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Sterling exploring every possible option

Conference crunch

Before school administrators parted from their functions for the holiday break, plenty of parting of ways went on with the Northern Illinois Big 12’s West Division. 

Unfortunately for Sterling High School, the NIB-12 is on the verge of falling apart.

West Division schools Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, and Rochelle announced their intentions last month to leave the conference after the 2018-19 school year, and their school boards will decide to make the moves official in the coming months. 

Those four schools, and Morris from the NIB-12’s East Division, are looking to join current Interstate Eight members Plano and Sandwich to form a new conference. The latter two schools and Westmont will make up the Interstate Eight membership – for now – after the departure of seven schools from that

The moves leave Sterling figuring out what to do as far as keeping its league together.

“It’s pretty much a done deal,” Sterling Athletic Director Greg King said. 

Plano and Sandwich sent invitations to Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, and Rochelle to join them in their league. Westmont will not be a part of the new league, as the school in the central Chicago suburbs is looking toward closer options, according to Sentinels athletic director Rainy Kaplan. 

“I couldn’t tell you why we weren’t [invited],” King said. 

The departures would leave the NIB-12 with five schools. DeKalb, Kaneland, Sycamore, and Yorkville would join the Golden Warriors in the remnants of a league that began in 2010 with 12 schools. Dixon and Streator left in 2014.

School administrators couldn’t quite act on the moves until returning to work after the break. According to King, the administrators of the five soon-to-be-remaining schools will meet later this week to discuss the future of the conference. Such discussions have happened a lot in Illinois recently, as the conference landscape continues its state of flux.

Much of the drive for schools to find a better fit involve making the football playoffs, particularly getting five wins during the regular season.

“It’s unfortunate, and I liked the conference the way that it was,” Sterling football coach Jon Schlemmer said. “I guess I can understand why they’re trying to do it. 

“I think, unfortunately, a lot of it is football-driven. I don’t think it’s hard to deny that. We’re happy with where we’re at, and we’re just going to see where it goes from here.”

Sterling’s football program won the first two and the past three NIB-12 West titles. When Dixon and Streator left to reduce membership to 10 teams, the conference remained split with five-team divisions. Champions of conferences or divisions with six or more teams receive an automatic bid into the IHSA playoffs. The automatic-qualifier stipulation meant that champions of either division had to either win six games or qualify at-large with five. 

With five teams remaining in 2019, it’s more of the same. What changes a lot is the need to search for more nonconference opponents.

“I’m not so worried about football and the automatic qualifier, because right now we already have that,” King said. “When you have five, you’re trying to find a game in weeks 4 through 8, it’s almost impossible, let alone 1, 2, 3, and 9. And there’s pretty good teams [already] in there, so that will be a challenge.”

The Golden Warriors athletic program has enjoyed plenty of recent success. Last year, among its 20 sports, Sterling won nine division championships: in baseball, boys basketball, boys and girls cross country, football, boys golf, boys soccer, softball, and volleyball. The boys soccer team won its fourth straight division championship this past fall, and the volleyball team won its second straight. 

Sterling girls cross country and track & field coach Tyler Gaumer once competed in a league with 11 other schools while he was an athlete at Sterling in the late 1990s. The NCIC once consisted of Dixon, Geneseo, Hall, Kewanee, LaSalle-Peru, Mendota, Ottawa, Princeton, Rochelle, Rock Falls, Sterling, and Streator. That group remained intact from when L-P joined in 1964 to when Rochelle left in 2005. Conferences have shuffled constantly since then.

Gaumer has built friendships with many running coaches in the NIB-12 West, and it’s something he’s going to miss with them out of the equation. However, he admits that the soon-to-be five-school group would be an extremely competitive track and cross country conference.

“I think it’s indicative of where high school sports are right now,” Gaumer said. “It’s tough when there’s a shift in conferences. It would be a great track and cross country conference, but you lose great schools as well.”

In the new conference, Geneseo would be left with 3 weeks to use for nonconference games. Sterling has five. To keep a long-standing rivalry intact, both schools would need to make arrangements for a nonconference game, which is something both King and Schlemmer would like to maintain.

“Going back a long time, it’s been a great rivalry between the two schools,” Schlemmer said. “Even if they are nonconference, it’s a program that’s had so much success, and I would love to see that rivalry kept intact. Even if it would be out of the conference, they’re a great program that’s going to prepare you for the playoffs, and they’ve done that year in and year out for us.” 

“You’re always trying to look to keep the rivalries that you’ve had over the years,” King said. “Locally, that hasn’t happened. Dixon left, and with Rock Falls farther back. Those things just don’t happen for football as much, because everybody’s looking for that fifth win.”

Sterling would be the smallest school of the looming quintet of remaining NIB-12 schools, with an enrollment of 998 students as of Sept. 30, 2016. Sycamore (1,254) is the next-smallest, followed by Kaneland (1,343), Yorkville (1,746), and DeKalb (1,790).

Northern Illinois Big 12 in 2019

Out: Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Morris, Ottawa, Rochelle

Remaining: DeKalb, Kaneland, Sterling, Sycamore, Yorkville

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