After the announcement earlier this week that three more schools intended to leave the Sangamon Valley Conference at the completion of next school year, the remaining members — Dwight, Momence and Clifton Central in all sports; Seneca in football and wrestling only — have been left in an all-too-familiar position for Illinois high schools these days:
Searching to fill schedules and weighing their conference options.
While the prior three are all members of the Sangamon Valley in all sports, Seneca currently has what seems to be a stable and happy home in the Tri-County Conference alongside schools such as Marquette, Putnam County and Woodland for sports outside of football and wrestling.
As has been the case since Illinois high school athletics took root and leagues began to form in the early 1900s, though, high school football more often than not drives schools' conference affiliation decisions. The splitting of the Sangamon Valley — with Paxton-Buckley-Loda leaving for the Illini Prairie, while Watseka, Cissna Park and Iroquois West announced Wednesday they heading to the Vermilion Valley Conference, all in 2021-22 — leaves Seneca, along with Clifton Central, Momence and Dwight, in a potentially precarious position moving forward.
Next school year will be Seneca's third in the Sangamon Valley and Tri-County conferences. Seneca joined both in 2018-19 after leaving an Interstate Eight Conference which has since undergone an almost total facelift, with only two members (Sandwich and Plano) remaining from Seneca's time in the league.
"As of right now, the remaining schools (Momence, Clifton Central, Dwight and us) have asked to remain (scheduling games) with the old SVC schools for football, similar to how we are scheduled now with crossovers with the Vermilion Valley Conference," Seneca athletic director Steve Haines said. "As the SVC was our conference for football as the Tri-County does not offer that sport, we are optimistic that this can continue to be our football solution.
"This solution notwithstanding, we are taking this time to investigate all possible options. We have reached out to a few schools and conferences to see about openings or other solutions.
"All I can say about that is that these conversations are difficult during a pandemic."
The Tri-County Conference is home to nine schools after DePue's departure to the Little Ten at the end of the current school year. Of those nine, only five play football.
Three of those five — Lowpoint-Washburn, Roanoke-Benson and Woodland — do so as members of co-ops in the Illinois 8-Man Football Association, meaning Seneca and Marquette are the current Tri-County's only 11-man football-playing schools.
Dwight, Seneca and Marquette are all already on each other's football schedules and could make convenient and rivalry-ready conference-mates. Marquette is in the also-dissolving Northeastern Athletic Conference with 11-man football-playing schools Walther Christian and Rockford Christian. Both Kirkland Hiawatha and South Beloit were members in 2019-20, but are leaving to play 8-man this coming fall.
The downstate Heart of Illinois, which includes schools such as Fieldcrest, El Paso-Gridley and Tri-Valley, is a 1A/2A powerhouse in football and currently sits at an odd number of football-playing schools (11) after Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland's move to the I8FA before the 2019 season.
The Illinois Central Eight — made up entirely of schools Seneca and Dwight used to be in the Interstate Eight with, including Coal City, Reed-Custer and Wilmington, with Streator taking Dwight's place in 2014-15 when Dwight left for the Sangamon Valley — appears to be another potential landing spot if the second-year league is willing to take on additional members. Seneca (with an enrollment of 440) and Dwight (254) would be the IC8's smallest members, though, which was a key component in the two leaving largely the same group of schools when they were all in the I-8.
Streator AD Rory Bedeker said Friday he has not heard "anything directly about" adding potential new members, but the subject could come up at next week's conference meetings.