Once again, Oblong High School and the Palestine/Hutsonville co-op are looking for a new home, but this time it was not their decision.
A mass exodus last week from the Little Okaw Valley Conference has left the Crawford County schools searching for what is best for their student-athletes in the future.
This development comes just three years after the local schools departed the Little Illini Conference for the LOVC, citing competition against schools more their size.
A total of 15 schools out of the 19 that are members of the LOVC decided to submit letters of withdrawal last week, citing a variety of reasons.
"At this time, there is a restructuring of the conference and schools are doing what they feel is in the best interest of their students and communities," Matt Shoaff, principal at Okaw Valley High School and president of the LOVC said in a press release issued Friday (Dec. 1).
Schools leaving include Villa Grove, Heritage, Arcola, Argenta-Oreana, Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond, Bement, Cerro Gordo, Cumberland, Decatur Lutheran, Kansas, Oakland, Shiloh, Okaw Valley, Sangamon Valley and Farmer City-Blue Ridge, who was just admitted to the league in March and submits their letter of withdrawal before ever actually playing a game in the conference.
The departures, which will go into effect beginning with the 2019-20 season, began at a special meeting Tuesday (Nov. 28), with Villa Grove and Heritage submitting their letters of withdrawal, citing concerns with travel time, low attendance at events, uncertainty of schools being able to field teams and lack of natural rivalries.
In the following days, withdrawal letters from the other schools began to trickle in.
A lot of the concerns stem from the distance between the northernmost schools to the southernmost schools. That, coupled with the fact that Palestine-Hutsonville has had to forfeit three varsity football games in the past two seasons and they along with other schools - like Oblong and Martinsville - not being able to consistently field junior varsity football teams as well as some of them not having JV teams in other sports, led to other teams seeking change.
As a result, Oblong, Palestine, Hutsonville and Martinsville are left looking for answers to what the future holds for their athletic teams in regard to conference affiliation.
"Obviously we are disappointed things turned out that way," Oblong Superintendent and OHS Principal Jeff Patchett said. "But now, we got into the mode of what other opportunities are out there for our kids and what do we need to do to get that done."
"It's an unfortunate event that the LOVC has had so many schools withdraw from the conference," Hutsonville Superintendent Julie Kraemer said. "At this time, we are exploring our options and what we would deem to be in the best interests of our students going forward."
"It looks as if the LOVC conference or at least some of the schools were in the planning stages on this for some time," Palestine Superintendent Chris Long said. "Some conference schools indicated the distance and late nights were a concern and a possible formation of a new centrally located conference might be better suited for the athletes and spectators. The conference will compete as is in the 2018-19 school year and we will have to explore options presented to us for the future of our student athletes. We will stay positive and continue to provide opportunities for all of our sports programs."
The LOVC got its start in the early 1970s when Arthur, Atwood-Hammond, Bement, Cerro Gordo, Newman and Oakland left the Okaw Valley Conference to form their own league. Villa Grove joined shortly thereafter, with Arcola being added in 1981.
By the 2013-14 school year, the LOVC counted all of the above schools minus Newman, plus Martinsville, among its ranks. When Palestine, Hutsonville, Oblong, Cumberland, Sangamon Valley, Decatur Lutheran and Argenta-Oreana joined in the 2014-15 academic year, the conference split into two divisions that included 18 of the 19 schools currently involved. Blue Ridge is the exception, as it was set to become a football member next school year while playing other sports in the Heart of Illinois Conference.
Speculation is that all the departing schools will join together to form a new conference, which due to co-ops will have 10 football-playing schools. That is the perfect number for that sport, as it allows a nine-game conference schedule in a "closed" conference, which makes scheduling a lot easier for those involved.
On the flip side, there are not a lot of reasonable options available to the four schools who are left in the LOVC. Should all those schools want to continue playing football on their own, the most logical option is a return to the LIC. That would give the conference 12 football playing schools and allow the potential for a closed schedule with two six-team divisions having five "conference" games and four "crossover" games against teams from the other division. Patchett noted he has been in contact with LIC officials about the process of rejoining the league, but nothing formal has taken place.
Other options are not as appealing, such as playing as an independent or joining another conference that would lead to even more travel than the schools currently do. Trying to keep the LOVC viable by adding other schools to the conference is also a possibility, but not a likely one.
"We've had conversations with the other remaining schools to find the best fits for everyone," Patchett said. "We've got people that care about the kids and want to do what is best for them. Hopefully, we can work together and get that done."