The Interstate Eight Conference is all set to embark on its 41st season of football this coming fall.
The four-plus-decade-old league has undergone a major facelift, though.
Plano and Sandwich are the only schools that remain from last year, as the other eight — Coal City, Herscher, Lisle, Manteno, Peotone, Reed-Custer, Streator and Wilmington — left to create the Illinois Central Eight Conference.
Joining Plano — the lone remaining charter member from 1979 — and Sandwich, a stalwart since 1985, to form the new-look I-8 are six schools from the defunct Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference: Kaneland, La Salle-Peru, Morris, Ottawa, Rochelle and Sycamore.
Each school opens the campaign with two nonconference games before league play kicks off Week 3.
Here is a recap of how each school fared against one another last season, along with comments from some of the I-8's head coaches in regards to the changed conference slate:
The Cavaliers (3-6) beat Ottawa (48-0), and were beaten by Rochelle (55-33) and Morris (63-13).
"I mean, we've still got Ottawa (the archrivals have met on the gridiron 119 times, dating back to 1898); that's always going to be a rivalry game for us," L-P coach Jose Medina said, "and the other (former NIB 12) schools — Kaneland, Morris, Rochelle and Sycamore — we've played those teams, so we're familiar with them. We know what to expect on a Friday night. They're quality programs.
"Am I going to miss (playing former league counterparts) Geneseo and Sterling? Yeah, I think I'm going to miss those games, because they're always good teams, and you're striving to beat them. Those are the kind of programs we're trying to get to.
"It's always great to (face) new teams — some new blood to play — and see what they do. You know, that's the cool thing about coaching is you've got to break down film and sit there and study (teams).
"I think there's going to be quality competition every Friday night."
Maple Park Kaneland
The Knights (7-4 overall in 2018) beat Sycamore (28-7) and Morris (50-14), and were defeated by Rochelle (31-13).
La Salle-Peru and Ottawa will be new additions to the Knights' schedule in 2019, as will be Plano and Sandwich.
The Redskins (4-5) beat Ottawa (49-7) and La Salle-Peru (63-13), and lost to Sycamore (17-7) and Kaneland (50-14).
"This year, I definitely think the schedule is a little more favorable (compared to 2018 when Morris was top five in the state in playoff points)," Redskins coach Alan Thorson said, "but at the same time there's still some really good teams in this conference. I mean, Kaneland and Sycamore, who we've obviously been playing, and then you add in the other side of the (NIB 12) Conference: L-P, Ottawa and Rochelle. There's a lot of familiarity with all the schools, other than Plano and Sandwich; I don't know a lot to expect with Plano and Sandwich.
"You know, Yorkville was probably our biggest rival in football the past decade, so I am a little sad to see that (game) go. And the same with DeKalb. But just getting some of those older rivalry games back, Morris and Ottawa, you know, a long time ago that was a big game. (The two schools met on the gridiron annually from 1976-90.) To me, getting to play towns around us, I think it's just good for all the communities involved. ...
"It's kind of a cool thing to (face) different teams, to go to new places, Plano and Sandwich. You get used to playing some of these same teams; you get a different look. You get to see new styles, you're going from some extremes here. So you're going to get different looks every week from different teams. That's the exciting thing.
"We're pretty excited about the new conference. I definitely like the travel aspect as well. It's going to be a fun conference.
"I have a lot of respect for a lot of programs in this new conference. I mean, there's some good football in this conference. I think it's going to be good football across the board. At least for the next couple years, I think it's going to be a good, competitive conference, for sure.
"I think it's a good fit for everybody involved. I really think it'll be a good conference. I hope it sticks. We feel like we've found a good home. So I'm hoping that we can keep it for the long run."
The Pirates (0-9) were beaten by La Salle-Peru (48-0), Morris (49-7) and Rochelle (42-7), as well as Sandwich (41-15) in a nonconference matchup.
"(The conference schedule is) very similar to what we've had traditionally," Ottawa coach Chad Gross said. "We still have L-P, Rochelle, and, you know, Kaneland, Morris and Sycamore, we've played them in (NIB 12) crossover matchups; it's going to be a little different, obviously playing them consistently. We had Sandwich last year.
"Plano (a school Ottawa has never met on the gridiron and will begin playing on the league loop) is an unknown for us right now. It's interesting playing new teams. You don't know what to expect.
"I'll miss (not playing former conference foes Geneseo and Sterling), because those are traditional rivalry games for us. But it definitely doesn't get any easier when you have Kaneland, Morris and Sycamore on (the schedule) every year. So, yeah, you lose Geneseo and Sterling, but the teams that we're going to be playing every year (now) really isn't going to be a reprieve by any means.
"(The Ottawa-L-P game is) something that has gone on for more than a hundred years (121). A lot of (OHS) alumni that played in the late 1970s and throughout the '80s, they always talk about the Morris game (the schools met on the gridiron 15 years in a row) ... and I'm looking forward to starting that back up again every year.
"It's definitely a very deep conference. We have tough teams — top to bottom. And I don't think you're going to have a week that you go out there and you don't have to earn that victory. I don't think in our conference there's many (games) that you can just chalk up a 'W.' It's a very balanced conference. If you make the playoffs coming out of our conference, you are going to have earned it and going to be a team that is well-prepared to go into the postseason.
"(This conference is) going to make us battle-tested. Our goal is obviously to make the playoffs, and if we do make the playoffs, it's going to be after beating some very good competition to make it that far. And I think it's just like it was in the NIB 12. I think if you can get in the playoffs out of our conference you have a chance to make a run, just because you're going to play so much competition week in and week out (during the regular season).
