We are beginning to hit the final stretch before summer camps, 7 on 7, and summer weight programs kick off. This has been the most intriguing offseason in the NUIC in a decade, with the coaching changes, 8 man football talk, upcoming conference realignment, and did we forget to mention the opportunity for a 3rd straight state title run by an NUIC school! Needless to say, it has been an exciting offseason. Pretty soon we will see schedules come out, which will allow us all to see what high anticipated matchups we want to see. Let's get this kicked off.
Last week, the Aquin Bulldogs approved and hired their new head coach, as Broc Kundert will take over the reigns. Coach Kundert comes to the Bulldogs by way of the Freeport Pretzels. Coach Kundert excelled both on the field and the wrestling mat for the Pretzels during his high school career. From there he played 4 years of football at UW Platteville. He returned to Freeport and was on the coaching staff under former Pretzel head coach Aaron Wichman. This opportunity led to Coach Kundert becoming the Defensive Coordinator for the Pretzels last year. In his new role, Coach Kundert will take over the storied Aquin program, which is coming off back to back Class 1A quarterfinal appearances. He will have a lot on his plate with a young team, trying to stay on top of the Upstate division, and of course Aquin being among the rumored teams with 8 man football emerging. He will bring a lot of energy to the team, as has been seen in his first team meeting already, and the boys are excited for the opportunity.
This past Wednesday, the other open spot in the conference was filled, as EPC hired Warren head coach Jared McNutt to fill their spot at head coach. It is already being discussed that this hire was a compromise decision, as people are saying that neither Pearl City or Eastland wanted to select a coach from either school. Personally, I feel this is a great hire for EPC as Coach McNutt was doing great things with Warren despite low numbers and inexperienced varsity players. Coach McNutt also led Warren to their only playoff win, back in 2015, against a Chicago Hope team that this year will be an early season candidate for the 2A title. Coach McNutt comes from Warren, both as a former player and coach. After graduating from Warren in 2009, McNutt went on to play football for 4 years at Coe College. He stayed on the coaching staff at Coe for one year, 2013, before returning home to take over at Warren. Coach McNutt's record was 10-18 at Warren in his 3 year stint. Coach McNutt will have a stable of talent coming back from a team that will return the most offensive firepower in the Northwest division, from what many feel was the premier opening in the NUIC, as EPC is in the much more heralded Northwest division, and have 18 playoff appearances in 23 seasons, 4 conference titles in the past 8 seasons, and 1 state title 4 seasons ago.
With these two openings filled, this will leave the job at Warren open. However, this past Wednesday at Warren, the board approved to join Black Hawk out of South Wayne, WI in a co-op for the 2019 season under a 2 year contract. This will put Warren in a position to determine if they want to hire a coach for the one year, or do they place a current coach into the position for the interim. Current AD Shawn Teske was the previous head coach at Warren prior to McNutt, so they do have options available. Warren will compete with Black Hawk in the WIAA, pending a formal approval from the WIAA. This was expected with this co-op, as the WIAA allows co-ops across state lines to still compete in the WIAA playoffs, whereas the IHSA does not allow this. With the emergence of the I8FB league, the 2 year contract allows Warren the availability to come back to compete on their own in the 8 man league in 2021, which would most likely happen provided more teams from this area join the 8 man league. This would allow for less travel for Warren, and continue to compete against local teams.
Looking ahead at the 2019 season, with Polo and Warren moving on, this will leave the NUIC with 15 schools in the conference. As we stated in our last article, the board has discussed the potential of either South Beloit or Fulton filling an open position, but this decision will continue to wait until we see which other teams may bolt the NUIC for the I8FB league. The options available with a 16 team conference would allow for two divisions with 8 teams each, allowing for a 7 game conference schedule and 2 cross-over games, or they can remain an open conference and allow schools to schedule their own games for the 2 non-conference games. My best guess at this time, is that the board will try to remain a closed conference, this allows it easier to schedule games for the AD's, and guarantees that every school will have their schedule filled while reducing travel expenses.
As for the shot at an NUIC 3-peat for a state title in 2018, this is the 3rd time ever the conference is coming off of back to back state title seasons with a shot for a 3rd straight. In 2012, after seeing Le-Win and Dakota win in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the Stockton Blackhawks made the title game in 2012, but came up short in a runner-up finish. Once again, in 2015 the NUIC had another shot for a 3-peat, following back to back state titles by Le-Win in 2013 and Forreston and EPC bringing home a pair in 2014. The number 1 team in 2015 was Le-Win, but their effort came up short in the 2nd round, and then Polo fell short the following week in the quarterfinals ending the run for the NUIC 3-peat. Following state titles by Forreston and Le-Win in 2016 and 2017 respectively, once again the number 1 team to watch with the best shot to give the NUIC their 1st 3-peat is once again the Le-Win Panthers. Will we have a surprise season from Dakota, EPC, Forreston, Milledgeville, Orangeville, or Stockton? Time will tell, but this is why we watch!
There are still a lot of items to iron out for 2019, but for this season things are taking shape. The last things to be completed is for Warren to determine their head coach and the remaining open slots on schedules to be filled. We are gearing up for 2018 as it closes in.