By Mark Gregory
As the start of another school season rolls around, so does another fall athletic season and for several local athletic teams and this year, that new season comes with changes.
This season when play opens, Joliet West and Joliet Central will join the Southwest Prairie Conference, leaving behind the SouthWest Suburban Conference, where most teams competed in the Blue Division.
“We have been planning the last year and attending meetings and getting ready to move into the SPC,” said Joliet West Athletic Director Steve Millsaps. “It is bittersweet because we are leaving a bunch of schools and a group of ADs that are great people, but we are excited for the opportunity to join the SPC.
“The proximity and the quick rides and the natural rivalries with schools like Minooka and Plainfield South that are right in our back yard, so we are excited.”
Proximity and rivalries not only allow athletes to compete, it also allows fans to follow teams around easier.
“The kids that are not involved in athletics and want to cheer the teams on, you will have kids that are able to drive or parents drop them off, so the student sections at away games should be bigger,” Millsaps said.
What the fans following the team will see is competition across all sports.
“From football to tennis, we are playing the same type of athletes. Plainfield South has a Joliet water tower, so we are not playing against an Orland Park kid or an H-F kid,” Millsaps said. “It is not only going to be more competitive, but you will have the kids knowing each other and there will be that really neat regional aspect. The kids will be playing against friends they may have grown up playing in the park with and now they are competing against them on a daily basis. That will bring out the best in them.”
One of those sports will be girls volleyball, where the SPC offers some of the top players in the state year in and year out.
“We have Plainfield Central, Plainfield North, Minooka, there is just talent all over the place,” said West girls volleyball coach Al Mart. “Anyone that thinks we are walking into something easier is not aware of the volleyball that is played in the SPC. There is quality coaching and are quality athletes. You have the No. 1 ranked setter in the nation and you have three D-I girls at Minooka. We have played a lot of them in nonconference, but now it will be a different challenge. We will miss the teams we played in the SouthWest Suburban Blue, but we know we will have a challenge.”
With the new conference configurations, the SPC will remain in one division. That being said, football teams will no longer play nonconference games, instead only playing the other nine conference teams.
And while the football teams will leave behind the physicality of teams like Bolingbrook, Homewood-Flossmoor and Lincoln-Way East, coaches are not taking the move lightly.
“Growing up in the Joliet area my whole life, I know the kind of football and the kids of athletes and coaches we will see in the SPC, so we are looking forward to competing in another high class conference,” said Joliet Central football coach Brett Boyter. “The SWSC was one of the best conferences in the state, but in the Prairie, you can’t take anyone lightly. Where we are as a program, nothing is going to come easy and no team is going to take it easy on us. In fact, there are more teams that don’t want to be the first team to give up a win to us. So, we are going to still get everyone’s best and we are expecting that. There is no deep breath or no looking that it will be easier to compete – we know we have to bring it.
“This is a new fresh start and it has our kids excited to play with a new focus. A fresh start is always a good thing.”
Not only are the Joliet schools excited about a fresh start in a new conference, the existing teams are looking forward to welcoming the Tigers and Steelmen in.
“I think the Joliets will be a great addition to the conference,” said Plainfield North AD Ron Lear. “They offer some really quality programs and it is a great fit with location. Our league doesn’t have a lot of travel and they fit right in to that. We liked our conference and how it was and I think they will just make our league that much better.”
Lear said he is excited to see what West and Central will bring to the gridiron this season.
“I am excited for football and to be able to play the nine schools. I think the Joliet schools will fit very well,” he said. “Joliet West has shown over the last couple of years that they have a quality program and that will fit and do well. I think Joliet Central, especially with a third-year starting quarterback, is going to surprise some people. I think if some teams take them lightly, they will beat someone.”
Lear, however, is looking past the top sports and deeper into the year than the fall season.
“Even in the small sports, Joliet West won the girls bowling state title and they won a cheerleading state title. Joliet Central had 200 kids go out for boys soccer last year and they are tough,” Lear said. “So, you look at the sports that some people don’t always notice and they are tough and they are going to bring a lot into the conference that will help our kids.
“The Joliet schools will bring some fantastic basketball teams to this league. We know they will be tough and it will just make the league better. We have had a few really good years, so has Plainfield East and Minooka. This will challenge our kids and that will make them better. We are excited for what they bring to us, I truly believe they will make us an even better conference and we are happy to have them.”