Since the inception of the Heart of Illinois Conference in 2006, Eureka High School has looked a bit longingly at the nearby league.
“We’ve thought, ‘Boy, that would be a nice place for us to be size wise, travel wise,’ ” Eureka athletic director Jason Greene said.
Recently, the HOIC agreed, extending Eureka an invitation to join the conference. Eureka’s District 140 school board voted Monday night to accept the invitation, sending the Hornets from the Corn Belt Conference to the Heart of Illinois beginning in the 2016-17 school year.
Eureka will join Ridgeview, Tri-Valley, El Paso-Gridley, Blue Ridge, Fisher, Flanagan-Cornell, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, Heyworth, LeRoy, Lexington, Deer Creek-Mackinaw, Fieldcrest and Tremont.
“I don’t think there was any way we could turn it down,” Greene said. “It’s probably one of the better things that’s happened in our athletic program in a long time. We have a lot of relationships with those smaller communities.
“The Corn Belt is a terrific conference with terrific schools. It’s a very challenging conference for our kids and our programs. We haven’t had a tremendous amount of success in the conference.”
Eureka began its second stint in the Corn Belt in 2004. Since that time, the Hornets have reached .500 in league play in football only once (4-4 in 2007).
Eureka will formally inform the Corn Belt of its decision on Wednesday at a principals meeting, but the departure is not a surprise.
“I don’t think anybody was really caught off guard,” said athletic director Wendy Smith of Corn Belt member University High. “Eureka has been up front with everybody for the last few years that they would like to go into the HOI if they got an invitation.”
The invite came on the heels of an announcement that Lexington, Blue Ridge and Ridgeview will form a co-op for football. That will drop the HOIC to 11 football teams, an uneven number that complicates scheduling.
Adding Eureka “in the short term solves that problem,” said HOIC president Steve Reschke, principal at LeRoy. However, the move is about more than football, he said.
“Size wise it brings a competitive balance to the upper half of our conference,” Reschke said. “This brings stability in our programs. With schools of 250 to 300 students and below, all it takes is two off years in participation and all of a sudden a program is in jeopardy. I think when you get above the 300 number, the issues become less pronounced.”
Eureka’s enrollment of 479 was the second smallest in the Corn Belt. It will be the largest in the HOIC, with the next closest being El Paso-Gridley with 395.
“People are kind of concerned about the size, but they offer more activities which splits up their teams a little more,” Tremont athletic director Jim Workman said. “Our conference is based not only in athletics, but in professional development, the arts, music, Scholastic Bowl. They’re very strong-based in all of those things.
“Competition wise, it brings a very solid member, but one that most of our schools feel like they can compete with.”
Eureka’s departure will leave the Corn Belt with seven members in 2016, an uneven number Smith said is “horrible” for football.
“It leaves you with open dates in the middle of the season which are extremely hard to fill,” she said. “Ideally we’d love to add another team. But I don’t know what our options are because there has been so much shuffling the last couple of years. I don’t know if there are schools out there looking or willing to make a jump to another conference.”
Pontiac AD Gary Brunner called football “the tail that wags the dog,” saying Eureka is “getting into a conference that I’m guessing they feel they can be more competitive in.”
“When a board makes a decision like that, it’s for the betterment of their own students,” Brunner added. “They’re taking care of their own. I think that’s what we all have to do.”