BOURBON — The recent departure of Culver Community and Knox from the Northern State Conference has sent ripples throughout the league. The latest domino to fall was Triton, which announced Monday it will be following Culver and Knox to an as-yet-unnamed new conference along with Midwest Conference schools Caston, Pioneer and Winamac and independent North Judson.
“We started when Culver invited us to attend some meetings back in May for this new conference. At that time I wasn’t really settled with the idea of making a change,” said Triton Athletic Director Mason McIntyre. “I actually declined at that time, and then as the summer kind of rolled around and their conference gained more steam and we found out Knox was going to go as well, we thought now we’re down two teams in the NSC; that’s going to make it even more difficult.
“When Culver and Knox gave their official notice, that’s what kind of put the wheels in motion even faster for us. The only schools that we thought they could bring in to (replace them in) the NSC were schools that were going to make the NSC stronger, and that was good for the NSC, but it wasn’t necessarily good for us.”
Currently, the new conference — which is still at least two years away from becoming a reality per NSC bylaws — has seven schools pledging membership, and LaVille is still considering a move from the NSC to becoming the new league’s eighth member. The move was proposed last week by LHS Athletic Director Will Hostrawser, and the announcement of Triton’s departure from the NSC will likely put added pressure on Union-North School Board members to vote in favor of joining the new conference as Friday’s deadline to join up or stay put approaches.
With Triton, Culver and Knox already gone, the NSC’s membership has been cut sharply with only five schools remaining in LaVille, Bremen, John Glenn, New Prairie and Jimtown.
“At this point we’re down three schools in the NSC with us making the announcement, so that’s going to make it a challenge,” McIntyre said. “Looking at a map you can make some speculation as to what good schools might be to bring in, but then you’ve got to convince those teams to leave their conferences. So it could be a big domino affect that could affect a lot of conferences.”
The impetus behind Triton’s move to the new conference is fair play, says McIntyre, as all schools pledging membership are 1A and 2A with the exception of 3A Knox with enrollments ranging from the mid 200s to less than 600 students and an average enrollment of roughly 300 students. The Northern State Conference — which started its current manifestation around 1966 after an earlier version of the conference was nullified in 1963 — has seen dramatic changes to member schools’ enrollment figures since Triton joined the league in 1980 with Jimtown and John Glenn now boasting 3A classifications and New Prairie owning a 4A categorization.
The move to the new league should help ensure Triton’s competitiveness in all its sports programs, especially in numbers-driven sports like football.
“Football was a driver in this thing, honestly. When you talk to these other schools, football is a big factor,” said the Triton AD. “You don’t want to say that football is any more important than any other sport, but it obviously helps bring in a lot of revenue so you have to be cautious about that and think about that from that perspective and say what’s going to most beneficial revenue-wise. And I think you find that when you compete well, people want to follow. We’re hoping that this new conference will give us an opportunity to compete week-in and week-out.”
First-year Triton football coach John Johns backed the move, saying that while he’s not interested in backing down from a challenge, the new conference should provide a more level playing field for Triton football.
“At the end of the day, competition is competition, and what’s best for the kids is probably what has driven the decision the most,” said Johns.
“Not to say that we’re afraid to play anybody, but here’s what it boils down to. When you’re playing programs that have 50, 60, 70 kids in them and they’re rotating teams through, if you were there the other night to watch us play we got tired in the fourth quarter; we’ve got 25 guys that are eligible. It was really one of those situations where you can’t really compete on a consistent basis with larger programs. I’d love to go down to Warren Central and play 11 on 11 if that’s all they can put on the field. But at the end of the day to put their 85 up against our 25, it’s a tough sell.”
The move was also met with a positive response from Triton wrestling coach Matt Arvesen. The Trojans wrestling program has traditionally struggled with low numbers, and he hopes the even playing field in the new league will help boost both morale and turnout.
