Lena-Winslow's Kade Chrisman (left) and Cole Bardell celebrate the Panthers' first touchdown of the day during the Class 1A state championship last November in DeKalb.
Lena-Winslow's Kade Chrisman (left) and Cole Bardell celebrate the Panthers' first touchdown of the day during the Class 1A state championship last November in DeKalb. — Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com

One of the most prominent small school conferences in the state, the Northwest Upstate Illini, will be undergoing a substantial face lift in 2021.

The conference currently has 14 teams divided into two divisions.

But recently, the following five schools: Amboy, Ashton-Frankin Center, Freeport Aquin, Milledgeville, Orangeville all announced their intention to move to the ranks of 8-man football.

The move isn't all that surprising for the majority of the teams. Orangeville is currently the smallest school in the state that is competing in 11-man football. Aquin is second on the list, Ashton-Franklin Center is fourth and Milledgeville is sixth.

In 2021, the mantle of the state's smallest playing 11-man football school will pass to Jacksonville Routt (current IHSA enrollment 130).

That leaves the NUIC with nine teams remaining in its league membership: Dakota, Durand-Pecatonica, East Dubuque, Forreston, Galena, Lanark Eastland, Lena-Winslow, Stockton and West Carroll.

The nine-team arrangement isn't ideal for multiple reasons. The odd number requires that every team in the conference must find one nonconference opponent. And secondly, the divisional format helped distribute some of the league's power so every team isn't forced into a week-to-week gauntlet. Six of the seven playoff teams from the NIUC are among those nine remaining teams in 11-man. Two more of those that remain, Dakota and Lanark Eastland, are typical playoff entrants. All in all, reaching the playoffs in the NUIC will likely be a badge of honor in years to come.

The league is exploring possibly extending an invitation to other programs to get them back to an even number. Fulton, currently a member of the Three Rivers Conference, was recently extended an invite to join the NUIC as a potential 10th member.

Sangamon Valley Conference to close up shop

The first domino for this seven-team league fell when Paxton announced the intention to leave the league to join the Illini Prairie, taking the place of St. Thomas More in the 10-team league. St. Thomas More elected to join the ranks of 8-man football.

Then, Watseka and Iroquois West accepted invitations to join the Vermilion Valley Conference, joining Bismarck-Henning, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Hoopeston, Oakwood, Salt Fork and Westville to make an eight-team league.

As it stands, that leaves four teams in the Sangamon Valley: Clifton Central, Dwight, Momence and Seneca. Those four squads may be extended an invitation to also join that Vermilion Valley as football-only schools that would make for a 12-team alignment with a pair of six-team divisions.

Cahokia Conference set to expand

The conference extended invitations to four football playing schools, Roxana, Wood River-East Alton, Chester and Dupo to join their ranks.

If all accept, as expected, the league's membership will grow to 10 teams. The league played with seven teams in 2019, but lost Carlyle to the 8-man football ranks.

It isn't certain if all teams that are potentially joining the conference will join in 2021 or 2022.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the other leagues that those incoming schools are departing from. Both Roxana (South Central) and Chester (Black Diamond) play in conferences that are currently locked 10-team groupings. Wood-River East Alton and Dupo both currently play in the Prairie State Conference, a league that has morphed several times in last few years.

Six schools played in the Prairie State last season. South Fork has since moved to the 8-man ranks and if WR-EA and Dupo do indeed move to the Cahokia, that would isolate three schools (Nokomis, Alton Marquette and Madison) to either the independent ranks or scrambling to fill one of the vacancies created in other leagues.