A collection of schools as rich in football tradition as any in the state of Illinois, the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference has also seen its fair share of change among member institutions since 1996.
On Thursday, athletic directors at 14 NUIC schools voted to shake things up once again.
The conference will be split geographically into North and South divisions starting next season, with seven schools on each side. Crossover games between schools in different divisions will be scheduled based on enrollment.
All five Sauk Valley-area schools in the NUIC will compete in the new South division. AFC, Amboy-LaMoille, Eastland-Pearl City, Milledgeville and West Carroll will join Aquin and Forreston.
Dakota, Durand-Pecatonica, East Dubuque, Galena, Lena-Winslow, Orangeville and Stockton will compete in the North division.
A pair of local first-year athletic directors aided in the process.
Longtime Milledgeville AD John Nesemeier retired at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and Missiles football coach Jason Wroble took over the position.
“Now that the number to get in 2A is going up, most of the teams in the conference are 1A or will be soon,” Wroble said. “It didn’t make sense to stay in big and small divisions, especially when one division now has East Dubuque and Amboy traveling to play each other. For some schools, it doesn’t make sense to go through at least three towns and past a bunch of schools to get to a conference opponent.”
West Carroll football coach Matt Leitzen is also in his first year as an athletic director, and pointed to shrinking enrollments at current NUIC Northwest schools as a factor in the decision.
“If we were ever going to go geographical, now was the time to do it,” Leitzen said. “I don’t think the gap between big and small is all that different anymore. There’s certainly a lot more teams in the middle.”
The wheels for conference realignment started to turn when the calendar flipped to 2018, as three NUIC Upstate programs made their futures clear.
On January 24, Polo announced it was going to start playing 8-man football in 2019. Almost 2 months later on March 22, Warren announced it was entering a co-op with Black Hawk – a school in South Wayne, Wisconsin – in 2019. Two days before the start of the 2018 regular season, River Ridge announced it too was going to 8-man.
During the week of Aug. 5-11, athletic directors at 15 NUIC schools met to discuss the future of football within the conference. However, River Ridge’s school board had not made a decision on 8-man football at the time.
The athletic directors met once again 3 weeks ago, and with River Ridge’s decision to go to 8-man in mind, a proposal came forward stating two options for the future of NUIC football. The conference could either realign into new big and small divisions, or go to a geographic system.
“At the meetings, a big talking point was that schools are ready to take on 2 more years of schedules,” Wroble said. “We can’t always count on having enough kids, but we all figured we would. In 2 years, we’ll re-evaulate where we’re at, and we’re not alone in those decisions.”
Athletic directors talked to their respective school boards, adminstration and staff in the weeks to follow, with the intention of voting on a new system this past week. Voting started Wednesday and ended around noon on Thursday, and the geographic system won out.
“No matter how they shook it up, it was going to be a tough league on both sides,” AFC football coach Brad Winterland said. “I like the proximity aspect to keep our existing games with schools like Milledgeville, as well as adding Amboy to the schedule.”
Longtime rivals AFC and Amboy have competed against each other in other sports for decades, but will meet on the gridiron for the first time in 2019.
“Its going to be fun,” Winterland said. “We’ve been rivals for quite awhile in every other sport, and it’s always exciting any time you get to prepare for someone new on schedule.”
Population declines throughout northwest Illinois in the last two decades have been as big a factor as any for conference realignment.
In 1996, the Northwest Illinois Conference and Upstate Illini Conference merged under the Upstate Illini Conference banner. Three divisions comprised of eight teams each were set up. Dakota, East Dubuque, Galena, Lena-Winslow, Orangeville, River Ridge, Stockton and Warren competed in the West division. AFC, Durand, Kirkland Hiawatha, North Boone, Pecatonica, Rockford Lutheran and South Beloit were in the East division. Aquin, Forreston, Eastland, Milledgeville, Mount Carroll, Pearl City and Polo were members of the South division.
“From what I’ve heard, it kind of goes back to the old setup as far as old rivalries,” EPC coach Jared McNutt said. “We get to play Milledgeville, and West Carroll is still in the division. With crossovers based on enrollment, Lena-Winslow figures to still be on our schedule.”
In 1999, Savanna was added to the South division, and Rockford Christian Life was added to the East division.
A year later, AFC, Durand, Kirkland Hiawatha, North Boone, Pecatonica and South Beloit left to form the Four Rivers Conference. The remaining schools realigned to form the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference after Rockford Christian Life and Rockford Lutheran also left.
The most recent format was created in 2001. Mount Carroll and Savanna consolidated with Thomson to form West Carroll in 2006 – the same year AFC, Durand, Pecatonica and South Beloit rejoined the NUIC.
South Beloit left to join the Northeast Athletic Conference in 2015, and Amboy left the Three Rivers Athletic Conference a year later to replace the SoBos.
McNutt has seen his own life change drastically in the span of a decade. He graduated from Warren in 2009, became the head coach at his alma mater in 2015, and is now in his first year at the helm of the Eastland-Pearl City program after three seasons coaching in the NUIC Upstate.
“Since this side of the conference [NUIC Northwest] is new to me as a coach, I’m not sure exactly what I’m getting used to,” McNutt said. “But I’m sure once the schedules come out and the season starts, not much will change.”
Leitzen sees the new divisions as an exciting chance for players and coaches to face new opponents, as the Thunder will have divisional games against AFC, Aquin and Milledgeville next year.
“Trying to motivate teenage kids every year against the same teams, it’s harder to light that fire. Now, I think it makes practice more purposeful because there’s a little more of the unknown,” Leitzen said.
“I think it’s a good move for everybody. Who knows if it’ll last 10 years or 2 years, but I don’t forsee it being an issue.”
2019 NUIC alignment
South Division: AFC, Amboy-LaMoille, Aquin, Eastland-Pearl City, Forreston, Milledgeville, West Carroll
North Division: Dakota, Durand-Pecatonica, East Dubuque, Galena, Lena-Winslow, Orangeville, Stockton