible again.
"Then, the Illinois-side rivalries in the Big 6 are as good as it gets. If the district thing is what it is, we won't get to play all of them any more. I want to keep our rivalry games with Rocky, Moline and UT; and I want to keep playing Assumption. I'm just not sure how it will wind up working."
Geneseo coach Larry Johnsen Jr. could not wait to start the new Western Big 6 Conference. Now, he worries it will end for football.
"It is sad to think the new Western Big 6 could end for football after two seasons," Johnsen said. "I am so excited about it starting this year, especially for the parents and fans. They can get to every game and not have to get home at 1 or 2 in the morning.
"I do understand the thinking of districts for teams such as Alleman and ourself having to play bigger schools like Moline, Quincy, Rock Island and UT. But overall what I'm seeing with this plan it is just shuffling the problems of one group of schools to another.
The talk is there may be a re-vote with a new proposal coming in early December. Still, there are more questions than answers at this point and that is what Quincy coach Rick Little doesn't understand.
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"In terms of the Big 6, our relationship is too good to give up unless it is the right thing," Little said. "We love the people in the Quad-Cities. Those schools could very easily have let us go a long time ago, so that they've kept us on board in a conference means a lot.
"From the travel point, we're used to it so we can't complain about that. My thing is I don't have enough answers. Is this going to be good in the long term? I just don't have enough information to say if this is good or not."
As Little said, there is no merit to the district situation in some ways. However, it is the unknown that scares many school. Galesburg, Rock Island and United Township would play in the mock district with five schools from the Peoria area. That would make travel very simple, but those schools know others won't have it so easy.
Moline is slated to join Quincy in a grouping that would have four opponents in the St. Louis area. Geneseo and Sterling would be playing in a league that would take them to Rockford, Morris and Joliet.
"I know a lot of people don't like the districts and want to get rid of it," Hammer said. "I know our district looks like it would be OK for us and travel but some other teams in the Big 6 don't have it that way."
Added first-year United Township coach Nick Welch, "I do understand that some conferences are having a hard time to find games. Just for us, I would say our proposed district is a good one in terms of travel and still getting to play Rocky and Galesburg but then I look at Moline and they have a terrible problem.
"What this policy says is the IHSA gets to decide who you will play and where you will play and I'm not sure that is a good thing."
As much as schools complain about the district plan, the key now is to come up with something that works for everyone.
"As coaches, we need to get together and talk and come up with something that is better for everyone," Morrissey said. "I've heard a lot of things but nothing is settled at this point. Could we still have a Western Big 6? I think that is on the table and something I'd love to see."
Added Johnsen, "What I would like to do is find a way to get a solution where everyone is satisfied and we work together. The thing I see is once it starts with districts in football, it is only a matter of time before it happens in every sport."
When it all comes down to it, the coaches really don't have a final say. They can make a proposal, they can hash it out. But the member school votes come from either athletic directors or principals. That's not a bad thing, according to some coaches.
"In terms of what is next, other than me giving Michelle (Lillis, Rock Island athletic director) my opinions it is up to her to fight for what the school wants and my job to keep coaching our players," said Hammer.
Added Depoorter, "I can't predict the future as to how this will eventually end. It's all right with me that most of this is out of my hands. The people who understand these things better handle that stuff and I just coach."
Welch agrees, especially in his first season as a head coach. He believes there will be change, but he won't be making that decision.
"I know a lot of older and wiser coaches who tell me that this thing might not stick," he said. "All I know is I have people who make a lot more money than I do who can make these decisions and I'll just coach."