DECATUR — The Illinois High School Association rule book is clear: No schools are allowed to recruit students to play for their athletic teams.
But high schools that fall into what's called the "non-boundaried” category can recruit within a 30-mile radius — and the line between recruiting students and recruiting athletes can get blurry.
Non-boundaried schools are mostly private institutions, but also charter schools, lab schools, magnet schools and residential schools.
St. Teresa High School is one of three non-boundaried high schools in Decatur, along with Lutheran School Association and Decatur Christian, that compete in IHSA activities. Bloomington-Normal has four non-boundaried ones: Bloomington Central Catholic, Normal University High, Bloomington Cornerstone Christian and Normal Calvary Christian.
They draw in hundreds of pupils. How they attract students is outlined in IHSA bylaw 3.070, and Executive Director Craig Anderson said there's an average of three to six recruiting bylaw investigations per year by boundaried and non-boundaried schools combined.
But even with rules in place to keep non-boundaried schools from recruiting, over the past 10 years, non-boundaried schools have secured 35.4 percent of state championship games while representing 27.1 percent of Illinois schools. The highest discrepancy was in volleyball, in which 46.3 percent of championships were won by non-boundaried ones.
In response to the success of non-boundaried schools, the IHSA has added two rules to even the playing field. The first, in 2005, multiplied every non-boundaried school's enrollment by 1.65. That bylaw has since been amended to include only programs that have had recent postseason success. The other is the "success factor" — enacted in 2015 — that forces non-boundaried schools that win two straight state titles to move up a class.
Bloomington Central Catholic, Normal University and St. Teresa all have high-performing athletic programs; both St. Teresa and Normal University have had programs with the success factor applied to them (St. Teresa cross country and U High golf).
When the success factor was first enacted, St. Teresa’s cross country program — no longer with any of the runners that led the Bulldogs to state titles — was bumped up to Class 2A for two seasons.
Coach Todd Vohland said that during one of the years the Bulldogs won the cross country state title, and the team was being introduced on the stage at Peoria’s Detweiller Park as the Class 1A state champions, a parent near the front of the crowd yelled out, “Yeah, but they cheat.”
"None of those kids up there cheated — none of us cheated — but my kids had to listen to that,” Vohland said. "What bothers me is that it is such a common thing that people throw out there: 'They are recruiting.' I’ve told friends, and I’ve told everybody, if you think someone is athletically recruiting (at St. Teresa), contact me and we will investigate. If we have done something wrong, I will turn us in.”
But such dominance concerns people like Carlinville principal Patrick Drew and athletic director Darrin DeNeve. They want the playing field at state competition to be fair, and last summer submitted an amendment to the IHSA bylaws that would have created a separate state series for boundaried and non-boundaried schools.
"They’ve tried the multiplier and success factor, and maybe they’ve had some impact on fairness, but non-boundaried schools are still winning at a higher rate than everyone else,” DeNeve said.
'We're not going to push the envelope'
Rules governing non-boundaried recruiting are complex. Offering room and board, clothing, transportation, payments, employment of parents, or help in securing a college athletic scholarship to potential students are all against the rules. Non-boundaried programs can include details about extracurricular offerings, but that information should not imply that their athletic program is better than any other program.
Said Scott Vogel, director of admissions at Bloomington Central Catholic: “We know what people assume happens, so I think that makes us even more aware of doing things the right way. We try to honor the intent of the rule.
“Personally, I think we err on the side of being safe,” Vogel said. “If there is a question about something, we’re not going to push the envelope.”
Many states have tried to address the issues of balancing private and public athletics on an even playing field.
Wisconsin had separate public and private sports organizations until private schools joined the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association in 2000. The Georgia High School Association has divided public and private school playoffs in their smallest division since 2012.
The IHSA bylaw change proposal submitted by Drew and Deneve of Carlinville, a boundaried school between Springfield and St. Louis, in 2019 would’ve made separate state tournaments for boundaried and non-boundaried schools.
“I had always heard there was an unfair advantage, but until we actually ran the numbers to see the prior five years, it was just conjecture,” Drew said. “Darren, being a math teacher into statistics, ran the numbers. And when we looked at them, we decided it was time to bring forth some sort of proposal to address it.”
In November, the IHSA Legislative Commission did not vote to refer the proposal to a vote of the general membership. Drew said he wasn’t sure if he and Deneve would make the proposal again this year, but said they hoped they’d started the conversation and opened some eyes that more change is needed.
