Sad as it might be for many, the Newman Comets can say they finished on top in the now-defunct boys Sauk Valley Shootout after winning their fifth title in the event's 42-year history.
While the girls' tournament was salvaged, the boys' tourney met its demise in a meeting between the athletic directors last week. The event, originally called the New-Mor-Roc-Ster tournament, was first played in 1954 between Newman, Morrison, Rock Falls and Sterling.
The tournament endured hiatuses from from 1961-63 and 1971-84. It returned with its new name and a new round-robin format in 1985.
The reason it likely will not resurface this time bears plenty of irony: The ADs found five games in 6 days fresh off the battering football season to be unfair – if not cruel and unusual – to the players.
""We understood the tradition of things, and that's why we didn't want to get rid of it," Sterling athletic director Greg King said. "We wanted to keep playing everybody and keep the tournament running. But playing five games in five days that early in the season? We kind of wanted to get out of that.
"It wasn't an easy decision. It kind of went back and forth."
The aforementioned irony stems from Newman, the last football team standing in the Sauk Valley, winning the shootout after its first-ever Class 3A semifinal appearance in football.
The event holds a special place in the heart of Newman athletic director Mike Pappocia, who recalls beating Sterling back in the late-60s before falling to Rock Falls the next day.
"We gave so much in that Sterling game, and the next day we literally couldn't hit a layup," Papoccia said. "I'll never forget that Sterling game."
He also remembers watching his sons play as freshmen.
"To them, playing on Stering's big floor was like playing in the NBA Finals," Papoccia said. "They got waxed every game, but they didn't care."
The event's fate soured when the proposed solution was to move it to the week of Martin Luther King Day, which is celebrated the third Monday of January. By that time, conference schedules are daunting enough, let alone squeezing in a holiday tourney. Nonetheless, King was disappointed to see a fixture in the Sauk Valley since 1954 go the way of the dodo.
"I'm a big traditionalist," King said. "A lot of people don't like bowl games. I love them. I see both sides of the issue but, ultimately, you've got to do what's best for your program."
Dixon joined the tourney in 2004. Bureau Valley, Stillman Valley and Princeton have also been in the field. Barring the postseason or scheduling a nonconference game, Sterling might not run into Dixon again, per the Dukes' departure for the Big Northern West.
Several of the teams, seeing the writing on the wall, have already found a filler event. Morrison will compete in the Oregon tournament. Rock Falls will head west to Geneseo's event.
Other schools, like Newman, aren't exactly sure what they'll do. Papoccia has discussed it with boys coach Ray Sharp, and they're unsure whether they'll join another tourney or simply add a couple of nonconference games.
The Comets took their lumps plenty of years in the shootout, but Sharp cherished the atmosphere and his players' chance to cut their teeth on teams the caliber of which they'd see in the postseason.
"That Saturday night when Rock Falls is playing Sterling and we're playing Morrison is one of my favorite nights of the season," Sharp said. "We understand some years we'd be 0-5, and we don't need to play in a Thanksgiving tournament, but there's a balance there. When we get to the conference schedule, we've got to have some games against teams like those under our belt."
In the past, Papoccia has butted heads with his coaches.
"I guess I was the Thanksgiving grinch, saying we would stay in it," Papoccia said.
According to the ADs, money was not an issue. In fact, Pappocia said the revenue Newman's program received aided its survival. For him, it was priceless that the event has featured a freshman-sophomore bracket played out predominantly in Morrison since 1967.
Pappocia and Rock Falls AD Rich Montgomery discussed trying to keep the event alive, but without the the main event – Rock Falls versus Sterling – the profit would most certainly vanish.
"Without Sterling in it, the numbers for everything go down," Papoccia said.
What troubles Papoccia is the event's demise being somewhat emblematic of a new, volatile era in prep sports.
"It's the same thing as teams changing conferences," Papoccia said. "It's a domino effect.
"I'm disappointed it's over, but life goes on."
Sauk Valley Shootout titles
Rock Falls 17
Bureau Valley 0
Stillman Valley 0