"You definitely get seven challenges — everybody is just a solid program — and we're never going to run from a challenge. So I'm definitely excited about (this new conference), and I think the kids are too."
Every foe on the conference schedule for the Reapers (5-5) is new, with the exception of "War on 34" counterpart Sandwich, which they edged 26-20 last season.
"I don't know enough about the (Interstate Eight and Northern Illinois Big 12) conferences to compare and contrast between the two. I do know a little bit about the teams, because I've recruited all of these schools," said first-year Plano coach Rick Ponx, who has 30 years of coaching experience in the college ranks, including the past five at the helm of Aurora University.
"I know that we're taking on good football programs, and that will prepare us for the playoffs; that's really where you want to be. And that's the biggest thing, (those former NIB 12 schools) have tradition and know how to win. So it's going to lead to some good Friday nights, home and away. It's going to be great to compete against those (teams).
"It's not easy to win football games — any — any Friday night ... so I'm taking the approach to teach our kids lets control what we can control, focus on being the best team we can be. And if we do that, let the chips fall where they may."
The Hubs (5-5) beat La Salle-Peru (55-33), Ottawa (42-7) and Kaneland (31-13), and were defeated by Sycamore (21-7).
"I see (our schedule) as pretty similar in that, you know, a lot of the teams in the conference were in the (NIB 12)," Rochelle coach Kyle Kissack said. "You know, we're familiar with what everybody wants to do offensively and defensively. Plano and Sandwich, don't know a ton about them at this point, but schools I'm sure will fit in just fine. I think we have a tough schedule.
"I really do appreciate the tradition of high school football, and there's a lot of tradition involved in that Rochelle-Geneseo football game, and Sterling. So not playing (former conference counterparts) Geneseo and Sterling this season, we'll miss them. You know, (facing) Plano and Sandwich offers a new opportunity to develop a rivalry. Sure, it'll be a challenge (facing Plano and Sandwich), but it's always exciting to prepare for a new team, and I think our kids will respond to that appropriately.
"It's a well-balanced, tough conference; schools that have been historically successful. There are a lot of schools in here that have tradition. So the way we see it, we're fortunate to be a part of the I-8. I think it's a good setup. So I think it'll settle in just fine."
The Indians (4-5) were edged by "War on 34" counterpart Plano (26-20) last season, while beating Ottawa (41-15) in a nonconference matchup.
"We know that we're going to see some great competition this year," Sandwich coach Kris Cassie said, "and what we have to do is just work incredibly hard to make sure our kids are prepared the best they can be. You know, the old I-8 there were some traditionally-strong programs, and we're going to get that even more (now). There's absolutely nowhere to hide week in and week out with our conference schedule. So we have to bring our very best game each and every week, now more than ever.
"Our coaches, our kids, our community, we know it's going to be a grind each and every week. But football's football, so what we have to do is just continue to work.
"I'm not happy to see (the old I-8 schools) go. I mean, I have a tremendous amount of respect for all those coaches (in particular Wilmington's Jeff Reents and Coal City's Dan Hutchings). ... I'm on year 19 now (at Sandwich), and those are the schools we've played every year, and now it's completely different.
"Now, we're going to be game planning for schools we just haven't played. So that's where we're going to have to spend a little bit more time. That's one of the biggest differences this year compared to last year is the familiarity with the opponents isn't there anymore. Ottawa, what we saw last year, there's a little bit of something there. But even (Plano has) a new coach; we're not even totally sure what to expect from them anymore.
"I kind of liken it to the playoffs. Yeah, it's going to be some new challenges, and we're going to have to spend a little bit of extra time preparing for (these new schools), but that's just what we're going to have to do to make sure our kids are prepared to compete.
"(Morris is) a program we've admired from afar for quite a while. I'm kind of looking forward to playing the Redskins (the schools meet Oct. 25), mainly because I've got a good friend (coaching) there. You know, they're always one of the top programs in (Class) 4A, and we're a 4A school, and to truly measure yourself you want to play against the best competition, and they truly are.
"We know one thing, we're going to (face) great competition week in and week out. We're all well aware of that. We're the smallest school in the conference (with an enrollment of 698.50; Ottawa is the largest with 1353.50). ...
"Yeah, it's going to be difficult, but winning a football game is difficult — period. So my challenge to the kids is, we've just got to be ready to play Sandwich football, that's it."
The Spartans (8-3) defeated Morris (17-7) and Rochelle (21-7), and lost to Kaneland (28-7).
"Essentially, (our conference schedule is) the same; we have the same teams," said Sycamore coach Joe Ryan, whose Spartans have been members of four conferences (also the Suburban Prairie and the Western Sun) during his 16-year head-coaching tenure. "You know, we lose Yorkville; we still play (archrival) DeKalb. I mean, other than Plano and Sandwich, our schedule really doesn't change that much.
"We've (played Kaneland and Morris), so we know them, and we've played L-P, Ottawa and Rochelle off and on through (NIB 12) crossovers, so we know them. It'll be different this year with Plano and Sandwich. That'll be some new blood, and that'll be interesting.
"We don't have a folder on (Plano and Sandwich). You know, we have binders on (the other schools), there's not a lot of changes. So there is a secret with Plano and Sandwich. It'll be different. I'm just kind of excited to play some different (teams).
"You know, we don't have an 'off' week."
This is the final installment in a four-part series outlining the schedule changes caused by conference shakeups affecting teams in and around Starved Rock Country. Looks at the Illinois Central Eight, Northeastern Athletic and the Illinois 8-man Football Association are available at FridayNightDrive.com.