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Golden Warriors left out in cold?

Get out the maps, rulers and calculators – it’s time, once again, for the never-ending saga of revolving-door conference affiliation.

The high school sports conference landscape still keeps changing, and we’ve come to another episode of conference musical chairs.

I’m sure none of you want to be left out in the cold weather the Sauk Valley is experiencing right now. 

But when it comes to the constant conference shuffling over the past decade, it seems likely that Sterling High School will be left out in the cold. That is, if the rest of its fellow members in the Northern Illinois Big 12’s West Division decide to jump ship in 2019.

Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, and Rochelle, as well as Morris from the NIB-12 East, are on the verge of joining Plano and Sandwich to form a new conference. 

That means the future of the annual Sterling-Geneseo football game, at least in divisional play, is in jeopardy. They’ve played each other in divisional play since 1981, and the Golden Warriors have played in older series with LaSalle-Peru (1964) and Ottawa (1942).

The departures would leave the NIB-12 with five schools: Sterling, DeKalb, Kaneland, Sycamore, and Yorkville; and for Sterling, that would be 108 round-trip miles to the nearest conference school (DeKalb).

Why did this

With the Interstate Eight dwindling to two schools, that conference has decided to stay together and expand, rather than disband and join up with another conference. Invitations were sent out to every NIB-12 West school except Sterling, with mileage not appearing to be a factor. 

From Sandwich, the western-most I-8 school, to Sterling is 64 miles, and 101 miles to Geneseo. LaSalle-Peru (1,218) and Ottawa (1,375) have larger enrollments than Sandwich (708) and Sterling (998).

If something doesn’t quite add up, you’re right. 

Enrollment throughout the NIB-12 West is dropping. Don’t let the growing group of strip malls on East Lincolnway in Sterling fool you. 

It may have fooled Morris principal Kelly Hussey.

“Sterling’s enrollment isn’t as big as the others, but they are growing,” Hussey told the Morris Daily Herald’s Rob Oesterle on Dec. 22. “In a few years, they will probably be as big as Kaneland, and they thought they were better served remaining in that conference.”


Sterling has held its own and didn’t experience a rather sharp decline with the closures of Northwestern Steel and Wire, National, and Lawrence Brothers in the 1990s and 2000s. Enrollment has dropped, but not more than 11 percent since 2001. 

Kaneland, meanwhile, has grown from an enrollment of 815 in 2001 to 1,343 last year. So have DeKalb (1,510 to 1,790), Sycamore (1,008 to 1,254) and, of course, Yorkville (767 to 1,746). That would make Sterling about 250 students smaller than the next-smallest NIB-12 school in a group of five.

When the NIB-12 formed in 2010, there were concerns about whether its two divisions would grow apart in enrollment. Apparently, it didn’t take but 10 years for that to happen. 

What is growing at Sterling is the amount of athletic success in the NIB-12 West. Division title streaks were extended this past fall in boys soccer (four in a row), boys cross country (four), football (three), and volleyball (two). The boys basketball team remains competitive for a championship this season, and the baseball, softball, and boys track teams have a lot returning to potentially add more division titles.

Has Sterling become that much better than the rest of the division? 

Now what?

Looking into a crystal ball of sorts, I might offer some complex ideas.

Most conferences would attempt to find a sixth school. Burlington Central seems to be the likely option, but the Rockets are considering joining the Fox Valley in 2019 after being shown the door by the Kishwaukee River Conference. Expansion ideas toward the Chicago suburbs would not bode well for Sterling. 

Would a merger with the Rockford-area NIC-10 work? Despite the uneven number of schools (15, with a 7-school division needing to find nonconference opponents during bye weeks), it would solve a top-to-bottom issue in the NIC-10 in terms of enrollment. Freeport has been considering leaving the conference, and grouping this 15-school mix by enrollment would save the Pretzels mandatory dates with Harlem and Hononegah – both with over 2,000 students. 

Plus, a 7-team division could cross over with the remodeled Interstate Eight. But would Plano and Sandwich (who would be the two smallest schools in that mix) enjoy that idea? 

Why not just add Freeport? The issue with that is the potential continued growth of DeKalb, Kaneland, Sycamore, and Yorkville. If those schools opted to join up with suburban schools, it would leave both Freeport and Sterling out of the mix. The Rockford city schools, Belvidere High, and Boylan aren’t growing. 

Could Sterling look west toward the Western Big 6? Keep in mind it’s 202 miles from Quincy to Sterling for a conference game. Aside from Alleman, Sterling’s still going to be a small fish in a large pond. 

What about local proximity? Even then, Sterling would be a large fish in a small pond. The Golden Warriors would be more than 200 students larger than Dixon, the Big Northern’s largest school. The same holds true for schools larger than 500 students within about 40 miles from Sterling, which would include Dixon (782), Kewanee (554), Mendota (553), Rock Falls (648), and Princeton (505). 

For now, it seems likely that the five remaining NIB-12 schools may just go at it amongst themselves. That would mean five nonconference football games, and eight home-and-away conference games in other team sports. Currently, the NIB-12 has two five-team divisions, and it seems to be working fine. 

No matter what, Sterling’s conference future will be real interesting. 

By the way, surely a conference with five schools would necessitate a name change. The NIB-12 has had 10 schools since Dixon and Streator left in 2014, and that was confusing enough. 

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