Eureka part of possible conference shake-up

Adam Larck
On July 10, five teams were called in for an informational meeting about joining the Okaw Valley, including Eureka.

Eureka High School may be considering a conference change.

Earlier this month, Eureka High School principal Rich Wherley received a call from Scott Adreon, the principal of Maroa Forsyth High School and a member of the Okaw Valley Conference, to come to an informational meeting with four other schools, one a fellow Corn Belt Conference member and three from the Sangamon Valley Conference.

“According to them, seven schools are going to withdraw, so they need to look at replacing those seven schools,” Wherley said. “They looked at school size and geography for best fit, and we were within that region.”

The other teams called to the meeting were Stanford Olympia, Champaign St. Thomas More, St. Joseph-Ogden and Paxton-Buckley-Loda.

The meeting was held by Clinton, Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello, St. Teresa and Tolono Unity after the other seven members of the conference started talking about forming their own conference in April.

The seven cited transportation and competition as concerns.

While the meeting was purely informational and a worst case scenario if the seven teams left, since the meeting, two Okaw Valley teams, Sullivan and Shelbyville, have voted to leave the conference dependent on the other teams leaving.

The others, Central A&M, Argenta-Oreana, Meridian, Warrensburg-Latham and Tuscola, are set to bring it to their board within the month.

Even if all seven members pass forming their own conference, nothing is expected to change until 2014.

Another meeting with the remaining Okaw teams and invited schools will be held Aug. 13 to update everyone on the situation.

Pros and cons

Out of the five teams invited, Eureka is certainly the farthest out of the group for travel. However, Wherley did note that the teams already travel to Rantoul and Mahomet-Seymour in the conference.

He added that one possible solution to the travel issue may be something the Okaw members are already used to: division play. The divisions would mean that the farthest Eureka may have to travel would be St. Teresa, about a 71 mile trek.

“That was just one of the ideas thrown out,” he said. “Nothing’s set in stone because no one has withdrawn and no one has been invited in.”

Wherley said that even though Eureka is taking a look at the conference change, it doesn’t mean the school is set on leaving the Corn Belt.

“Both conferences have their pluses and minuses, and they’re both really strong athletic conferences,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what’s more equitable for us and offers more programs for our kids.

“We’ll take a look at it. It doesn’t mean we’ll make a decision to move.”

A problem at state level

While the possible conference shuffle continues, Wherley also had some words about the Illinois High School Association and conferences in general.

“I think the state needs to take control of all the conferences, to be honest with you, and put us in regions,” he said. “That will be the only way to solve this problem.”

Wherley gave an example of problems that conferences cause using the current Okaw Valley situation.

“If the Okaw breaks up, they’re looking at bring schools in from two other conferences,” Wherley said. “So, one dysfunctional conference now makes two conferences dysfunctional.

“That is the stupidity of our situation right now. Not Eureka’s, the state of Illinois.”

However, Matt Troha, the IHSA Assistant Executive Director, said that the group can’t really control the conference problems.

“The IHSA has no real authority over conferences and the only place they are really present in our structure is in the football playoff qualifying system, where conference champs in criterion meeting conferences automatically qualify,” Troha said. “That part has essentially become a moot point though, as all 6-3’s qualify and most 5-4’s since the expansion to eight classes. The conference structure has been developed by our member schools for obvious reasons (to play similar sized and regionalized opponents in the regular-season).”

He added that conference problems normally arise due to football because teams either can’t compete in a conference or have problems scheduling non-conference games, which results in teams wanting to form 10-team conferences.

“Ultimately, it is up to each school and conference to find the right fit for their league,” Troha said. “There has been a great deal of conference movement over the past few years that undoubtedly has both positive and negative effects. I think that first reaction to a school changing conferences is generally that it must be success based (too little or too much), but I also think that the economic climate in the state over the past few years has necessitated some conference changes, as districts try and find ways to save money.”

Wherley’s suggestion for the situation across the state is to form regions similar to what they do in basketball playoffs, and have the IHSA set the regular season schedule.

In addition, Wherley added that regions would allow for closer games and better rivalries.

Troha said this is the same system that Iowa uses.

“Hopefully, before I retire, I’m going to get that through the board,” Wherley said.

Wherley put the proposal to the board two years ago, but said that while people said it was a good idea, that it wouldn’t happen based on tradition and politics.

“The proposal did not receive enough support for our member school principals to be considered for an official vote,” Troha said.

However, Troha did say that, while not all conference change is bad, if it keeps happening in the state it could help draw more support for Wherley’s proposal.

An interesting note Wherley said is that a principal from the Okaw Valley was one of the people that gave the excuses mentioned earlier for not going to regions when it was brought to the board.

“Now look at the situation they’re in,” he said.