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How tough is the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference?

When you hear chatter from different parts of the state it tends to get your ear. When that chatter consists of statements like, "when you get to state there will be a team from the NUIC just waiting to punch you in the mouth" that piques my interest level.

I started for a couple different reasons. First, and foremost, was to bring this great conference to the level of recognition it deserved across the state. I grew tired of seeing message boards constantly build up the teams in the central and southern parts of the state, touting them as the next best thing to sliced bread, then watching one of our beloved teams smack them around and bring the title back to our little corner in the Northwest part of the state.

Second, we lacked a lot of media coverage that had dissipated over the years. I remember the great coverage local media used to provide to our beloved NUIC, but as print media began to wean away, the coverage in our area was more focused on bigger schools, such as the NIC-10 and Big Northern. The problem I had with that is we continually had deeper playoff runs at a more consistent level than these bigger schools, even in our down years. Heck, our down years are considered amazing years in other conferences across the state. If media wasn't going to get us coverage, and information was becoming easier to come by way of internet, then with the help of Kari and Shane, I could get more information out there.

Finally, it came down to the fact that we have seen several great players over the years get passed over, or never looked at, because players stats weren't big enough, there was no talk around the state about our teams, and it all dealt with lack of coverage. With the age of social media at everyone's finger tips, and the access to coaches and college coaches so easy these days, what better thing to do than create a platform that you can spew out information quickly across several platforms where people can share, retweet, comment, message, etc.

If you go out into our local communities during the fall you always hear, who are you rooting for? That usually gets followed with a, "hell yeah," or a "oh no," or something along those lines, but is always ended with "once our team is out I will always pull for the next local team."

That is what we have here in the NUIC, a band of communities, many knowing of each other through sports or work, but all cheering for the success of each other once the final whistle blows on their teams season.

When you just break down the NUIC over the past 11 seasons, we have teams that have hoisted the championship trophy 9 times, another with a runner-up finish, and the one season we didn't have playoffs at all. In total, 5 different teams have brought those trophies back to the NUIC, and we have had a few more who have hit bumps on the way, losing to other conference opponents who have gone on to win state, or get to state.

Lena-Winslow has been the team with the most talk, and you can't really argue it. They have won 4 titles since 2010 with an overall record of 118-20 for a winning percentage of 85.5%. They have been in the semifinals 5 times, the quarterfinals 8 times, and have always been in the 2nd round during this run.

When you look at the Panthers against just Class 1A opponents, they are 92-13 for a winning percentage of 87.6%. They have suffered just 1 loss to an opponent in Class 1A outside of the NUIC; the Orion Chargers in a 14-7 playoff loss in the 2nd round in 2015.

When you look at Lena-Winslow in the playoffs, there record becomes even more impressive. They are 31-6 for a winning percentage of 83.8%. In those 6 losses, only 2 of them are against opponents who didn't make it to the state championship game.

Another statistic that goes unnoticed is this; since DeKalb became a host of the state championship games in odd years beginning in 2013, Lena-Winslow has made the title game all but 1 time in those years. In 2015, Lena-Winslow entered the playoffs ranked #1 in state, but lost in the 2nd round. It has been the only time the Panthers have entered the playoffs ranked #1 and haven't won state to date.

Who has been the biggest nemesis for Le-Win? Well, that has been the Forreston Cardinals. They have met up in the playoffs 5 times, and all 5 meetings have led to state championships for the winner. Le-Win won in 2010, 2013, and 2017, while Forreston won in 2016, and 2018. There are two other times there paths could have crossed in the semifinals, but didn't. The first happened in 2014, when the Panthers lost in the quarterfinals to Galena, who would go on to lose to Forreston as the Cards won their first state title. The second happened in 2019, when Forreston lost to Annawan-Wethersfield in the 2nd round, who would go on to lose to Lena-Winslow as the Panthers won their 4th title.

The Cardinals haven't been quite as strong as the Panthers have, but they also aren't too far behind. Since 2010, Forreston has gone 101-25 with a winning percentage of 80.2%. They have been in the semifinals 4 times, the quarterfinals 6 times, and have made it to the 2nd round every year except 2; those years were in 2010 and 2013 the that happened to both be first round losses to Lena-Winslow in their first 2 championship years.

When you look at Forreston against the rest of Class 1A, they are 82-20 with a winning percentage of 80.4%. Just 3 of those losses have come to opponents outside of the NUIC; Stark County twice and Annawan-Wethersfield.

Look at Forreston in the playoffs, and only 1 team in Class 1A has been better; Lena-Winslow. The Cards are 24-7 in the playoffs for a winning percentage of 77.4%. In those 7 losses, only 1 is against a team who didn't make it to the state championship game.

When you break down the entire conference as a whole, you can see the success they have when playing unfamiliar foes from other parts of the state.

During the regular season, the NUIC is 101-49 against non-conference opponents since 2010 for a winning percentage of 67.3%.

When you get into the playoffs, the NUIC becomes even stronger, as they are 70-28 against non-conference opponents for a 71.4% winning percentage.

The most dominant playoff season came in 2014, when the NUIC went 11-1 against non-conference opponents, and Forreston and EPC brought home titles in 1A and 2A, respectively.

The 2018 playoffs saw the NUIC put up the most wins against non-conference opponents, going 17-5 as Forreston brought home their 3rd state trophy, and EPC lost in the semifinals 14-7 to eventual 2A champion GCMS. The next highest win total was in the 2017 playoffs, when the NUIC went 16-7 against non-conference opponents, and Lena-Winslow brought home their 3rd state title.

It is easy to fall engrossed to the history of the NUIC, as the conference is home to 23 past IHSA state champions. When you look at just the past 17 seasons, the NUIC has won 14 state titles, brought home 2 state runner-up finishes, and has done this across 7 different teams.

There is a pride that comes with being from the NUIC, and the communities know it, support it, and cheer on excellence. The coaches have either participated in it as players, or have joined as coaches, and they continue to drive the players to play at their highest levels. The players hear it, either through older brothers, coaches, or friends and community members. They see the banners in the gyms at home, the gyms on the road in the conference, or when pulling up on a campus that welcomes you with their success.

They say Illinois is a basketball state, but in small school football there is no better hotbed than the NUIC. We are football country!


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