Over the past decade or so, the changing of conferences has become more and more popular among Illinois High School Association member schools. And on Wednesday, the area saw its latest conference shifting when a trio of schools decided to leave the Sangamon Valley Conference at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Cissna Park, Iroquois West and Watseka were approved as new members of the Vermilion Valley Conference this week, joining Paxton-Buckley-Loda (Illini Prairie Conference) as SVC schools to find a new conference.
While P-B-L’s decision certainly nudged the three schools to make their own changes, Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said that the momentum started as far back as 2014, when St. Thomas More and St. Joseph-Ogden departed the SVC, although that was the same year Dwight joined from the Interstate Eight Conference.
“For the past few years, we’ve been trying to draw some teams into the SVC with all of the conference jumping over the past 10 years,” Bauer said. “We were trying to find some people, and then when P-B-L left, we were looking at trying to add two or three schools.”
Kristy Arie, the athletic director at Iroquois West, echoed Bauer’s sentiments, noting that P-B-L’s departure was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“As much as [St. Thomas More and St. Joseph-Ogden] dominated the conference at times, it was tough losing them and then not replacing them to strengthen our numbers,” Arie said. “For the three years I’ve been athletic director, we’ve been trying to recruit schools and find people to replace them. With P-B-L leaving, it just really broke things past repair in a lot of ways.”
The VVC currently has 10 schools, six of which have 11-man football teams. Milford is the lone area school currently in the conference. They co-op with Cissna Park for 8-man football, softball and track and field.
Timberwolves athletic director Josh Landon said that the rivalries in sports such as baseball, volleyball and basketball, some of the most intense area rivalries around, will only be amplified once they also become more meaningful in conference races.
“They will be intensified for sure,” Landon said. “These kids on the boys side, they’re asked to be teammates in football, and they make it work and have been successful.
“When they go at it in basketball and baseball, you can see some of that friendship, but also that competition factor on both sides, which is very respectful.”
Traditionally, the VVC is where a chunk of the three schools’ nonconference schedules came from. But in leaving the SVC, which sat at seven schools (and Seneca in football), for a VVC that will feature nearly twice as many schools, Landon said the challenge won’t be filling those nonconference schedules, but rather deciding which SVC schools to keep now that those nonconference slates will be smaller.
“That will be a bit of a challenge. But now we’ll go from having seven schools in the Sangamon Valley Conference, having six conference games, to the potential of 12 conference games,” Landon said. “With that being said, you’ve gotta figure out who else we can keep on our schedule.
“That’s part of the responsibility of an athletic director, deciding who you’re going to keep on the schedule for nonconference rivalries.”
For Bauer, there’s one rivalry he hopes to keep alive from the SVC, especially in football.
“The ideal team to get would be Central,” Bauer said. “I don’t know it that will pan out, we haven’t even started looking, but that would round out our schedule well.”
Central is joined by Momence and Dwight as the three full-time SVC members that will either have to recruit new members or find a new conference home. But for Arie’s Raiders and the other two schools moving to the VVC, the new partnerships that will be built are exciting.
“I’m just looking forward to building relationships with the new schools,” Arie said. “It’s a pretty decent competitive fit with us coming up, especially boys basketballall turning a corner, i just feel like it strengthens a lot of our sports.”