“Even though it didn’t get the support from the commission, we received multiple phone calls from around the state thanking us for taking this to the table,” Drew said. “There’s obviously some interest in a version of it.”
Illinois is the only state to adopt both a multiplier and success factor for non-boundaried schools. Vohland said these measures have only contributed to the perception that non-boundaried schools recruit.
“They’ve reinforced the stereotype that the private schools must cheat,” Vohland said. “It’s unfair to our kids.”
But Drew said the multiplier and success factor haven’t gone far enough.
“It was an effort to level the playing field, but it either needs revisited or something needs to be added,” Drew said. “At the minimum, we should look at a fairer number to multiply it by.”
Anderson, of the IHSA, said while there are recruiting violations, it’s not an epidemic.
“I believe that the perception is worse than the reality,” Anderson said. “Private schools recruit their students. They are allowed to recruit students and the bylaws have language that reflect how that is allowed. The membership has additionally added rules like the 30-mile radius and multiplier that are designed to level the playing field in the event that there becomes an advantage for a private school.”
While Anderson said there have been “egregious situations from both private school and public school coaches,” more often than not, “they are private schools trying to be innovative in finding ways to bolster their enrollment and they unknowingly a break rule.
“Several private schools in our state have closed over the past decade and many others have shrinking enrollments,” Anderson said. “We understand that they have to be creative in how they attract students, and we work with them to make sure it occurs within the framework of our rules.”
St. Teresa, with an official enrollment of 241.5, won four straight state cross country titles under Vohland. He's learned to know the rules well, especially since becoming athletic director. Even simple, offhand remarks have to be well-thought out.
"Before I was athletic director, I had some kids working out at Mount Zion’s track and a girl came out and ran with her parents,” Vohland said. “I got to talking to them and I said something to the effect of, ‘Your daughter is a good runner. She would look good in orange and blue.’ I didn’t know who the girl was and I was just talking to the parents. Next thing I know they were saying that I was recruiting their daughter.”
As well as Vohland knows the rules, when someone comes to him wanting to enroll at St. Teresa, he gives them just the basics — it costs $7,500 an academic year and a current high school student will only be eligible immediately if they’ve moved into the 30-mile radius from another district. Otherwise, they’ll have to sit out a year.
“If they’re still on the phone, then my next thing is that the principal is the person they need to talk to," Vohland said.
Principal Larry Daly frequently uses the copy of the IHSA bylaws kept in a desk drawer.
"We want as many students to come through our doors as we can,” Daly said. “We are all facing enrollment troubles with private schools in the Decatur area and we want to get our enrollment up to provide more programs to students. But if someone is contacting me to come to St. Teresa, they have to know the facts and they have to know the laws.”
Following the rules
University High School in Normal is the only non-boundaried school in Bloomington without a religious affiliation, but it’s governed by the same rules.
Principal Andrea Markert is on an admissions committee of six faculty members and three administrators. She said U High receives applications from prospective students and typically accepts about 155 freshmen per year, with some given “priority admittance.” Metcalf Grade School on the Illinois State University campus is part of U High’s district. Markert said students from Metcalf receive priority admittance “as long as they do not have significant behavioral or academic issues.” Students with siblings already at U High also receive priority admittance.
“All nine of us go through the applications and we’re trying to look for a well-rounded student body at the end,” Markert said. “We’re looking at them academically. We want a wide variety of students academically. We also want a wide range of students who are in extracurricular activities. Since we’re a small school, we want students who will be involved in things.”
Back at Bloomington Central Catholic, Vogel said the athletic department headed by Hud Venerable “does a good job of communicating with the coaches about what they can and can’t do.”
Coaches are instructed that if they are contacted by a student or family interested in coming to Central Catholic to immediately forward the information to Vogel. He takes it from there.
“My discussions are more on Central Catholic as a school and what we do here and what we have to offer,” Vogel said. “If I talk about sports, it’s in a broader range. I don’t know plays and I don’t know coaching philosophies. What I can tell people is they will have an opportunity to play the sports they want to play here. We’re a smaller school and I don’t know if we have cuts in any sports.”
Central has three “partner” schools in Bloomington-Normal on the grade school level with St. Mary’s, Corpus Christi and Epiphany, all Catholic schools.
“We want people to be aware of our school and what we have to offer,” Vogel said. “But anything coming from outside of our partner schools, we have to wait for them to contact us. Then we’ll start to talk about the admissions process."
Said Vogel: “We don’t involve the athletic department or the coaches until a student is registered.”
PHOTOS: State champion St. Teresa volleyball honored
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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten
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