The Northwest Upstate Illini Conference will have a new look next fall, but the action on the gridiron will likely be much the same for the best small-school conference in northern Illinois.
With Polo out of the league after going to 8-man football, the NUIC Upstate and Northwest divisions were scrapped in favor of North and South divisions. All five Sauk Valley Media-area teams will play in the South Division.
That means the teams will play some familiar foes and some new opponents – and both are fine with the coaches.
“I think it’s exciting to see different teams,” Ashton-
Franklin Center coach Brad Winterland said. “I’ve always been a fan of that, kids getting to see new schools and kids; I think it’s kind of cool. But from an approach standpoint, and philosophy-wise, things will stay the same. You just have to play the games you’re drawn.”
“Overall, it’s fairly similar,” Milledgeville coach Jason Wroble agreed. “We add back a couple of traditional rivalries that we haven’t played in years, so it will be good to see those teams again. I think it adds an element to the season.”
Amboy-LaMoille will get tested right out of the gate. After a road trip to play Durand-Pecatonica, the Clippers will see a pair of perennial powers in Lena-Winslow at home and Forreston on the road. A home game against West Carroll will be followed by back-to-back away games at Aquin and Galena, then Eastland-Pearl City and Milledgeville come to The Harbor before a Week 9 road game in Ashton.
Entering his 26th season at the Clippers helm, Gary Jones has seen it all – and he’s ready for anything with the new division split.
“I think that tough stretch to start will give us a good look at what we have or don’t have, and what we have to work on,” Jones said. “We’ll learn a lot those first few games, and we’ll go from there.
“We’ve already played some of the teams, some of them we haven’t played, so we’ll know more when we scout some of the new opponents and get a little better idea of what they’ve got.”
AFC will play four of its first six games on the road, traveling to East Dubuque in Week 1, Stockton in Week 3, then back-to-back trips to West Carroll and Milledgeville in Weeks 5 and 6. The Raiders host Orangeville in Week 2
and Forreston in Week 4, then finish the season with Aquin at home, EPC on the road, and Amboy-LaMoille back at home.
Winterland, for one, doesn’t really mind hitting the road early in the season.
“I think that’s not a terrible thing,” he said, “and the reason I say that is because we were so young last year that we’re still going to be young this year, even though we return a lot of kids, and it’ll be nice to get the jitters and that first bus trip out of the way in Week 1.
“And I like the way it’s split up; I prefer to alternate those home and road games. Travel tends to take its toll, because where we’re located within the conference, we have to travel a decent way for every road game, and it’s good when we can skip back-to-back road games.”
Milledgeville will have to replace an awful lot of firepower from last season’s
NUIC Upstate title team after a perfect run through the regular season, so Wroble is happy to see four of the Missiles’ first six game at the friendly confines of Floyd Daub Field.
They start at Stockton, then host East Dubuque and Aquin before a Week 4 road game against EPC. Weeks 5 and 6 are back at home against Forreston and AFC, before consecutive road games at West Carroll and Amboy-LaMoille. The Missiles close the season by hosting Orangeville.
“We’ve got a new group, a lot of inexperienced guys, and playing at home early on is a big advantage and will definitely add a comfort level,” Wroble said. “It’s one thing to travel places you go year after year, but it’s different to see some new teams and new places – especially in the best league for 1A football in the state, when week in and week out you’re going to see good teams and tough challenges.”
Like the Missiles, Eastland-
Pearl City was also a senior-dominated team during its run to the 2A semifinals last season, and Week 1 at Lena-Winslow will be an immediate test for quite a few new starters.
“We don’t really know what we have until we actually strap the pads on,” second-year coach Jared McNutt said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, even some older guys coming out who haven’t played in the past – and they’ll probably start for us, just because they’re upperclassmen and I don’t want to send freshmen into the fire right away.”
After the opener, the Wildcatz alternate home and away every week. They host Durand-Pecatonica, Milledgeville, Aquin and AFC in the even weeks, and travel to West Carroll, Dakota, Amboy-LaMoille and Forreston in the odd weeks.
“It’ll be the same tough stuff like the last couple of years,” McNutt said. “We’ll be playing some of the same teams, and then some new ones we don’t know a whole lot about yet. But with me being from Warren, I know what to expect [from them] somewhat, so that might help us a little with the new divisions.”
West Carroll also opens the season on the road, at former division foe Galena, which will now be a crossover game. The Thunder host Dakota and EPC the next 2 weeks, then travel to Amboy in Week 4, host AFC in Week 5, and visit Forreston in Week 6. The final home game comes in Week 7 against Milledgeville, then it’s road trips to Durand-Pecatonica and Aquin to close out the regular season.
But even with new divisions, some new foes and some old, and no matter what the breakdown is of home and away games,
one thing will likely stay
the same in the rugged,
“Every week is a battle, and you’ve got different game plans and defensive schemes with some spread-out teams and pack-it-in teams,” McNutt said. “It’ll be a grind week to week, just like it always has been in the past.”