We have turned the page, 2018 is vastly approaching, and we still have a lot of offseason items taking place. With rumored openings since the beginning of the 2017 season, 2 coaches stepping down, talks of 8 man football spreading throughout the Northwest, and potential co-ops lying in the weeds, 2018 is going to shape up to some new beginnings.
Let's first take a look at coaching openings. Right now, Aquin and EPC are still open. And it sounds like Aquin will be making a decision before too long, as they have narrowed their list to a few potential candidates. Who will it be remains to be seen yet, but within the next month I am sure we will know who it is that will be guiding the Bulldogs after the departure of Coach Troy Barr. Will they be able to keep the Dawgs on track after seeing the quarterfinals the past two seasons?
To the south, talks in both Eastland and Pearl City have determined they plan to post the vacancy of HC Randy Asche in February to early March. The Wildcatz really turned the corner when Asche took over in 2007, and for the past 11 seasons the Catz have been a team to reckon with at the top of the NUIC Northwest, with 4 conference titles and 1 state title in that time. The new HC will have the opportunity to work with some of the coaches who are already familiar with the program, as both schools have agreed to terms to keep the assistant coaches on staff.
So this leaves the rumored potential opening from 2017; the Forreston Cardinals. Current Head Coach Denny Diduch was rumored to be leaving the Cardinal program before the 2017 season ever kicked off with an early report out of Rockford. At this time, Diduch has yet to resign from his position as head coach, which makes one believe those were just merely rumors, and Diduch will stay at the helm of the Cardinals. He has guided the Cards to 2 state titles in the past 4 seasons, along with 5 quarterfinal appearances, and 3 semifinal appearances in his tenure. He has also exploded up the leader board in coaching wins, currently ranking 13th All-Time in the NUIC, and is the winningest coach in Forreston school history. Not bad for only being at the helm for 10 seasons. The only question is, will he stay? There is still one more rumored school still in search for a Head Coach in 2018. For the sake of the NUIC, we hope he stays, as does the Cardinal faithful.
Now lets move on to 8 man football, where actions have begun to develop a sanctioned league. Quite a few area teams have been contacted to join over the past year, and while none have left yet, it seems quite evident that one may jump on board sooner than we think. There has been a lot of talk in Polo about the Marcos bailing out of the NUIC to join the 8 man league, which currently sits at 5 members. The Marcos have been hit hard with reduction in numbers, and 2018 looks to be like a year they will be very young, with only 6 current players entering 2018 being of true varsity age. This sounds eerily familiar to Warren, and with recent talks the Marcos don't want to endure what the Warriors went through last season. It is quite strange that just a couple seasons ago the Marcos were all geared up for what they believed was a state title run, that eventually came up short in the quarterfinals. Now, only 3 years later they are on the verge of trying something new to garner more interest and provide a safer opportunity to play. Will the Marcos forgo 2018 in the NUIC and jump ship early, or will they wait it out until 2019 when the next restructuring comes for the conference?
This leads us to our next topic; potential co-ops. Milledgeville has tabled offers to join a co-op with both Polo and Eastland. In recent weeks, both Eastland and Pearl City have been in discussions on adding Milledgeville, but will it remain EPC with Milledgeville, or will Eastland venture away from Pearl City and join a co-op with Milledgeville alone? What we do know is this; Eastland and Pearl City have both agreed to extend their co-op through the 2019 season. With that said, it sounds like Milledgeville may be left alone for a while, unless Polo agrees to terms sooner, possibly 2019. The only catch here is this; if Polo jumps to 8 man earlier than expected, the 8 man league is looking to have commitments of at least 2 years, and they will begin to charge entry fees under their new rules until they can become an IHSA sanctioned league, at which point how many teams will the IHSA need before they govern 8 man football? Will they accept 16 teams, and use it under the theory that football is already a sanctioned sport for IHSA, and 8 man is just another division, or will the IHSA treat it as their own sport. One would suggest the IHSA would see 8 man as a section under football, thus allowing the IHSA to sanction 8 man with less than 10% participation, since they currently have over 570 participating schools playing football in Illinois. The 8 man league has stated that any school with an enrollment under 400 is welcome to join. Is Milledgeville looking for the co-op for the 2019 season, again when the NUIC restructures the conference? A lot of questions still to be answered here, but if Milledgeville is in need of a co-op for the future, Polo may be the best option.
This now brings us to Warren, where they have been rumored to be in talks with Blackhawk and a potential co-op. If Warren does take this opportunity, they will be leaving the NUIC and playing in Wisconsin. The WIAA allows teams with co-ops across state lines to still compete in their playoffs, whereas the IHSA does not. This would be similar to Scales Mound, who has been in a co-op with Benton for quite some time now. Now, the logical place for Warren to go would be Stockton, but it is clearly evident Stockton wants no part in a football co-op. And who could argue their point, with 190 students they put out the most players every year than any school in Illinois with under a 200 enrollment, and actually rival a lot of schools in participation with enrollments over 300 students. Here is the kicker for Stockton, there has not been an IHSA state champion with an enrollment under 200 from a public school system since 1989, our very own Orangeville Broncos. Another option for Warren would be Scales Mound, and bring the Hornets back into the NUIC, but Scales Mound seems very content in their current relations with Benton, and most likely won't leave. So that leaves the 3rd option, go back to River Ridge. The only problem here is this; it was Warren who wanted to venture on their own to start their own team after ending ties with River Ridge that went for over 20 years. In that time, it is River Ridge who is starting to build up their program, despite the recent success of Warren football. The Warriors have now found themselves trying to find out what to do next with numbers dwindling down, of which you could see this past season as they gutted out a very tough time. Will Warren be another team jumping to 8 man football in the near future, keep trying to build what they have worked for, or will they find a partner to join forces with?
These are the storylines entering the 2018 season, and it makes one speculate just how much longer will we see the NUIC as we do now. In another year, as the conference restructure takes place, and 8 man football continues to grow, will other teams jump to the new league? Who will be taking over the reigns at EPC and Aquin, and will another opening take place before the end of the school year? Will Milledgeville find an acceptance to its offers for a co-op, and will Warren stay where they are?
This year begins with a lot of uncertainty, but we may not see it all unfold until 2019 or 2020. The NUIC has put together a long sustained history of success, and I feel the conference would best serve itself if it did away with the big school - small school divisions and went back to regional alignment like the other sports currently have; this would ultimately make both divisions strong again. Let's be honest, the NUIC is the best conference in small school football in the state, and separating the teams back to an east - west or north - south division alignment would make for better football. The majority of the teams are now primarily all 1A schools, it is not the same conference it was 12 seasons ago when they determined this structure. For the conference to continue its course, you need to have teams facing the best week in and week out, that is how you build programs.