MOUNT CARMEL -- Upon the disbanding of the North Egypt Conference in 2003, Mount Carmel turned its eyes to the Big Eight Conference, joining the Indiana based conference as its seventh member and positioning the school in an unconventional situation.
Not many schools across the country reside in a conference based out of state, but that has been Mount Carmel's dilemma since 2003. They've been wildly successful in the conference in many sports since their inclusion, including six football titles, four in girls basketball, three boys golf titles and two girls golf titles.
A wrench was thrown into that unique relationship when the Illinois High School Association announced its approval of football districting back in December effective the 2021 season, meaning Mount Carmel would be forced to leave the conference for football. Such legislation left Mount Carmel scrambling, as well as the conference itself.
In January, member schools of the Big Eight met without Mount Carmel and discussed the removal of Mount Carmel from the conference effective the 2020-2021 school year. The school and its faculty received a notice from the conference that such a vote was likely to occur in their March meeting that took place on March 6.
Since January, Mount Carmel, knowing this would be a likely outcome, had been researching possible solutions and series they could schedule for football in the next two seasons. Other sports wouldn't be effected as much, but football, on a nine-game schedule, needed games for the 2020 season if this vote did indeed occur.
Mount Carmel Athletic Director Tyler Buss had been making phone calls to schools and received feedback that potential partners would be willing to sign-up for a two-year arrangement, but not for just one season.
When the conference gathered for its vote, Buss and Mount Carmel principal Jake Newkirk gathered with such feedback in mind. The conference members made their intentions clear with the unanimous 6-0-1 vote, officially marking the end of the line. The school released a statement hours later of their intentions to leave the conference following the conclusion of this school year, rather than the 2020 deadline the Big Eight allotted. A decision that appears to be in Mount Carmel's best interest.
"We understood that, but at the same time we kind of needed to start to get our ducks in a row in terms of 2020 football," Buss said. "That's what it really all comes out to. With the districts coming in 2021, then forcing us out in 2020, we were basically in a tough spot of finding six games for 2020 on one-year contracts, which was almost impossible to do in the state of Illinois. We would have to be traveling a pretty good ways. That was almost always the motivation, we had to do what was best for us to fill a football schedule."
That decision to immediately leave became a no-brainer upon a returned phone call from the Prairie State Conference with three of their teams interested. Again though, it would be a two-year series leading up to the 2021 districting.
"Once the vote came down [on Wednesday], that showed us where we stood with the Big Eight and all of the sudden we have to make a decision of what's in our best interest to make sure we can fill a schedule," Buss said. "We just felt being able to pair with that PSC Conference for three games, it's a lot easier to find three than six and that was a big approach to it."
Buss anticipates Mount Carmel maintaining relationships and future series with the vast majority of Big Eight schools, adding they'll schedule likely half of the Big Eight next year in football. He says he's tried to maintain great relationships with the conference AD's with their possible future arrangements in mind.
After 16 years of membership, Mount Carmel will begin its journey into life beyond the Big Eight. It'll be unfamiliar territory for the school. Buss added that he was a senior when they first joined the conference and their affiliation has had a tremendous impact on many of their programs, evidenced by their Illinois postseason success. At the same time, however, things change.
"I've been around since the inception," Buss said. "First and foremost it's done nothing but make all of our athletic programs better. That's without a doubt, all you have to look at the postseason success we've had in Illinois after playing a Big Eight, Indiana type of schedule. We've had success in a lot of sports over the last 16 years. That's the first thing that jumps out. The other thing, we've been fortunate to play in a lot of new facilities, Jasper's new arena, a lot of the field turf that's coming up. I think those are the kind of things that jump out. It's been a great relationship, we've both at its inception filled the need for each other, but at the same time things change. We're down in the upper 400's in term of students and Jasper and Boonville are 1,000 or above. There's just some separation there that it was just kind of inevitable at some point."
Mount Carmel football boasts a 3-9 record against Indiana-based foes over the past two football seasons, whereas they maintain a 4-2 record against Illinois foes.
It appears likely to have a positive impact on the football program, but Buss was wary from labeling the impact one way or another just yet. Foes that'll appear on the 2019 and 2020 schedule will likely be new opponents who the Aces are unfamiliar with. It did appear however, change was necessary.