When the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference began play in 2010, the league had the makings of a great football conference.
Especially in the league’s East Division.
In the East, there’s the strong tradition of schools such as Morris, a playoff fixture nearly every year and winner of three state championships, the latest coming in 2005. Joe Thorgeson built Kaneland into a power, won state titles in 1997 and 1998 and handed the keys to Tom Fedderly in 2007. The past two seasons, Kaneland has knocked on Champaign’s door, falling in the state semifinals.
Under Kevin Crandall, Rochelle has made the playoffs 14 of the past 16 seasons. Joe Ryan’s Sycamore Spartans have been postseason-bound four of the past six years.
The NI Big 12’s West Division features teams such as Geneseo, which has won four state championships while finishing second five times. Sterling made the postseason throughout former coach Greg King’s tenure, which lasted from 2002-11.
In the East, conference play is consistently a grind. Even DeKalb and Yorkville have seen success since 2010. The Barbs made the playoffs two seasons ago for the first time since 1989, nearly upsetting Rock Island in the first round. Last season, DeKalb was one win away from a playoff berth, finishing 4-5. Yorkville has gotten better under second-year coach Karl Hoinkes, winner of two state titles at Oswego.
First-year DeKalb coach Todd Hallaron called the league one of the best Class 5A-6A leagues in the state, with the possible exception of the Suburban Christian Blue, which features Montini, Aurora Christian, Marian Central and St. Francis.
“But beyond that, you start talking public schools, I don’t think there’s a conference in the state that’s as good as ours,” Hallaron said.
The past two years, DeKalb has been on the playoff bubble, which puts nonconference wins at a premium. A nonconference win or loss also could mean the difference between a team such as Sycamore hosting a playoff game or going on the road for the first round.
Each team in the conference plays two crossover games, and for the East Division, those aren’t exactly a given considering the strength of the West. Sycamore found that out the hard way last week, when Ottawa beat the Spartans, 10-6, in Sycamore.
This season, the Barbs had nonconference games scheduled against Galesburg and Hampshire, and DeKalb lost two close games. Those schools haven’t had a ton of recent success, but are a combined 6-4 so far this season.
DeKalb already is 0-1 in the NI Big 12 East, but Hallaron says he feels like his team easily could have a better record facing a really tough conference slate.
“We’re 1-4, but we feel like we’ve competed with everybody,” he said. “We just needed those one or two breaks and we didn’t get them.”
However, coaches know when NI Big 12 East teams reach Week 9, they’re just more prepared.
“You’re much more seasoned,” Ryan said. “If you get in, you really earned it, and you’re seasoned. And you might not host that first game. Even if you play an upper-level seed, you’ve probably seen teams just as good in your schedule.”
THE FUTURE OF THE NI BIG 12
Ryan says he thinks the East Division has been a success so far. He mentions how enrollments are fairly close and how every school has a chance to succeed, which wasn’t necessarily true in the Western Sun Conference with Batavia and Geneva, two strong football programs usually at the Class 6A-7A level.
Although the NI Big 12 has been considered a success for the most part, it’s exact future is uncertain.
Dixon is leaving the conference after the 2013-2014 school year, putting the NI Big 12 at an uneven 11 teams.
Sycamore athletic director Chauncey Carrick is confident the conference will be able to find a 12th school, although he admits he’s a little nervous.
If the conference was going to go with one 11-team league, one school would have a bye every week, forcing teams to find nonconference games in the middle of the season, which isn’t easy.
“It is what it is, and we’ll do what we have to do,” Carrick said. “I’ve got to believe we’ll find somebody to fit in, given the time period that we do have. There’s also that possibility that we might not. That part does make me a little bit nervous.”
Should the NI Big 12 find a good fit, the divisional shakeup could change. Carrick said the school could keep the east-west look, but there also is the possibility of going with north-south divisions. Sycamore’s third-year AD also mentioned the possibility of separating divisions by enrollment, which the Interstate Eight does for football.
Right now, the NI Big 12 is looking for a school that fits the current makeup of the conference.
“We’ve looked within our boundaries, maybe extended our boundaries a little bit. Looking for schools that would fit in with [the conference] enrollment-wise,” Carrick said. “They would fit in with us demographic-wise, athletic-wise obviously, and then they would bring some academic promise, as well.
“We’re looking for community-based type schools, which all of us are. We’re just looking for somebody that’s kind of like us, maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller.”