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H.S. football: A bigger, tougher Three Rivers

Newman's Mike Ely stiff-arms Bureau Valley's Tucker Schoff during the teams' clash last season. Both will be seniors this fall.
Newman's Mike Ely stiff-arms Bureau Valley's Tucker Schoff during the teams' clash last season. Both will be seniors this fall.

For the first time in 15 years, the Three Rivers Conference will have a football season. For the first time in a decade, that league will have two divisions.

It’s a change that longtime Newman coach Mike Papoccia is embracing with open arms.

“It’s been a fantastic conference in the past, and it just got even better,” Papoccia said. “The key to our success has been playing in a conference that really prepares us for the playoffs, and these new crossover games will add even more to that.”

In 1999, the eight-team Three Rivers was joined by four other schools to create a new football conference, the two-division Big Rivers. For the next five seasons, the Big Rivers contained at least 11 schools, prompting the two-division format to stick around.

In 2004, things changed again. The conference kept the name Big Rivers, but settled at 10 teams, and schools played every other conference squad, filling a nine-game schedule nicely.

But starting with next sports season, four new teams will join the Three Rivers in all sports, and the football league will again be split into two divisions, this time with seven squads apiece.

Longtime Three Rivers members Amboy, Bureau Valley, Erie-Prophetstown, Fulton, Morrison, Newman and Riverdale will make up the North Division. Kewanee, added to the TRAC in 2010, joins Big Rivers teams Hall and St. Bede, as well as newcomers Orion, Princeton, Rockridge and Sherrard in the South.

Every team will play each of the other six schools in their division, then fill the schedule with three crossover games with the other half of the league. Those crossover games will rotate every other year, meaning teams are guaranteed a home-and-home 2-year series with every team in the other division every 2 years.

“Things went smoother with football than any of the other sports,” Papoccia said, “because you only have nine games to worry about scheduling. There are no weak sisters of patsies by any means, and a lot of teams will be looking to break out of the bottom half and into the upper half of the league every year.”

Newman opens with two Saturday games in the first 3 weeks, and both will be played under the lights at Roscoe Eades Stadium, instead of in the afternoon. Papoccia said the main reason for that is the heat, which usually hits early in the season; officials from Rockridge (Week 1) and Bureau Valley (Week 3) agreed.

While the Saturday night slate to start the season may be a little different, the Comets will face a familiar foe to close the regular season: the Amboy Clippers. The rivals have a habit of playing at or near the end of the regular season.

“Even with the new schedule, it turned out that way,” Papoccia said with a chuckle. “It seems like that’s just the way it’s supposed to be now.”

The Comets will be the fourth 2012 playoff team on the Clippers’ slate, and all four games will be in Amboy. While last year’s records don’t mean a whole lot next fall, the Clippers have to be pleased to have perennial powers like Newman, St. Bede (Week 1), Hall (Week 3) and Morrison (Week 5) all at The Harbor.

The Erie-Prophetstown Panthers are another of those playoff teams from a year ago that travel to Amboy this fall. While the Panthers’ schedule opens with some teams which struggled a year ago – their first five opponents went a combined 11-34 in 2012 – they’ll have their hands full over the final 4 weeks.

E-P plays all four playoff teams on its schedule over the final half of the season. Those teams – Amboy, Newman, Morrison and Orion – were a combined 33-13 last fall.

While the Panthers are hitting the meat of their schedule, Morrison, Fulton and Bureau Valley will be playing in front of their respective home fans. The Storm play three of their final five games in Manlius, while the Mustangs play three home games in a row from weeks 6-8.

The Steamers open with three road games in the first 4 weeks, then play three games in Fulton over the final 4 weeks of the season.

BV coach Jeff Ohlson believes that late stretch of home games will be a good reward for his players after a grueling three-game road trip in weeks 2-4.

“The kids will enjoy getting those late-season games on their home field, in front of their hometown fans,” Ohlson said. “Especially with 3 weeks on the road, in three tough places to play, the kids will be excited to open and close the season at home.”

New Three Rivers

North – Amboy, Bureau Valley, Erie-Prophetstown, Fulton, Morrison, Newman, Riverdale

South – Hall, Kewanee, Orion, Princeton, Rockridge, Sherrard, St. Bede

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