DECATUR — Fifteen of the 19 Little Okaw Valley Conference schools have announced they're withdrawing from the league following the 2018-19 season, according to a press release from LOVC president Matthew Shoaff.
The press release said two members, Villa Grove and Heritage, informed the LOVC they were withdrawing from the conference at a special meeting on Nov. 28. In the next two days, 13 others — including Macon County schools LSA, Argenta-Oreana, Sangamon Valley and Cerro Gordo-Bement — turned in letters of withdrawal saying they'd be leaving the conference on June 30, 2019.
"At this time, there is a restructuring of the conference and schools are doing what they feel is in the best interest of their students and communities," said Shoaff, principal at Okaw Valley High School.
The LOVC met Tuesday to discuss concerns raised by Villa Grove, which included travel time.
Though nothing official has been announced yet, Arcola superintendent Tom Mulligan previously said several LOVC schools — including Arcola — had discussed the possibility of withdrawing from the current conference to create a new conference that would provide a more stable 10-football team conference.
The LOVC, which was originally formed in 1970, reformed with two divisions — the Northwest and the Southeast — in 2014.
Mulligan said Villa Grove's concerns in the Southeast division are the inconveniences travel times cause to students and parents, lack of fan attendance at events, uncertainty from year to year of some schools being able to field teams in various activities and a lack of natural rivalries.
Arcola athletic director and football coach Nick Lindsey confirmed the school is seeking a new conference with more stability.
“We are exploring some options with a more stable, not only football conference, but a more stable conference overall that will hopefully renew some geographical rivalries that we haven't had in a while," Lindsey said.
In addition to a lack of natural rivalries, travel times were a concern for Arcola.
“It all went into it," Lindsey added. "Obviously whenever you lose games (to forfeit) or have to travel a long ways during a school night, that is not beneficial to your school or athletic group as a whole. It's tough to put students in a situation where they aren't getting home from a weeknight game until 11:30, 12 at night. We want student athletes to be students first."
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The four teams remaining in the LOVC would be Martinsville, which joined the conference in 2007, and Oblong, Palestine and Hutsonville, which joined in 2014.
Oblong has been in conversations with Martinsville, Palestine and Hutsonville as to what the future of the conference holds, and the schools are exploring all possibilities. Oblong, Palestine and Hutsonville have been engaged in conversations to form a co-op on-and-off for the last year. Those conversations are ongoing, according to Oblong superintendent Jeff Patchett. Palestine and Hutsonville currently form a co-op.
"We immediately went in the mode of what options do we have and what options does Oblong have? We had conversations with Martinsville and Palestine and Hutsonville about what options are out there, what we can do and what options are best for our kids," Patchett said.
At this point, no plan is in place for the remaining four schools, and Patchett admitted few options exist currently.
“We're the four that are left," Patchett said. "I would assume the other schools have something already together that they could all agree on before they turned in their letter. But it's happened before if there are other teams out there that are unhappy in their conference, we would have no choice but to listen. We can't do much with a four-team conference."
Arthur, Atwood-Hammond, Bement, Cerro Gordo, Newman and Oakland are the charter members of the conference, formed on June 10, 1970. Villa Grove and Homer were admitted a couple months later, and the conference began competing during the 1971-72 school year. Arcola joined in 1981.
"Although it may not be as members of the LOVC we look forward to continued competition against our historic rivals of both the Okaw Valley and Little Okay Valley Conferences," Cerro Gordo principal Jeremy Rodebaugh said.
LSA joined the conference in 2014. LSA athletic director Kurt Younghouse said it was important to the Lions' athletic program to stay with teams that wanted to leave the conference.
"It made sense for us so that we're not in a conference with teams that are two-and-a-half hours away," Younghouse said. "All the relationships we've built with the schools in the conference ... it made sense to withdraw and weigh our options with the schools that are left going forward. I'm very confident we can get something put together for the 2019-20 school year."
The LOVC Northwest Division members are Arcola, Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond, Cerro Gordo-Bement (only girls basketball has both Cerro Gordo and Bement), Argenta-Oreana, Sangamon Valley/Tri-City (for football, track and volleyball; boys basketball is Sangamon Valley only and girls basketball is not part of the LOVC as the host school is Tri-City), Okaw Valley and Decatur Lutheran School Association (Decatur LSA/Decatur Christian for softball and football). Members of the LOVC Southeast Division are Cumberland, Martinsville, Hutsonville/Palestine, Oblong, Tri-County (Oakland, Kansas and Shiloh) and Villa Grove/Heritage.