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Interstate Exit: Plano, Sandwich searching for new league after 8 teams finalize leaving I-8

It is official.

The Interstate Eight Conference is no more, or won’t be in two years.

The high schools of Coal City, Manteno, Reed-Custer, Wilmington, Herscher, Lisle, Streator and Peotone made it official on Oct. 4 at their monthly Interstate Eight Conference meeting.

Those eight schools will officially withdraw from the Interstate Eight at the start of the 2019-20 school year and form their own conference, leaving out current I-8 members Westmont, Sandwich and Plano.

The shuffling of the Interstate Eight began when Seneca decided to leave the conference to become a member of the Sangamon Valley Conference for football and wrestling and the Tri-County Conference for all other sports and activities next year.

The Interstate Eight then received letters of interest from three different schools, including Morris. One school eventually dropped its interest, and neither one of the remaining schools received the required number of votes to be included in the conference.

Shortly after the voting, seven schools – Coal City, Manteno, Reed-Custer, Wilmington, Herscher, Lisle and Peotone — sent emails to the remaining four – Streator, Sandwich, Plano and Westmont — that they were exploring other conference options. Streator then joined the seven to make the current group of eight.

“We will finish out this school year with Seneca as a member of the conference,” Manteno principal and Interstate Eight president Roger Schnitzler said. “Next year, we will have 11 schools in the conference. Then, in 2019-2020, the eight schools will form their own conference.”

Now that the news is official, the work begins at Sandwich and Plano to determine what is next.

“We are just trying to figure it out, just trying to get some ideas, trying to look at some areas and see what we can do,” Sandwich athletic director Timothy Gipe said. “I will tell you this: whatever we do, we are going to make sure that it is in the best interest for all of our students, meaning athletically and academically. There are so many things outside of athletics that kids are involved in, and we want to make sure we continue that.”

Plano (717) students and Sandwich (708) rank second and third, respectively, in the I-8 for enrollment.

The latest transition to a new league won’t be the first.

The two schools first became affiliated with a conference in 1940 with the formation of the Fox Valley League. In 1966, Plano, Sandwich and Yorkville all became part of the new Northeast Conference. Plano was a charter member of the Interstate Eight, beginning in 1979-80, and Sandwich joined in 1985.

Several possible new conferences to affiliate with each have their own benefit, and drawbacks.

The Northern Illinois Big 12 could make sense geographically, with nearby schools like Yorkville, Kaneland and Morris. But the enrollment disparity is in some cases significant – both Yorkville and DeKalb have well over 1,700 students.

On the other hand, Plano and Sandwich once again would be the bigger fish in a second potential league, the Big Northern, which currently has 11 members including Rock Falls and Byron. Travel would be a drawback, with several Big Northern schools in the Rockford area.

A similar concern could be joining a league like the Metro Suburban, a 14-team public/parochial conference with schools like Riverside-Brookfield and Fenton.

“We have to weigh it all together, we have to look at the big picture and what’s best for us,” Gipe said. “We need to be in talks with Plano and figure out what is best for our communities and students. If we reduce travel, great, if we don’t, it is what it is because that is what is best for our kids and communities. We will weigh all our options and move forward.”

• Joshua Welge contributed to this story.

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