“When I first heard the idea, I was pretty excited. In the past we’ve kind of struggled in the NSC,” said Arvesen. “Lately we’ve been having better numbers and we’ve been fighting tooth and nail to get ourselves back in the rankings, but it’s been a slow process.
“We haven’t been as competitive as we needed to be lately in wrestling, and I just knew this would be a better avenue for us, and by us I mean the kids — keeping the kids’ numbers up, keeping them competitive, keeping them wanting to come to practice every day, not getting drubbed 80 to 0. I think kids are realistic, too. I think they know who they are playing, and my hope is they’re smart enough not to take away like ‘Oh, we’re number one in the state because we just beat that team.’ But at the same time, you need some of those games. You can’t just go out there and play number one and number two every week and get killed and expect to have a long-term program.”
While football and wrestling have struggled somewhat to compete in the NSC, Triton basketball has been highly successful in recent years in the conference, and the move to a new league was seen as somewhat more of a mixed bag for those programs.
“My initial reaction was, I was a little bit disappointed with the decision just because of the rivalries that we have with the NSC teams and playing some bigger schools,” said Triton girls basketball coach Adam Heckaman. “But then in looking at it real close, in girls basketball there are a lot of good teams in the new conference. At the top, I think year in and year out it’ll be different teams competing for the championship.”
But while Heckaman expressed some ambivalence about leaving the NSC, Triton basketball players seemed upbeat about the move, saying a change of schedule could be a breath of fresh air for those programs.
“I talked to (teammate) Taylor Hatfield about it, and we both kind of had the same opinion, that it was good,” said Lady Trojans junior guard Kylie Mason. “We’ve been in our conference for 33 years, and I felt like everybody kind of knew what sports the different schools were dominant at, so I think it’s good to mix things up.”
And with Culver and Knox making the move alongside Triton with a strong possibility that LaVille will also respond in kind, Triton basketball won’t have to build a new schedule from scratch, either. And McIntyre has said Triton will try to continue to schedule traditional rivalry games as new rivalries develop.
“It’s not just totally different,” said Triton senior basketball player Tanner Shepherd. “We’ll still have some of the same teams that we play. It won’t just be all new right away. We’ll be able to get in the flow.”
The future of Triton tennis seems less certain under a new conference alignment. Only three of the schools currently pledging membership, including Triton, have tennis programs, making an end-of-season league tournament like the one currently in place for the NSC tricky.
“We talked a couple times about how it will affect each sport from the get-go,” said THS tennis coach Allen Peckham. “There are only four schools that are going to be down there that have tennis programs, and that’s us, Knox, LaVille and North Judson, and I don’t know if LaVille’s going down there or not, maybe I jumped the gun there.
“I don’t know how it will work, but I did mention that you’ve always got to look at other things. In tennis we had five districts last year in the state and now we’ve got eight districts. And if you look at our conference, Knox is the only one that is in our district, so this is a way to get a couple teams in our district. So state-wise I could probably benefit it for ourself to get some more guys on our all-district teams because the more teams you play in your district, the better chance you get some recognition. So there’s always a give and take on any kid of transaction or adjustments being made.”
The geography of the new conference could require additional sleight of hand for Triton as the school seeks to keep transportation costs down with the new league stretching south across a greater distance than the Trojans currently enjoy under the NSC. Of the new conference members, the farthest trip for Triton would be Pioneer in Royal Center, which is roughly 45 miles away from Bourbon one way.
“Transportation will be a little bit greater. Round trip I think we’re looking at about 50 miles difference if you went to each school,” said McIntyre. “Time-wise it’s a little bit more because our conference schools now are easy to get to, where these schools are a little bit harder to get to. The longest trip will be 60 minutes, and that would be Pioneer and Winamac both at about that length of time. Yeah, it’s an increase, but at the same time I think we’ll be a little bit more creative with our non-conference scheduling, and we hope to keep the NSC schools on our schedules.”