The two Peoria-area leagues will join forces in fall 2023 for a 17-team football-only conference — tentatively named the Lincoln Trail-Prairieland Conference — with separate divisions based on registration. Each division winner will earn an automatic offer to the Illinois High School Association playoffs.
Princeville, Stark County, Abingdon-Avon, Annawan/Wethersfield, Havana, ROWVA/Williamsfield, Rushville-Industry, South Fulton and Monmouth United will be the members of the Small Schools Division.
The big schools in the opposite division will be Elmwood/Brimfield, Farmington, Aledo Mercer County, Illini West, Knoxville, Lewistown/North Fulton, Macomb and Warsaw West Hancock.
How was the merger born
Is it just putting a band-aid on a growing problem or maybe a lasting relationship?
“Ideally,” said Farmington coach Toby Vallas, “anything you take long-term until someone is unhappy with it.”
Several factors played into the merger, but the most significant was the number of schools seeing football attendance drop so low that fielding 8-man teams became the only option. In the past few years alone, the respective conferences had seen Peoria Heights, Bushnell-Prairie City, West Prairie, North Fulton, Biggsville West Central and most recently Ridgewood take 8 players.
Last season, for example, South Fulton were unable to field a college team in Week 8, handing Farmington a forfeit victory. Smaller enrollment schools like South Fulton, which have yet to drop to 8 men, would risk disappearing from the 11-man landscape altogether.
So Vallas knew something had to be done.
“If schools start playing 8, we’re going to lose teams,” he said.
Vallas and his athletic director, Jeff Otto, approached LTC AD to unite the conferences. After calculating the number of entries, their proposal included dividing the 17 teams by school size, landing with nine in the small division and eight for the big division.
DAs, coaches and administrators from both conferences were on board, paving the way for the new league.
“Prairieland and LTC have always had a great working relationship,” said Annawan/Wethersfield AD Jeff Parsons. “We had a great wedding. They helped us when we needed help, and we helped them when they needed help.
From Lincoln Trail’s perspective, the conference had seen the addition of Abingdon/Avon and Knoxville from the Prairies before the 2021 season, then lost Ridgewood to 8 men after the season. That left LTC with eight schools, meaning each school would need to fill two holes in the schedule each season.
One game is already supported through a previous LTC/Prairieland partnership.
“The last thing you want to do as a group of ADs is post your schedule on (the) IHSA (website),” Parsons said, “and try to find a game because you’re going to play in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, somewhere (out of state.) Or you play in a suburban school that’s eight times your size.
“We will proudly continue this relationship. They had a need. We had a need. »
How the schedules will work
In 2023, one inter-divisional game will be played each season with major division teams having to find only one non-conference game per season. Weeks 1, 2, 8 and 9 will likely be left open for teams to resume games, according to Vallas.
Eliminating these cross-cutting mismatches between small-division and large-division schools — while helping small schools stay at 11 people — was a big priority in the proposal. Ultimately, prairie schools had one goal in mind.
“By the time we got out of there, we all want nine games,” Vallas said. “It was the end of everything, be everything for us.”
What may seem like an odd number (17) for a two-division conference, comes with a built-in contingency plan. If a team were to drop to 8 players, the divisions add an extra crossover match and no one has to find an out-of-league opponent.
“What we’re doing right now is the worst case scenario,” Vallas said of filling a single open date.
If the conference continues to shrink, planning will become increasingly easier through continued cross-play between divisions.
Lincoln Trail-Prairieland Conference
Small school division
Large School Division
Aledo Mercer County
Warsaw West Hancock
Adam Duvall is a sports reporter for the Journal Star. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.