Over the years, the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference has carved out a reputation as one of the premier small-school football leagues in Illinois.
As of the 2019 prep campaign, the league's 16 teams have combined to play in 28 state-championship games in 1A and 2A and have brought home 21 first-place trophies, a sum led by the four state titles won by reigning 1A champion Lena-Winslow.
But after this upcoming season, the NUIC will undergo a significant change.
With two of its members -- Hanover River Ridge and Polo -- already going from 11-player to 8-player football, with Polo going undefeated and winning the 8-player state title last fall, five more conference teams will make that switch come the fall of 2021.
Switching to 8-player football a year from now will be Amboy, Ashton-Franklin Center, Freeport Aquin, Milledgeville and Orangeville. That will reduce the number of NUIC schools playing 11-player ball down to nine, a group that includes West Carroll as well as Le-Win (1A state champs in 2010, '13, '17 and '19), 2014 Class 2A champion Eastland-Pearl City and Forreston, the 1A title-winner in 2014, '16 and '18.
Also staying at 11-player football will be Dakota, Durand-Pecatonica, East Dubuque, Galena and Stockton. Dakota and Galena each have three state titles to their credit, while Stockton has a pair of championships.
Three of the five schools moving to 8-player have impressive pedigrees in their own right. Amboy won state in 1984 and was runner-up in 1979 and '80. Aquin scored state titles in 1981, '86 and 2005, and Orangeville struck gold in 1989.
However, declining numbers, concerns for player safety and the lack of viable co-op arrangements have been driving factors in the current trend favoring 8-player football.
"We've started to notice quite a few programs going to eight-man," incoming West Carroll coach Teo Clark said. "Eight-man is an alternative, but we want to try and make sure we stay at 11-man. That's what we've grown up with."
To help the Thunder maintain their status quo, Clark believes that starts by strengthening the ties between the program and its feeder teams.
"You've got to try and reach the younger kids, and promote the sport," he said. "It's every coach's ambition to continue to grow a program, and there's so many variables in doing that. One is promoting the sport with our youth programs.
"Our goal is to encourage every kid, and make sure that they know they're wanted."
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