The COVID-19 pandemic is causing high schools around Illinois to take unprecedented steps in order to conduct as normal a 2020-21 athletics schedule as possible.

Officials in the Illini Prairie Conference and Apollo Conference on Thursday evening announced the latest such decision, as the leagues will cross over for next spring’s football season to create seven separate nonconference games. Rantoul will be headed west in the fourth week of the season.

This is a one-year deal that only will affect football programs.

“What may have started out as kind of a bunch of guys brainstorming and throwing things against the wall to see what sticks,” Mahomet-Seymour athletic director Matt Hensley said, “it kind of became, ‘You know what, that’s not a bad idea. What would that look like if we actually did it?’”

Rantoul head coach Tom Hess said he and his staff are holding out hope “that we get to play at all.”

“The crossover is exciting. It will be fun to see how those matchups shake out. We normally just focus on us because regardless of our opponent, we have to focus on controlling the controllable, and that is us,” Hess said.

“We continuously are faced with adversity, and we have been working hard to get off the bottom of our conference. Our players are fully bought into the program and are excited to face any opponent.”

The move helps Apollo schools fill a nonconference void in each of their football schedules without having to worry about travel restrictions pertaining to EMS regions, which the Illinois Department of Public Health uses for its “Restore Illinois” plan boundaries.

Football teams are among those currently unable to compete outside of their EMS region unless it’s for a conference event, though they also presently are unable to play games at all under IDPH restrictions.

“To take football off the table and know that’s going to be set,” Hensley said, “is certainly a big checkmark.”

IPC-Apollo football matchups are set as follows: Mt. Zion at Chillicothe IVC in Week 1, Prairie Central at Effingham in Week 2, Pontiac at Taylorville in Week 3, Rantoul at Lincoln in Week 4, St. Joseph-Ogden at Charleston in Week 5, Mattoon at Monticello in Week 6 and M-S at Unity in Week 7.

Rantoul Township High School athletic director Travis Flesner said due to the Illini Prairie Conference only having nine football schools, each week “we would have a bye week for one of our schools.”  

“In order to fill this void, we had discussions with the Apollo Conference who has seven schools, so they were in the same boat with bye weeks,” Flessner said.  

“The IPC drew seven schools out to play the two Apollo schools leaving 2 schools from the IPC (BCC and Olympia), which will play a non-conference game to fill their schedule.”

“For a lot of reasons it made a lot of sense,” said Unity AD Scott Hamilton, also Unity’s football coach. “Many of us play a lot of the Apollo schools in games as it is already, in other sports. We already have that relationship with a lot of those schools.”

Sheehan said he, Hamilton, Hensley and Mt. Zion AD Ben Davis have spoken throughout the pandemic about all sorts of prep sports matters.

“With ... some of the strict rules and regulations in terms of finding opponents within your COVID region,” Sheehan said, “this is a way to protect Apollo kids and IPC kids.”

Hamilton and Sheehan said the IHSA has directed schools to plan a seven-week regular-season football schedule starting next March and leave two weeks open for a potential playoff event. Sheehan added that IPC ADs couldn’t decide which weeks of their already-established football schedules they wanted to use — Weeks 1-7 or 3-9 — so those lineups are being completely reconfigured to try and maintain as many natural rivalries as possible.

Unity versus M-S is the lone game involving two area teams to come from this merger. Hamilton said the Rockets and Bulldogs haven’t met in football since he started in Tolono in 1994.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our kids,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully we get to host them at Hicks Field. ... It’ll be a fun game for both teams and both sets of kids.”

Rantoul Press Editor Dave Hinton contributed to this story.

clikas@news-gazette.com