For the third time in just over a year, a Crawford County school has decided to switch conferences for athletics.
The co-op between Palestine and Hutsonville high schools is one of the latest dominoes to fall in the ever-changing landscape of high school athletics in Illinois. The co-op was accepted a member of the Little Okaw Valley Conference - along with fellow Little Illini Conference school Cumberland - at a meeting of LOVC officials Wednesday.
Earlier this year, fellow Crawford County school Oblong elected to jump ship to the LOVC effective beginning with the 2014-15 school year. The moves of Palestine-Hutsonville and Cumberland to the LOVC are set to take place at the start of the 2015-16 school year, unless LIC officials decide to allow the moves to all happen at once.
The decision to leave the LIC in favor of the LOVC was primarily safety-driven, according to the superintendents at both schools.
"Ultimately, I have to look out for our kids and do what is in the best interests of our students," Hutsonville Superintendent Julie Kraemer said. "With the bigger schools coming in, there became a safety concern with football. Those larger teams have more players, which makes fatigue less of an issue for them, while most of our kids are playing both ways. My No. 1 priority is making sure our kids are safe playing football. It is very unfortunate that football continues to drive these conferences in making these decisions."
"My main concern with the new LIC was the bigger schools and the safety of our kids," Palestine Superintendent Joe Sornberger said. "Anyone can get hurt in any sport, but football is where I have the biggest concern. It's sad to say, but football drives the train and safety for our kids in that sport became a big issue."
The move was not a sudden one, as the schools have been evaluating where they stand in the current landscape of high school sports for quite some time.
"We listened to a meeting (with the LOVC) even before Oblong moved to see what they had to say, but at that time, we decided to stay," Kraemer said. "Oblong leaving changed things. As the dominoes fell, it became apparent we might need to make a move."
"When Oblong left the conference, we had to re-evaluate the situation," Sornberger said. "We enjoyed being a proud member of the LIC, but we are also looking forward to the opportunity to go out and play and be safe."
It also wasn't an easy decision, but one everybody involved felt was needed.
"The main concern of the district is always the safety of our students," Sornberger said. "It is a unique situation, as we not only have the safety of Palestine students, but also Hutsonville students to look out for. It is situation I and the school board take seriously. As a cooperative team, the school districts must be on the same page. In leaving the LIC, we are in agreement."
"It was nothing against the other schools in the LIC or their communities," Kraemer said. "I don't necessarily like it or how all this has happened, but it was a matter of doing what is in the best interests of my students. It was not an easy decision."
Other advantages to the move are keeping and/or renewing rivalries with familiar opponents and playing more schools that are their size enrollment-wise.
"We have the opportunity to join a truly small-school conference," Sornberger said. "We look forward to new opportunities that allow our students to compete with schools of similar enrollments,"
"There is some familiarity with some of these schools," Kraemer said. "The similar school size was also a factor. We want things to be competitive. That is when it is the most fair and fun for the kids."
"Oblong is our biggest rival and when they made the move, we didn't have that opportunity to play them in football any more," Sornberger said. "Now we have the opportunity to do that again in a different conference. If you look at the (LOVC) conference, most of those schools were in the LIC at one point before some of the bigger schools started coming in."
The LIC schools are not the only ones that have been given membership in the continually expanding LOVC. Sangamon Valley and Decatur Lutheran were granted membership at the same time Oblong was, while Argenta-Oreana was recently approved for the new league as well.
A total of 19 school districts are represented in the LOVC, although there are several co-ops involved with league members, some of them for all sports.
Including all the new members, schools in the league are Arcola, Arthur-Lovington, Atwood-Hammond, Okaw Valley, Shiloh, Kansas, Sangamon Valley, Bement, Broadlands Heritage, Cerro Gordo, Martinsville, Oakland, Villa Grove, Decatur Lutheran, Argenta-Oreana, Cumberland, Palestine and Hutsonville.
There are two all-sports co-ops in the new league, with Palestine and Hutsonville being one and Kansas and Oakland forming Tri-County as the other. Also, Cerro Gordo and Bement co-op for football, as do Arthur-Lovington and Atwood-Hammond and Broadlands Heritage and Shiloh.
As a result, that makes 13 teams in the conference for football, leaving the door open for the potential addition of another school to give them 14 football teams and allow for two seven-team divisions.
"The division play made a big difference for me," Kraemer said. "We had some concerns about travel, but now, the longest trips are no different that a trip to Edwards County or Flora. Our goal is also to continue to play some of those LIC schools in non-conference games that it makes sense for us to play in."
Despite the recent defections, the LIC is still in good shape with a 10-team conference in the future. Remaining LIC schools after all the moves are made include Robinson, Paris, Olney, Newton, Lawrenceville, Red Hill, Casey-Westfield, Marshall, Flora and Edwards County.
"Robinson, Newton and Olney should clearly understand the situation we are in," Sornberger said. "They just left a conference where they were the smallest schools and that is what we are doing."
LIC officials were scheduled to meet Thursday, but no information from that meeting was available by press time.