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No matter what high school athletic director or administrator you talk to, one sport always seems to drive conference realignment.
But football isn’t the only sport Rantoul Township High School will compete in, in the revamped Okaw Valley Conference once the Eagles join the six-member league at the start of the 2014-15 school year.
Far from it.
The Eagles will have volleyball, cross country, boys golf, girls tennis, boys basketball, girls basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and track and field teams competing in the Okaw as well against the likes of Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello, St. Joseph-Ogden, St. Thomas More and Unity.
For now at least.
Most of the scheduling questions and how the Okaw will look in 2014-15 might differ since reports surfaced that invitations to Clinton, Decatur St. Teresa, Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Stanford Olympia went out last week, with a deadline to respond by Dec. 15.
Officials at RTHS made it clear before the school decided to leave the Corn Belt Conference they’d like to see the Okaw expand to eight or 10 schools.
But we’ll take an early glance at what some of the Eagles’ upcoming winter sports teams can expect with the way the Okaw is set up now before delving into the other sports at a later date.
Third-year RTHS head coach Brett Frerichs is in favor of the new conference schools the Eagles will play in a few years.
“It’s a competitive league,” he said. “We matched up with those teams in regionals before and also in the summer league. In terms of playing teams from the conference, it’s better to drive 45 minutes as opposed to driving to Eureka or Pontiac or Olympia on a Tuesday night. It makes sense in terms of travel.”
Aside from that, Frerichs would like to see the league stay intact at six schools, or at most, expand to eight schools, which is how many the Corn Belt Conference has.
A 10-team league won’t help the Eagles, especially when it comes to the postseason, Frerichs said.
“My only worry is getting a 10-team conference,” Frerichs said. “I see some definite disadvantages there. If you go with an 18-game conference schedule, it doesn’t leave us with any flexibility to play bigger schools. That will definitely be a disadvantage going into a regional seeding, and it probably should be.”
If the new Okaw started this year, RTHS would the biggest school with 744 students.
With the way the Illinois High School Association determined classifications for four-class sports for the 2012-13 school year — it’s expected the same 25 percent formula the IHSA used to determine class splits will continue in the future — RTHS is squarely in Class 3A.
The other five schools that will join RTHS are in 2A.
The Eagles will still likely see schools such as Champaign Centennial, Champaign Central, Urbana and Mahomet-Seymour in the postseason, which could affect the Eagles’ seeding based on playing conference schools that are smaller than the schools that those four would play during the regular season.
“I think they will use it against us unless we get two power holiday tournaments and our eight nonconference games are scheduled against quality opponents,” Frerichs said. “If you give us eight quality opponents and if we can get 16 nonconference games and 10 conference games, they can’t hold that against us.”
Since the IHSA expanded boys basketball to a four-class system for the 2007-08 season, Unity has won three 2A regional championships (2009, 2010, 2012) while Monticello (2008), St. Thomas More (2011), RTHS (2011) and St. Joseph-Ogden (2012) have each won one 2A regional title.
Frerichs said he’d like to keep some of the Eagles’ Corn Belt foes on possible nonconference schedules in the future.
“If it’s up to the coaches, I don’t think it’s a worry,” Frerichs said. “I’ve already talked to some opposing coaches, and they’re aware of the situation. They would definitely be willing to continue a nonconference game with our basketball program.”
RTHS third-year girls basketball head coach Jeff McKaufsky shares some of Frerichs’ views.
“Travel-wise, that’s the No. 1 positive,” McKaufsky said. “I’m pretty sure everybody agrees with that, and ultimately that’ll carry over academically into the classroom. They won’t be getting home at 11 on a school night, so they can get home and take care of their work.”
McKaufsky said he’s in favor of the Okaw only having six teams since it gives the Eagles the flexibility of nonconference scheduling, but also sees the downside of that from a football perspective.
“I think if you have eight or 10 teams, it makes for a very solid conference,” McKaufsky said. “Your schedule is set. Otherwise you might have a hard time finding nonconference games, and you might be traveling an hour, an hour and a half or two hours to a nonconference game.”
McKaufsky said he’d like to keep some of the current Corn Belt schools on future schedules for his team.
“The Corn Belt is a very tough conference,” he said. “Throughout the time we’ve been in the Corn Belt, we’ve developed some rivalries, so it’d be good to keep them going, and in return, you’re going to get a very competitive basketball game.”
McKaufsky understands some of the Eagles’ 3A postseason opponents will factor in the Eagles’ conference schedule in regards to seeds.
“But you play in Thanksgiving tournaments and Christmas tournaments, so you’re going to play quality opponents throughout the year,” McKaufsky said. “I think schools will take that into account with the quality of your competition, but most teams around the area that you’re going to be in the regional with know how good you are by that point.”
Since the 2007-08 season, the first year of class expansion for girls basketball, St. Thomas More has won three 2A regional titles (2009, 2010, 2012) and won a sectional title last season before losing in a 2A super-sectional game.
Unity won consecutive 2A regional titles in 2008 and 2009 and won a sectional in 2009 before losing in a super-sectional game. Maroa-Forsyth owns one 2A regional title (2010) in the five-year span.
“Just because they’re smaller schools, I don’t want anyone to think Rantoul is going to go in there in any sport and just dominate,” McKaufsky said. “All these schools have very good athletic traditions. In girls basketball, it’s not going to be easy. All these programs are solid.”
First-year RTHS wrestling head coach Craig Acree said he was surprised the Eagles’ decision to leave the Corn Belt and join the Okaw came so quickly.
“I was a bit surprised,” he said. “I didn’t find out about it until reading it in the newspaper.”
Of the six schools the Okaw has lined up for the 2014-15 wrestling season, only five have wrestling. Maroa-Forsyth does not.
Of the eight schools in the Corn Belt, seven have wrestling, including traditional powerhouses like Mahomet-Seymour and Prairie Central. Bloomington Central Catholic does not have wrestling.
“Travel time is going to be a lot easier for us,” Acree said. “The only thing I’m really concerned about is filling out a complete year’s schedule. We had a lot of meets (in the Corn Belt), and we were able to fill out our schedule. I don’t know how much that’s going to affect filling out our schedule with it only being a six-team conference.”
The Eagles had meets with Prairie Central and Pontiac last year, but do not this upcoming season.
RTHS will face Unity in a season-opening quadrangular and will also compete in a tournament this season at Unity, just like it has done in the past.
“From a wrestling aspect, it’s a weaker conference, but don’t get me wrong, there’s some tough teams,” Acree said. “I think St. Joe will be our biggest competition as far as team-wise.”
Wrestling is a three-class sport, with RTHS in 2A, but the other members of the new Okaw will all be in 1A.
“One other thing that might be hurting us is we’ll still see some of those teams in the Corn Belt in our regional,” Acree said. “We kind of get a little (preview) of how we could go up against one another, but now we’ll be kind of blind going into the regional tournament unless we do schedule meets against them.”