The recent and growing trend of schools shifting to 8-player football has hit a pair of area conferences hard over the past few years.
Both the Lincoln Trail and the Prairieland have seen several of their member schools make the change from the 11-player game, causing scheduling difficulties for the remaining teams.
With that in mind — coupled with the fact that LTC and Prairieland squads have faced each other in nonconference action for several years — the two leagues have decided to pool their gridiron forces beginning in the fall of 2023.
“This was something principals and ADs in both conferences discussed,” said Mercer County athletic director/head coach Andrew Hofer. “We’ve been seeing a lot of schools making the jump to 8-player, and from a competitive standpoint, we want to try to do what’s best for the kids.”
The yet-to-be named combined league will consist of 17 teams, broken down into large- and small-school divisions.
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The Mercer County Golden Eagles will be in the eight-team large school division, joined by Carthage Illini West, Elmwood-Brimfield, Farmington, Hamilton West Hancock, Knoxville, Macomb and the first-year Lewistown-North Fulton co-op.
Nine teams will be part of the small school division, including another perennial LTC power in Annawan-Wethersfield. Joining the Titans on that side of the combined league will be Abingdon-Avon, Havana, Princeville, ROWVA-Williamsfield, Rushville-Industry, the South Fulton co-op, Stark County and United.
“It’s twofold. We’re having schools face teams their own size to try to prevent more jumping to 8-player,” said Hofer. “It’s easier for small schools to face other small schools than schools with teams with several times their numbers.”
The Lincoln Trail has lost Biggsville West Central, Galva and the Ridgewood co-op to 8-player, while Bushnell-Prairie City, Peoria Heights and Sciota West Prairie from the Prairieland have made the switch.
“Another part of it for us is that we’ll start to see some of our older rivalries come back again with teams like Farmington, Knoxville and Macomb,” said Hofer. “It’s good to see those come back again.”
A-W coach Tony Gripp feels that with LTC and Prairieland teams having met in early-season nonconference games for several years now, this football-only merger is a logical next step.
“It’s something that definitely needed to be done, and we’ve always had an agreement with the Prairieland, so it should be an easy transition,” Gripp said. “It’s the right way to go about it.”
Another plus as far as Gripp is concerned is that the pooling of teams should alleviate any scheduling concerns.
“It gives us a clear-cut schedule year in and year out,” he said. “You don’t have to go looking for games to fill your schedule. The only complaint is that we’re losing some rivalries we’ve built over the years, with us on the small side and Knoxville and Mercer County over on the big side.
“I won’t say we won’t play them again, because there’ll be one crossover game built into the schedule. It’s still a good plan for all. I hope it all works out really good.”