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Local Sports

Morris ponders leaving Northern Illinois Big 12

MORRIS – When it comes to high schools and conference affiliation, change has been one of the few constants over the past couple of decades.

Given school enrollment increases and decreases, some districts are no longer compatible with the rest of their conferencemembers.

With Seneca announcing that it is leaving the Interstate Eight Conference, the I-8 sent out invitations to other schools that it thought might have an interest in joining. One of those came to Morris Community High School, and the administration and school board have begun to discuss the possibility of a move. With Seneca's departure, the Interstate Eight will consist of Coal City, Peotone, Sandwich, Streator, Manteno, Reed-Custer, Wilmington, Westmont, Lisle, Plano and Herscher.

Such a switch would not be unprecedented, as Morris left the Southwest Prairie Conference to join the NCIC and then the Northern Illinois Big 12 in the past few years. Current Northern Illinois Big 12 members include DeKalb, Geneseo, LaSalle-Peru, Kaneland, Morris, Ottawa, Rochelle, Sterling, Sycamore and Yorkville. Streator switched over from the Northern Illinois Big 12 to the Interstate Eight a couple of years ago.

Morris principal Kelly Hussey let it be known that a Morris move to the Interstate Eight is certainly not etched in stone.

"It's definitely still in the infant stages," he said. "We got the invitation and took it to the school board," he said. "Even if, after doing all our research, we decide to accept the offer, we are not sure that the I-8 will accept us. There may be another school that they sent an invitation to that fits what they want better than we do. Or, they might decide in the end to keep their numbers at 11 schools.

"It's something for us to look at and consider, though."

Hussey noted that there would be a significant cut in travel time and expense if the Redskins were to join the Interstate Eight, which benefits more than just the school district's bottom line.

"We have to look at everything," he said. "Not only the expense, but the time aspect of it. There are weeknight games or events that aren't getting kids home until very late, and they still have homework to do.

"And, like now in the spring when a lot of athletic events start at 4:30, the kids have to get out of class early because of the distance they have to travel, and they are missing face time with their teachers. We have to take all of that into consideration and come up with the best decision for everyone involved - the kids, their parents and our staff and administration."

From a numbers standpoint, the enrollment of the largest school in the Interstate Eight, Streator, is 947. The average enrollment of schools in the Northern Illinois Big 12, excluding Morris, is 1,268, nearly 25 percent larger than the biggest in the I-8. The longest trip for Morris in the Interstate Eight checks in at 51 miles to Westmont, as opposed to an average trip of 57 miles in the Northern Illinois Big 12.

For Morris athletic director Jeff Johnson, the decision comes down to much more than just level of competition.

"A lot of these I-8 schools are growing in enrollment and catching up to us," he said. "If you look at our regionals the last few years in a lot of sports, those are the teams we are running up against. Coal City, Peotone, Manteno, Plano. The bigger schools in that conference are growing and will probably catch up to us soon.

"We would go from being the second-smallest school in our conference to being the second-largest in the I-8. But, that works both ways. Our boys basketball team won a regional this year with not a very good conference record, but playing the teams we played in the conference made us battle-tested when the postseason came. It's been that way in football quite a few years, too. The competition we face week in and week out prepares us very well."

But there are more than just the outcomes of games to consider.

"We also have to look at levels of competition," Johnson said. "Will these schools be able to have three levels [varsity, sophomore and freshman] in the sports we have three levels in? And, of course, travel enters into it as well. There are a lot of factors that we have to consider, and we are just starting the process. We want to make it clear that we are not unhappy in the Northern Illinois Big 12. This just gives us option to look at and see if it fits us better."

Coal City athletic director Dan Hutchings said he thinks that Morris, among other schools, would be a good fit in the conference.

"I think the other schools in the conference would welcome Morris," he said. "I know we would. For us, it's a natural rival, just a few miles away. We play each other in most every sport already, and we will play each other in football starting in 2018.

"When Seneca decided to leave, that left a spot open and we as a conference wanted to be as transparent as possible and sent out notifications to schools in the area that there was a spot open. We have gotten a few letters of interest from other schools, and Morris is one of them. Morris certainly has a long tradition of strong athletic programs and our conference would benefit from competing against them."

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