By the 2014-15 school year, two of the high school athletic conferences in which area schools like Morris, Coal City and Seneca are members will look significantly different.
As the Morris Daily Herald previously reported, Dwight accepted an invitation in late 2012 to join the Sangamon Valley Conference and leave behind the Interstate Eight. More recently, its void has been filled by Streator, which will become the I-8's 12th school. To do so, Streator will leave the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference, which is also losing Dixon.
Coal City Athletic Director Dan Hutchings already schedules games against Streator in baseball, soccer, softball and tennis. He says its inclusion in the I-8 will allow the conference to maintain a "balanced" structure.
"I mean, realistically, it's going to help us out, to fill that hole Dwight left," Hutchings said. "There are some sports Streator is known for, like baseball and softball, but we compete all right with them. We like playing them. It's not a lot of added travel for us. ... It's another school in our conference that plays tennis and also soccer."
Coal City is not the only I-8 school with which Streator has already scheduled non-conference games in many sports for years.
"What's appealing is that we have had a relationship already with many of these schools. We have played several of them in almost every sport, excluding of course football. We know what we're getting ourselves into," Streator Athletic Director Kevin Wargo said. "They're great schools that have had great success in athletics, and we're looking forward to sharing a conference with them."
While Streator's move gives the I-8 continuity from a number of member schools perspective, it has the opposite effect on the NIB12. The move, coupled with Dixon's departure for the Big Northern Conference, will leave the conference with 10 schools instead of 12 if replacements are not found in time for 2014-15.
Morris Athletic Director George Dergo remains confident in the conference and in the Redskins' future in it, noting that in 18 months time, the two vacancies may no longer exist — and that more change is always possible.
"The way things change, you never know who else might go where. I can't look into a crystal ball and say for sure what everything will look like," Dergo said. "I think the conference is pretty healthy. There are good rivalries. It's a heck of a conference, that represents itself well in the IHSA and the state series. Being part of it is a good deal for Morris."
Dergo says the only major hurdle NIB12 schools like Morris face due to the departures is in football scheduling.
"In the other sports, we should be able to make everything work with 10," he said. "In football, we could just forget about the divisions and just play nine conference games. We could add another crossover game, or we could all pick up another non-conference game."
Wargo says Streator plans to play the geographic rivals it is leaving behind in the NIB12 like La Salle-Peru and Ottawa in non-conference play, and that he would be open to doing the same with Morris. Dergo says the games should happen.
"We'll continue with playing Streator," Dergo said. "It's a local team and just one of the local rivalries we have with these teams we have played for years. They're not that far away. The communities like playing each other, and that's what it's about is getting fans at games. ... It should be pretty simple to do except with football. I know going back years and years that we've played Streator but we'll see how that goes. It's a lot tougher for us to schedule teams in football than it is for them."
Streator will go from being the second-smallest NIB12 — just 10 students larger than its smallest school, Geneseo, and 841 smaller than its largest, DeKalb, to being the largest school in the I-8 by a margin of 126 students over Sandwich. It is replacing the smallest school in the I-8 in Dwight.
In a conference where enrollments at some schools like Plano and Sandwich have grown quickly in recent years, Streator's size advantage may not last.
"Our enrollment is going to be pretty stable," Wargo said. "We've had some pretty small classes here lately. We're not going to be much over 900 any time soon, I don't think."