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Morris coaches on board with conference switch

The Morris boys basketball team takes a timeout during a game against Yorkville in the Plano Christmas Classic. Morris finished 12th in the 24-team event. Both coaches Todd Kein (left) and Joe Blumberg (middle) are excited about the Redskins moving into a new conference.
The Morris boys basketball team takes a timeout during a game against Yorkville in the Plano Christmas Classic. Morris finished 12th in the 24-team event. Both coaches Todd Kein (left) and Joe Blumberg (middle) are excited about the Redskins moving into a new conference.

Over the last several years, it became clear to the Morris Redskins athletic department that something needed to be done.

Enrollments for some schools in the Northern Illinois Big 12 began surging while Morris actually saw their enrollment start to shrink. In 2017, DeKalb and Yorkville's official enrollment figures of 1,790 and 1,746, respectively, more than doubled Morris' enrollment of 844 and that finally necessitated a change.

Morris was courted by the Interstate Eight, yet was voted down 4-7 in a June vote. It was a move that shocked Plano athletic director Jim Schmidt at the time, but the reasons would become evident later in the year and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually land Morris and Plano in the same league after all.

"It was kind of puzzling," Schmidt said last month at the Plano Christmas Classic. "Why did we invite them and groom them and tell them that we wanted them to be in the conference and then vote no? Little did we know there was probably rumblings going on with the eight teams that were going to leave the Interstate 8."

The end result was Plano and Sandwich joining forces with five moderately-sized schools from the Northern Illinois Big 12 (Morris, Geneseo, Rochelle, Ottawa and LaSalle-Peru) to form a new league. And the Morris coaches are excited about the possibilities.

"Ask any coach in our building, and I think you’re going to get that stock response, but I think it’s really true," Morris baseball coach Todd Kein said. "Competitively, for our entire school, great move. It’s the right move. It’s a no-brainer."

Throughout the process, both Morris athletic director Jeff Johnson and principal Kelly Hussey have taken particular care to hear their coaching staff out and keep them apprised of the situation through the roller coaster process. That has helped create a school-wide sense that the move could work for all the programs involved.

"Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hussey have been very transparent. We got emails updating us probably every other week on what meeting they were at, what they heard at a meeting and what their next step is," basketball coach Joe Blumberg said. "They’ve kept us in the loop."

The conference is still taking shape. The current intention is to find an eighth school and reestablish the league as the Interstate Eight, but that's a process that will take time and most seem content on making sure they find the right fit because the end goal is stability.

“I’d like to get to a point where we can go a 5, 8 or 10-year period where a schedule is set. Rivalries will build and you’ll be able to balance out your schedule a bit more," Blumberg said.

And knowing what you'll get on a year-to-year basis will be particularly important for the baseball program as they deal with both conference and rule changes that could significantly alter the game strategically.

"I think what will be interesting from a baseball standpoint is that you’re gonna have more potential postseason matchups during the year than we’ve had in recent years," Kein said. " If you pair that along with the new pitching guidelines, I think that’s gonna add another layer to it. 

"With those games that are a little bit more meaningful, because of postseason implications on top of being conference games, I could see us having to work really hard with our pitching staffs in terms of rotation and having to take a deeper look at the pitch count."

Conference movement has been a thorn in almost every athletic director in the state's side for years now as schools constantly bounce from league to league. That's primarily been a football-driven issue as team's seek an opportunity to get their program to five wins and the postseason.

However, there could be a change coming that settles things down, according to Schmidt. Meaning getting the composition of this league right the first time around is critical because it could be a long-term home for everybody involved.

"If the IHSA is smart enough -- and there's a survey out right now about football -- they'll expand the playoffs. If that happens, I think you'll start seeing some of these conference breakups stopping," Schmidt said.

Clearly, there's still a lot to be determined before the new league kicks off beginning in the 2019 school year. The school board in Morris voted to approve the move officially Monday night.

However, just about everybody involved seems excited about the competitive balance of this new league and the hope is that balance will lead to continuity. And that's something that's been eluding many athletic programs in the state for years now.

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