Photo by Diane Cox
Adam Miller, athletic director at East Alton-Wood River High School, stands in front of the school Monday. The Oilers will join the Prairie State Conference next year.
WOOD RIVER – It’ll be a new ball game for the East Alton-Wood River High Oilers this fall.
They are heading to the revamped Prairie State Conference.
EA-WR, an independent the past two years, will be joining a conference that includes Marquette Catholic, Mount Olive, Bunker Hill, Metro East Lutheran, Nokomis, Kincaid South Fork and Pawnee. Decatur Lutheran is departing a league that’s still in transition.
“It’s a permanent home for all sports, not just a football conference,” EA-WR director of athletics Adam Miller said. “Whether people like it or not, football drives conferences and realignments, but it was important for us to be in a conference for all sports.”
Pawnee and Kincaid South Fork are in the conference for football-only purposes. Thus, conference teams will play seven grid games. There are six schools for basketball and baseball, meaning each Prairie team will play five conference games in those sports.
“It really makes a big difference being in a league and competing for championships and awards,” Miller said.
Joe Parmentier, the Oilers head football coach, said: “This is a great opportunity for our school. First of all, we are back in a conference and so many good things can happen when you are back in a conference.”
It’s the fourth conference in school history and the Oilers are happy to be affiliated with a league. They considered their independent status as akin to wandering in the wilderness. There are only a handful of independents, including Breese Mater Dei, in IHSA football competition.
Football tends to be the conference difference-maker and the Oilers hope the Prairie State will be good for them. In their last six seasons, they are a composite 7-47, including a 2-7 record in 2013. In three of their years, they went 0-9.
Now, there is more at stake. Take it from Parmentier.
“We can set our goals to be conference champs and the players have a chance to make all-conference teams,” he said.
Parmentier added, “There’s also a chance to build a rivalry game. I know that Marquette will be ours. And we will play against teams that we haven’t played in the past.”
EA-WR track Russ Colona already knows first-hand about the Prairie State experience. The Oilers participated in conference track last spring and finished second in the league meet at Mount Olive. They will play host to this year’s meet on May 5 at Memorial Stadium’s Orv Yocum Track.
“I think getting into the conference is a positive thing because our (student) numbers are dwindling,” said Colona, also the cross country coach. “Just a few years ago, we had 780 students.”
EA-WR has 534 students, giving it the largest enrollment in the Prairie State Conference.
Metro East Lutheran and Marquette are parochial schools and the Explorers, who have 387 students, are classified at 638.55 because of the IHSA multiplier. MELHS is 228 and 376.2. Nokomis (215), Bunker Hill (201), Pawnee (173), Mount Olive (162) and Kincaid South Fork (110) round out the Prairie State.
The Oilers once belonged to the Southwestern Conference, but when enrollment began to decline, they dropped out of it to hook up with the new Mississippi Valley Conference in 1971. EA-WR reached its peak with more than 1,400 students in 1971.
By 1997 and with fewer students, the Oilers opted for the South Central Conference. Rivals Roxana and Marquette went with them as the SCC expanded.
However, the SCC booted out all three schools three years ago when former members Staunton and Gillespie returned to the 88-year-old league. Nokomis said it would go back to the SCC but later decided to stay in Prairie State. The Redskins’ change of heart enabled Roxana to return to the SCC.
Marquette and EA-WR had to go conference hunting and the Explorers jumped to the Prairie State. The Oilers were left without a league until they were invited into the refurbished Prairie.
“The conference will give kids something to shoot for and they can get all-conference awards,” Colona said. “You need to have those kinds of goals.”
Oilers’ basketball and baseball coach Kyle Duncan added: “I think it’s a great deal because it gives us extra things to play for during season. It’s a nice conference and the competition should be pretty tough.
“It’s a good deal all the way around.”