FOOTBALL

After one program dropped varsity football, 4 Peoria-area teams were left scrambling

How Urbana dropping its varsity program affected Peoria's teams

Adam Duvall
Journal Star

Peoria Notre Dame will not play football on Friday night.

The Irish were scheduled to visit Urbana for a Week 2 meeting in the Big 12 Conference. However, Urbana canceled its varsity season on Aug. 10, electing to play a junior varsity-only schedule for a second successive year.

This leaves PND without an opponent and gives the Irish a forfeit win. Peoria High (Week 3), Illinois Valley Central (Week 6) and Manual (Week 8) each also were all set to play Urbana and were left scrambling to find a game.

“It’s heartbreaking for Urbana," Notre Dame coach Pat Armstrong said, "but it really does put the conference in a little bit of a lurch trying to scramble two years in a row to find a team.”

As far as the three other Peoria-area teams affected, two have found opponents. Peoria High replaced Urbana with Cahokia in Week 3. Tim Thornton and his squad will make the 171-mile trek for a 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9 kickoff. Manual replaced Urbana with Marengo, which they face at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15 at Peoria Stadium. IVC still has a hole in its schedule for Week 6, according to Grey Ghosts athletics director Dan Camp.

More:Here are the Peoria area's high school football scores, schedules for the 2022 season

Peoria High head football coach Tim Thornton doles out some advice to one of his players in the first half Friday, Aug. 26, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

How Notre Dame tried to fill its open week

Last season, PND was unable to fill its Week 3 opening left by Urbana and had the week off.

Armstrong, a four-year coach, admits not being a fan of his team having a bye week. He points to last season’s game against eventual league champ Normal Community, which followed that open week.

The Ironmen jumped ahead 14-0 in the first two minutes of the opening quarter en route to a 29-22 win.

“I chalk that up to having the forfeit game the week before against Urbana,” Armstrong said. “The boys, for whatever reason, it took them a quarter to kind of get going and be back in that game-speed mode after having that week off.”

Around 30 players were out for Urbana this season when the school made the decision on the third day of practice. Last season, the Tigers played one varsity game, then forfeited the remainder of its schedule to play JV games.

The Big 12 schools received no indication from Urbana that this was a possibility in 2022.

“I think everybody was assuming that they were going to have a varsity team,” Armstrong said, “and just move that JV team up (from last year) and play varsity games.”

One option for PND was playing Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, a school with a 301.5 classification enrollment, located 78 miles east of Peoria. The Heart of Illinois Conference team had a Week 3 slot to fill following league foe Fisher making the decision to play only JV games this season.

According to Irish AD Dave Rudolph, the Falcons declined to play PND, which has an IHSA classification enrollment listed at 729.50.

“It’s tough when you get a team that’s much smaller than us,” he said. “They just don’t want to come play a school that’s way bigger.”

Another potential Week 2 game would have been five hours away in Wisconsin. Travel, fatigue and potential injury were all just too big of risks for PND to take.

All the stories in one place:Ultimate guide to Peoria-area high school football for 2022

Now, Notre Dame has two weeks to prepare for the Sept. 9 home game against Bloomington at Richwoods. This is the second of eight games the Irish will play in the Peoria city limits. A visit to Champaign Central in Week 6 is the lone Irish road game.

“I think that it’s luck that the schedule worked out that way,” Armstrong said with a laugh.

New Manual High School head coach Dennis Bailey gives directions during the 7-on-7 football camp Saturday, July 23, 2022 at Washington Community High School.

Manual, Peoria High find opponents

Manual fared better in its attempt to find a replacement for Urbana. The Rams will welcome Marengo to Peoria Stadium for a 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15 game in Week 8.

Marengo went 5-5 last season, has a classification enrollment of 662 and plays in the Kishwaukee River/Interstate Eight (Blue) Conference.

“They’re a similar-sized school, so we kind of jumped on that opportunity,” said Manual coach Dennis Bailey, whose team is listed at 618.50 in the classification enrollment.

Bailey says Marengo reached out with an opening and the desire to play. Now, the first-year coach has the benefit of being able to concentrate on each week’s opponent instead of having to worry about trying to find a team to play as the season progresses.

“We get to gameplan a little bit now,” Bailey said, “and then it’s just not the unknown. We kind of went through that the last couple years, especially the pandemic year, wondering if you’re going to play a game or not.”

Reigning Class 5A state champion Oak Park Fenick contacted Manual about its open week. The Rams politely declined, having already set to face last season’s 5A runner-up Kankakee on the road in Week 4.

“I wasn’t trying to sign up for the 5A state championship,” Bailey said.

More:Here are the Peoria area's 5 new head football coaches for the 2022 season

More openings for Peoria-area teams

Urbana isn’t alone in not fielding a varsity program.

As mentioned earlier, HOIC member Fisher forfeited its varsity schedule on Aug. 1 leaving Fieldcrest (Week 3), Deer Creek-Mackinaw (Week 5) and Tremont (Week 7) with openings. Port Byron Riverdale of the Three Rivers Athletic Conference – Rock Division canceled its varsity season in July and left Bureau Valley (Week 1), St. Bede (Week 5) and Monmouth-Roseville (Week 7) without games.

In Week 1, Peoria Heights collected an 8-player forfeit victory after the Lowpoint-Washburn/Henry co-op was unable to field a team this season.

Luckily, BV has found a Week 1 game at Villa Grove from the Lincoln Prairie Conference, while Tremont picked up a road game with Nokomis, an independent school, located 98 miles away. Dee-Mack reached out to St. Bede to fill both teams’ schedules, but the Bruins weren’t interested in playing the perennial Class 2A playoff power.

As of now, all four of those teams remain looking for an opponent, with Fieldcrest likely taking a Week 3 bye, as well as St. Bede.

Eureka's Justis Bachman snags a pass over the Downs Tri-Valley defense in the first half Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 in Eureka. The Hornets fell to the Vikings 29-7.

Morton, Canton switch opponents

Speaking of scheduling, Morton was originally going to play Eureka in Week 1 with its Mid-Illini Conference counterpart Canton set to face Mahomet-Seymour.

But at one of last school year’s monthly Mid-Illini athletics directors’ meetings, Potters AD Scott Jones made an off-hand comment about the 2021 5A semifinalists facing Eureka to open the season. That remark caught the attention of Canton AD Brad Hulet.

“That’d really be a great matchup for us,” Hulet said to Jones of his Class 4A school playing 3A Eureka.

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Jones says he knew the Eureka game was a bit of a stretch for Morton, who would be playing a smaller school with matched geographic proximity. The pair then talked about swapping opponents and started making phone calls to see if it could happen.

“We were able to make that switch,” Jones said. “Obviously, Eureka was happy to play Canton and Mahomet-Seymour was happy to play us, and we were able to make it all work with our schedules. … It was really cool.

“It is crazy how this all worked out, but it’s also, I think, a testament to our conference and communicating with each other.”

Richwoods wraps up Morton’s nonconference schedule with a visit to Carper Field in Week 2. The Knights originally agreed to a two-year contract until the Big 12 and Central State Eight decided to fill each other’s noncon schedule starting next year.

Morton had no problem letting Richwoods move on to the 2023 inter-conference matchup.

“We hate to lose Richwoods,” Jones said, “because that would be a great long rivalry too and a great game. We’re not going to hold them up and hold their conference up.”

Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at aduvall@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.