Big Northern Expanding 5/17/12

Rockford, Illinois-The Big Northern Conference is turning into the really Big Northern Conference.  Thursday morning the Conference's principals voted to expand by two more schools.  Dixon and Johnsburg have been accepted as future members.

Starting in the 2014-15 school year Johnsburg will join the eastern half of the conference.  Dixon will compete in the western half.  Dixon will be leaving its current conference the Northern Illinois Big 12.

"A lot of our people are very excited about the opportunity," said Dixon Athletic Director Jon Empen in an interview with WTVO.  "I think the community will be excited.  Any time you move to a new challenge I think it's good."

Empen says Dixon's declining enrollment (from 870 to about 800 over the past year) makes the Big Northern a better fit for it.  Plus he says travel time for athletes and parents will be much shorter with several Big Northern schools nearby.  Plus Dixon will be reunited with some old rivals.

"Rock Falls was in the NCIC, now we're back with them," said Empen.  "Mendota is 35 minutes away.  They used to be an old NCIC member.  So a couple old NCIC schools are getting back together."

Johnsburg is returning to the Big Northern after finding the going rough in the Fox Valley Conference the past six years.  It's return, plus the addition of Rockford Christian to the Big Northern this fall will eventually push the total number of teams in the Big Northern Conference to 16.  Conference President and Richmond-Burton Principal Thomas DuBois says having eight teams in each side of the conference will make scheduling easier as opposed to having seven in each side.

"My own personal feeling is I thought there was a benefit to being eight schools on each side.  My own background tells me that conference expansion can tend to be a good thing," said BuBois in an interview with WTVO.

While most of the conference's principals are in favor of the expansion, many of the coaches have some concerns.  The biggest concern is the growing size disparity between the schools.  Dixon and Johnsburg with enrollments over 800 students each will become the second and fourth largest schools in the conference.  The top five schools now will be considerably larger in enrollment than the five smallest schools will be.

"You're always concerned about that that sports generally are somewhat of a numbers game," said Stillman Valley Football Coach Mike Lalor to WTVO.  "That's probably one of the biggest concerns we all have."

Then there's the growing distance between the schools.  From Dixon to Johnsburg is more than 89 miles by car.  From Mendota to Johnsburg is 101 miles.  And from Rock Falls to Richmond-Burton is 112 miles. 

Athletes, coaches, and parents will now spend close to two hours on the road to attend some conference competitions.

And there's a feeling among some people that the Big Northern Conference could begin to lose its identity.  In recent years it has added Mendota, Rock Falls and this fall Rockford Christian in addition to Dixon and Johnsburg.

"Sometimes I worry a little bit about pulling away from what was the original teams of the Big Northern, because I think we've got a pretty special conference," said Lalor.  "The bigger that we get I think we lose a little bit of that."

The vote in favor of the expansion was 12-2.  Johnsburg and Dixon are slated to join the Big Northern in the 2014-15 school year, but that could be moved up one year if they get the green light from their current conferences to move sooner.

Below is a look at how the Big Northern Divisions will line up with school enrollments from last year in parenthesis according to the IHSA webite

Big Northern East                      Big Northern West
Burlington Central (1059)              Dixon (870)  
Marengo (852)                             Rock Falls (676)  
Johnsburg (817)                           Stillman Valley (615)
Richmond-Burton (788)                 Mendota (605)
Harvard (700)                               Winnebago (557)
Genoa-Kingston (661)                   Byron (556)
North Boone (536)                        Oregon (529)
Rockford Christian (379)                Lutheran (366)

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