When a trio of area schools — Cissna Park, Iroquois West and Watseka — opted earlier this year to leave the Sangamon Valley Conference after next school year in favor of the Vermilion Valley Conference, that left another trio of local schools — Central, Dwight and Momence — in the dark on their future conference plans.
The question still remains on what those schools will do for most sports, but in football, that question has been answered.
Along with Seneca, which is a football-only SVC school, the Comets, Trojans and Momence will bring another quartet of football teams to the newly shaped VVC, creating a 12-team super conference on the gridiron, effective at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“Honestly, it was scary for a bit there — nobody wants to be an at-large football school, but I’m really excited for the school, and I think we’re in a better spot,” Momence athletic director Ted Rounds said. “We hope to continue the football alliance for a long time, and that’s how all the schools felt. We’re really grateful.”
With 12 teams set to be a part of the conference’s football slate, two six-team divisions will be created. Each school will play its five division rivals and fill its schedule with four divisional crossover games. For the schools that previously had been left in the dark, not only does the move give them a conference to call home but also fills a complete schedule, which means less scrambling to fill nonconference weeks.
Central athletic director Jeff Fenton agreed with Rounds on the sigh of relief they can breath and recognized the divisions provide even more relief from the perspective of an AD.
“It’s a big relief; with how football goes, you need to be in a conference to make a playoff run,” Fenton said. “With two divisions, we’ll have a full slate, so that helps alleviate trying to schedule nonconference games.”
Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said the three schools moving all sports to the VVC wanted their SVC mates to join in the full transition, but when that wasn’t going to happen, the next best thing was to at least keep the conference together for football.
“We’ve been talking about it since we went to the VVC, how we kind of wanted the whole package,” Bauer said. “But with it just in football, that’s exciting because we can keep those teams on the schedule.
“We had made an agreement [to play] with Central and were working with Momence, so I think it’s a good thing for us and the conference in general, making us stronger.”
Fenton said the Comets were hoping to make a full-time switch to the VVC when their conference mates did the same, but the daily travel simply would be too much, especially for games played on weekdays. He also credited Rounds with getting the ball rolling on the football-only decision.
“We requested to get in with [Cissna Park, Iroquois West and Watseka], and it didn’t work out because the weekday travel would be too much,” Fenton said. “Ted Rounds mostly came up with the idea to see if we would be considered for just football.
“We sent a letter [to the VVC] asking if it was something they’d consider, and they had already talked about it, so it was a mutual thing.”
Many SVC programs already filled at least part of their nonconference slates with current VVC teams, so the adjustment period won’t be as drastic as a typical conference change might be. But for Dwight football coach Luke Standiford, there still will be an adjustment period.
“We have a little familiarity with those schools, but ultimately, it will be different figuring out what those teams like to do,” Standiford said. “With these new schools, it’s a lot of scouting, figuring out what their traditions are and gameplanning for those teams.”
As easy as it might be to think about the future, as well as the current uncertainty of the 2020-21 season because of the coronavirus, Standiford, similar to other coaches and administrators involved in the move, is doing what he can to keep his kids focused on the task at hand, a football season set to start next month.
“That’s the main focus. We’ve just gotta work on what we can control, and that’s getting on he field and preparing for 2020 — getting in the weight room and things under our control,” Standiford said. “You never know what’s [going to] happen the next day, so we [have to] not pay attention to what’s in the news.”
As far as other sports go, Seneca is a member of the Tri-County Conference. Central, Dwight and Momence still are weighing their options for conference homes for all other sports.