Kaneland principal Chip Hickman isn’t a fan of the two, five-team divisions format the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference is moving toward, but he understands there was no perfect solution to be had.
For a conference with relatively far-flung geography and a wide gulf in athletic performance – most notably in football – finding an arrangement that satisfies each of the current members, let alone entices potential replacements for departing Dixon and Streator, is quite an undertaking.
The conference announced this week that starting with the 2014-15 school year, Kaneland, Morris, DeKalb, Sycamore and Yorkville will be the only five teams in the NI Big 12’s East Division, with Rochelle shifting to the West Division to help compensate for the departures of Dixon and Streator. The Northern Illinois Big 12 is continuing its search for prospective new members, but that’s proven to be a slow, difficult process.
In the meantime, by each side losing a divisional opponent, scheduling adjustments will need to be made. Hickman expects that to be especially difficult in football. The Knights’ powerhouse football program already has trouble finding two nonconference opponents that want to play, and locating a third that makes sense is a daunting prospect.
Adding an additional intraconference crossover game would have made matters easier on the Knights. The conference currently has five conference games, two crossovers and two nonconference games for football.
“It was a challenge for Kaneland under this model but I respect the decision that was made of the conference and I think we all have to be aware of all the pressures that other schools, other administrators and other head coaches are under to schedule wins, so for a smaller school to be mandated to have crossovers against larger, successful opponents like Kaneland, it does not make the conference appealing for expansion,” Hickman said.
Kaneland’s two football nonconference foes for the coming fall – Brooks and Immaculate Conception – are not contracted to play the Knights beyond this season. That means Kaneland will need to scramble to find three football nonconference games for the following year, and Hickman joked – or was he joking? – that “We’ll be driving to Ohio” in the future.
Hickman said few programs want to risk a likely loss in scheduling Kaneland.
“The consequences [of the new structure] are Kaneland will have difficulty in finding three nonconference opponents,” Hickman said. “I don’t think we’re alone with that. I think Morris is going to have a challenge as well.”
Aside from the Northern Illinois Big 12’s current membership challenges, Hickman has broader misgivings about the state of high school athletics in Illinois.
Hickman, who worked at Batavia before becoming principal at Kaneland, cited longtime former Batavia football coach Mike Gaspari – who struggled in his early years before turning the Bulldogs into a powerhouse – as an example.
“If Mike Gaspari started his career in today’s environment, he would have been done after year 5,” Hickman said. “We don’t have the patience to allow high schools to build a culture and sustain the ups and downs. It’s like a college environment.”
Those pressures have contributed to an unstable environment for high school conferences in Illinois that extends well beyond the NI Big 12.
Schools around here have been on the front lines, with Kaneland, Batavia and Geneva switching conferences three years ago, only to see their new conferences already facing membership changes.
“The entire landscape of athletic conferences in northern Illinois is under reconstruction,” Hickman said. “It’s [volatile] every year and it’s unfortunate because it’s so consuming for administrators and it detracts from the mission, but it’s part of our business now.”
• Jay Schwab is the sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.