FULTON – The Northwest Upstate Illini Conference has approached Fulton about leaving the Three Rivers Athletic Conference and joining the NUIC, it was revealed at Monday's River Bend School District Board of Education meeting.
The NUIC roster of 11-man football-playing members has been depleted in recent months, with Amboy, AFC, Milledgeville, Orangeville and Aquin all choosing to play 8-man football for the 2021 season. They join Polo, another NUIC member that dropped 11-man football after the 2018 season and went on to win the 2019 8-man state championship.
Another NUIC school, Warren, left the conference after the 2018 season to co-op with Black Hawk High School in South Wayne, Wisconsin, playing football on a Wisconsin schedule and winning a Wisconsin state championship in 2019.
Those departures will leave the NUIC with nine teams only in 11-man football for the 2021 season, with just three in the South Division: Forreston, Eastland-Pearl City and West Carroll.
Discussions are in the early stages in Fulton. Should it make the move, it likely would not take effect until the 2023-24 school year.
"This is something that within the past month they've reached out and there's a lot of questions," Fulton Athletic Director Patrick Henrekin said. "[The next step] hasn't been established yet.
"We did some enrollment and distance comparisons. We're probably going to do some financial cost analysis," said Henrekin, adding that his coaches support a move.
The Steamers already have played NUIC schools in several sports.
Fulton's girls basketball team faced NUIC team and eventual Class 1A state champion Eastland in a December nonconference game, then saw its season come to an end in a regional championship loss to NUIC member Amboy in February.
In boys basketball, the Steamers' run to a regional title this year saw four games against NUIC teams, with wins over Milledgeville, Stockton and Galena at the Fulton Regional before a sectional semifinal loss to Dakota.
Last fall, the Fulton volleyball team won a regional with wins over Amboy and Forreston before a loss to Dakota.
In football, the Steamers would be swapping a conference with reigning Class 2A state champion Newman Central Catholic in Sterling for one with reigning Class 1A state champion Lena-Winslow, but getting rid of a disparity in enrollment could help come playoff time.
The Steamers have reached the playoffs 5 of the past 6 years, but the past two campaigns have seen 5-4 marks in the regular season and a first-round playoff loss to a higher seed, unbeaten Aquin in 2019 and unbeaten Milledgeville in 2018.
Fulton opened the 2019 season with a loss to Princeton, a school with an enrollment of 517, and lost later in the season to Hall, a school with 426 students. Avoiding bigger schools in the regular season could mean a couple of more wins, which in turn could mean a better seeding in the playoffs and a greater chance at a postseason run.
Fulton would go from being one of the smaller TRAC schools to one of the larger NUIC schools, expecting an enrollment of 288 in the high school for the 2020-21 school year. Fulton is fairly close in enrollment to potential NUIC football rivals Forreston (257), Eastland-Pearl City (330), Lena-Winslow (231), Galena (241) and Dakota (248).
Comparing the Three Rivers to the NUIC, for Fulton there would be little difference in driving distance, with an average road trip of 78.8 miles in the TRAC and 79.6 in the NUIC.
The board did express some concern at the meeting that driving distances in the TRAC might increase if Monmouth-Roseville went from being a football-only member of the conference to a member in all sports. Fulton to Monmouth-Roseville High School is an 87-mile trip one way.
Also a concern to the board would be the potential loss of rivalry games in football with Morrison and Newman, although a move could establish a new rivalry with West Carroll, just 17 miles up the road in Savanna.
The NUIC reached out to a few schools; Fulton is showing the most interest so far, and a formal invitation could come from the NUIC in the fall, Henrekin said.
If Fulton wanted to make the move, it would have to give the TRAC a 2-year notice, a policy put in place by the conference when Amboy made the same move following the 2015-16 school year.