Shucking the Corn Belt
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U-High announced that it will be departing the conference it helped create back in 1950 to join the Central State Eight. The departure of Mahomet and Eureka have already left two vacancies in the Corn Belt conference; U-High’s departure makes a third within three years.
“It was a very difficult decision and we had to weigh a lot of factors,” Athletic Director Wendy Smith said. “Stability was one thing and being able to compete year round with schools that we’ll see in postseason were probably the two biggest factors.”
With the move to the new conference U-High Athletics will now face competition throughout their entire schedule against teams which will be more comparable to teams they face in playoff games. This is because while U-High’s enrollment is around 600, the fact that it is a non-boundaried school subjects it to the IHSA multiplier. That multiplier of 1.65 brings it up to just over 1000 students which forces U-High to play bigger schools in postseason games.
Numbers have always been a concern for sports such as football and wrestling when facing larger schools with larger programs. The Pioneer wrestling team, for the first time in six years, has enough athletes to field a full team.
Football has also faced challenges such as needing players to play both offense and defense. Larger football teams can field enough athletes that players only need to play one or the other. U-High trainers have begun to pay extra attention to ensure each individual athlete is healthy to play. These measures include time spent on foam rollers, training bands, and travel sticks to loosen knots and relieve muscle stiffness. These are extra precautions larger teams simply do not have to take.
“Athletically we can keep up with those teams, but they just have the numbers to pound it down our throats,” head football coach Trevor Von Bruenchenhein said. “We’re now working on mobility and injury prevention because if one of our best players goes down with a preventable injury that’s huge with our already low numbers.”
Another adjustment that will be made are the days and distances that each athletic team will travel to play conference away games. Overall the Central State Eight schools are farther than the schools U-High faces in the Corn Belt.
“We’ve always tried to send all the coaching staff to the JV and freshman games, and it’ll be difficult to do that sending them to the southern suburbs of Springfield or the longer away games for those teams,” Von Bruenchenhein said.
Another policy that some coaches are re-evaluating with longer trips is the freedom to let athletes travel home with their parents after their games or competitions.
Boys head basketball coach Bob Fitzgerald thinks those bus rides not only help the chemistry of the team but also the performance of the players in games.
“There’s something about camaraderie on a bus ride that’s important,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d like to continue to do that because I see there’s value in that bus ride home for varsity athletes.”
What the change to the new conference adds to travel time it makes up for in solid competition in all schools in the CS8 according to many coaches. Coaches will have prepare teams for the grind of a more challenging schedule through offseason workouts and preseason practices.
“Teams in the bottom of the Central State 8 are simply better than the teams in the bottom of the Corn Belt,” girls head basketball coach Laura Sellers said. “Where now there’s games that there’s limited preparation that needs to be made, it’ll require more preparation on a day-to-day basis,”
While some sports will have multiple opportunities to show what they can do against conference teams, some don’t have that luxury. Cross country and track have only one conference meet where it’s all or nothing. This heightened competition will only add to the preparation and stress put on that single meet.
“The preparation for the conference meet will be more serious in the Central State 8 where now winning that meet will give us some confidence from that and then take that into the postseason meets,” head track and cross country coach John Neisler said.
Despite the tumult that accompanies any this move provides athletes more opportunities to build skill in their respective sport.
Head baseball coach Steve Paxson said there is one major factor in getting an athlete to play to the best of their ability and this is something the Central State Eight has an abundance of: