While there still may be some mixed feelings between the "old guard" and the "new regime" around Hampshire, the reality is settling in a little more every day that we're facing the end of an era in Fox Valley area sports.
When the final Hampshire team is eliminated from the IHSA spring postseason series, it will also mark the Whip-Purs' final stand in the Big Northern Conference, a place Hampshire has called home in one form or another since the mid 1960s, albeit under the names the Little Eight and Big Eight conferences before the Big Northern.
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But four years ago, when Chuck Bumbales was named principal at Hampshire High and then hired Dave Hicks as athletic director, the two felt in their heart of hearts that a change would be necessary.
They couldn't have predicted the drastic economic downturn, and a new high school was being built to house 2,500 students. While the third floor may be virtually empty as Hampshire's enrollment hovers around 1,100, the farm fields waiting for economic recovery and new homes to be built on them still have District 300 officials hoping that the sparkling new facility on Big Timber Road doesn't become an albatross.
And now, as the Whips' time in the Big Northern draws to a close Bumbales, Hicks and the Hampshire coaches are preparing to enter a new era, the era of Hampshire competing in the Fox Valley Conference. The Whips' athletic teams will all begin play in the Fox Division of the FVC this fall. The school was invited to join the FVC in December of 2009 and formally accepted the invitation in February of 2010.
"It's really been an interesting process for us," said Bumbales earlier this week. "We started preparing for some kind of move four years ago when Dave and I came here. We knew we wouldn't be 600 students for long. We're 1,100 now and we'll be 1,200 next year."
One of the first things Hicks did was start to beef up the scheduling. Nonconference contests against smaller rural schools were gone and replaced by competition against larger schools, such as Kaneland, Sycamore, Rochelle, DeKalb, and as many of the FVC Fox schools as possible.
"We've also started attending all the Fox Valley Conference meetings so we can be familiar with any rule changes and so we can get acclimated to the group and them to us," Bumbales explained. "And, our coaches have been attending the season-end meetings in their sports."
Before going too far here, Bumbales and Hicks stress that Hampshire's relationship with the Big Northern, which has now added Rock Falls and Mendota to its West Division, remains solid.
"Our relationship with the Big Northern continues to be strong," Bumbales said. "We're still a full-fledged member of that conference and we appreciate that group of people, and they're a great group. But at the same time we've been able to begin forging a lot of good relationships with people in the Fox Valley."
Hampshire will keep at least one of its long-standing rivalries in tact. Hicks said the Whips will continue to play Burlington Central in every sport, including Week 1 in football, and that the annual Pack the Place Night for boys and girls basketball against Central will continue.
"We knew that was important for the community," Bumbales said.
"It's like leaving a bunch of friends and really good relationships," Hicks said of exiting the Big Northern. "But it's also about making new friends and new relationships."
Expense-wise, Bumbales and Hicks believe travel costs will virtually be the same. "The only real difference is that instead of traveling in rural areas we'll be traveling in more urban areas," Bumbales said. And Hicks stressed he's already talked with the ADs at Grayslake Central and Grayslake North -- the equivilant of trips to Byron and Oregon in the Big Northern -- about weeknight travel issues.
Size-wise, Hampshire falls in the middle of the Fox Division. According to current IHSA enrollment figures, Johnsburg is the smallest school in the division at 890, Crystal Lake Central the largest at 1,542. Prairie Ridge moves from the Fox Division to the larger Valley this fall. Hampshire's IHSA enrollment is 1,042.
Hampshire offers athletic programs in all sports the other FVC schools do except for bowling and swimming, and Hicks said he is exploring co-op possibilities with sister D300 schools Dundee-Crown and Jacobs in those sports.
Other than that the only real expense involved, Bumbales said, is changing the banners in the gym, a process that will be complete when Crystal Lake South decides on its new logo (the school was ordered to change its logo when the University of Florida objected to any high school using a replica of its Gators logo). Hicks said the current Big Northern Conference banner in Hampshire's main gym will be moved to the field house in an attempt to not forget history.
More than just sports
Hampshire's move to the FVC is about more than athletics, Bumbales and Hicks maintain.
"We've taken a lot of our juniors to the Fox Valley leadership conferences so they can see how the Fox Valley does things in activities like the National Honor Society, choral concerts, and things like that," Hicks said.
With academic activities, as well as athletics, Hampshire has to prepare for some expanded involvement in things Big Northern schools don't offer.
"Athletically we see this as a good move but it's also a good move for activities like debate, speech, yearbook ... things like that,"Bumbales said. "Those opportunities haven't been available in the Big Northern. There's a great benefit for us outside of athletics."
But can they compete?
The burning question that won't be answered for a couple of years is: Can Hampshire compete in the FVC? When Huntley made the move from the Big Northern to the Fox Valley there were a few years of growing pains, but that was pre-recession and the district grew, for the most part, as projected. Participation numbers in some sports are a concern at Hampshire but Hicks points out there are FVC schools facing similar concerns. And, Hicks says, Hampshire has competed pretty well against some of the best small-school programs in the state in the Big Northern.
"Whenever you play someone larger you assume it's going to be tougher," he said. "But Stillman Valley, Byron, Richmond, Burlington ... those are all pretty tough programs too. Size-wise we're right in the middle of the Fox Division and we should be competitive. When Huntley made the move they were the smallest fish in a big pond. We see ourselves as the middle-sized fish in a medium-sized pond."
The coaches' take
Dan Cavanaugh will be entering his 23rd year as Hampshire's head football coach this fall. He's won a state championship and he's had 0-9 seasons. And he's approaching the move as something to motivate his program.
"Going into this new conference has given us an opportunity to say here's our next challenge," said Cavanaugh, whose 2011 team will open the season with nonconference games against Burlington Central and DeKalb before playing its one FVC crossover against perennial state power Cary-Grove.
"I don't know that we'll make wholesale changes in what we do. We sent a letter out about bulking up our offseason workouts and we'll reassess as a staff everything we're doing."
Cavanaugh said he and his staff will spend much of the summer diving into scouting reports on the Fox Division teams.
"We've gotten some different opportunities to get a little heads up on some of the teams and we'll be doing more of that this summer," he said.
As much as Cavanaugh is embracing the new challenge, there is somewhat of a bittersweet feeling to the move.
"We've had some great rivalries in the Big Northern," he said. "Even though Stillman Valley has kicked our tail a lot of the time, it's a great rivalry and we beat them twice one year. We've always had good games with Genoa and Byron. I have a lot of respect for all the coaches in the Big Northern and it's going to be hard to leave that. We're going in blind now and it's a new challenge."
For girls basketball coach Ed Haugens, though, it will be a return to familiarity. Haugens coached at Jacobs for seven years before moving over to Hampshire this school year, and traveling to places he and assistant coach Joe Komaromy never knew existed.
"I'm excited about it," Haugens said, admitting he hasn't been at Hampshire long enough to know much about the small-school rivalry thing.
"We're going to do the same things we always do and I think we can be successful. The move doesn't intimidate us in terms of girls basketball."
Haugens said his first priority is to beef up the program's numbers. Hampshire didn't have enough participation to field a freshman girls basketball team this year.
"My first goal is to work with the feeder kids," he said. "That's our lifeblood and we need to get those numbers up and get the Junior Whips going again.
"To me, the schools we'll be playing are all the same size as us. We'll just be driving in a different direction."
Bumbales sums up the school's administrative feeling about moving to the FVC by saying, "We see it as a great new chapter for us. Our school is only going to expand. We love where we were but we can't wait to make the move. It's an exciting time for us."
Now all that's left is making sure the bus drivers have a GPS.