Keeping it 100: The West Suburban Conference celebrates a century of athletic excellence

The West Suburban Conference appeared to be history in the mid-1980s.

So much so that 1980 Proviso West graduate Joe Spagnolo, who was working and coaching at his alma mater, was tasked with writing the WSC’s epitaph. Spagnolo’s principal, Bob Milano, believed it was vital that the eight-team WSC wasn’t forgotten when it disappeared after a merger with the six-team Des Plaines Valley League in 1986.

The other WSC principals agreed with Milano that it was important to preserve the league’s history. Spagnolo was to put together a manual similar to one that was created for the old Suburban League, which went by the wayside in 1975.

“They were going to merge and start a conference up from scratch,” Spagnolo said, “but somebody was smart enough to say, ‘We’ve got a good history here, let’s keep it.’”

So a WSC “destruction manual” was no longer needed. Fortunately “Spags” continued to construct the history of what started as the six-school West Suburban Pioneer League on Jan. 7, 1924, for the WSC-100 historical website. Especially since the now 14-team West Suburban Conference celebrates its 100th birthday today.

“It’s a great conference and it always has been when you look at all the championships,” said Tim Feigh, whose 24 years as an athletic director at Morton, York and Hinsdale South from 1988-2012 make him the third longest to serve in that position behind Hinsdale Central’s Harvey Dickinson (38 years) and Lyons Township’s Chuck Bennett (27).

A sense of camaraderie

“There’s a sisterhood/brotherhood with the West Suburban Conference,” said Downers Grove North athletic director Denise Lazzeroni-Kavanaugh, who won three state girls volleyball titles as a head coach at alma mater Downers South. “We all believe we have a really great thing here. We’re proud of it and proud of all aspects of it.”

With good reason as the WSC joined the Chicago Catholic and Public leagues, NIC-10, Little Ten and Southwest conferences to hit the century mark of current continuous operation. Stability has been a hallmark as four of the original six — York, Glenbard (West), Hinsdale (Central) and Downers Grove (North) — are still part of the league.

The seismic 1986 merger was the last change to WSC membership, which is remarkable considering the instability that has disintegrated or significantly altered numerous other leagues at the high school and collegiate levels. Only 18 schools have been part of the WSC’s 100-year roster and the last one to depart was Riverside-Brookfield in 1982.

Former Arlington American Legion team star Paul Splittorff pitching in 1977 for the Kansas City Royals. Splittorff enjoyed his entire career for Kansas City and was eventually named to the team’s Hall of Fame and also served as a broadcaster for the team . Splittorff died of cancer in 2011. DAILY HERALD ARCHIVE PHOTO

And then there are the names that comprise the WSC-100 honor rolls of athletes and coaches/contributors to its history. Doc Rivers of basketball powerhouse Proviso East had a tremendous NBA playing and coaching career, three-sport standout Eric Kumerow of Oak Park-River Forest played in the NFL and one-time WSC member and now-shuttered Arlington (1951-66) had Fritz Peterson and Paul Splittorff combine for 299 big-league pitching victories. Glenbard West three-sport star Nancy Reno took her volleyball success to collegiate and international levels.

Joe Newton

The late York coach Joe Newton and his “Long Green Line” contributed 29 state championships in boys cross country and track and field to the 261 team state titles by participating WSC members that are the most by any league in state history. Lee Maciejewski, now a boys basketball assistant at Downers North and has also been a head coach and assistant in softball, girls basketball and football for nearly a half-century at Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central, said getting to know Newton through basketball exemplified the closeness and competitiveness of the WSC.

“One thing about the West Suburban is the kids play such a good brand of sports that people come and watch them,” Maciejewski said. “People want to come out and watch good football and good basketball games. The gyms are jumping like they should be for every game and you see that in the conference. You have a packed gym even when you don’t have a rivalry game because there are such good players.”

Longevity and stability leads to tremendous rivalries. Hinsdale Central and Downers Grove North football have played for the Old Oaken Bucket trophy since 1935.

  Lee Maciejewski has spent most of his 48-year career coaching in the West Suburban Conference. John Starks/

Maciejewski laughed about coaching basketball at Glenbard West, going to the York’s old gym for games and looking up at the second-level weight room and seeing the sign by legendary York football coach Gary Grouwinkel that said, “What Have You Done to Beat Glenbard (West) Today.” Feigh said he wanted the two Hinsdale schools to play each other in football every year — even though the results skewed heavily to Central over South — because the interest and intensity of their games was good for the schools, communities and WSC.

“Because of the consistency you have rivalries that go on for a long, long time,” Spagnolo said. “You have coaches everybody knows because you’ve coached against them your whole career. Every school has some great longevity and success.”

Maciejewski said coaching jobs in the WSC are regarded as a destination and not stepping-stone positions. He was working at an elementary school in Glendale Heights and living in Glen Ellyn when a neighbor playing football at Glenbard West mentioned the program had a freshman “B” coaching opening.

“When I came to Glenbard West (in 1976), within two years the football staff we had didn’t change for the next 13 years,” Maciejewski said. “People wanted to coach there, wanted to be there and wanted to stay there. If you got a good job in the West Suburban and knew your stuff you weren’t there for three, four or seven years, you would be there 10, 15 or 20 years.”

That also stoked rivalries that included Maciejwski and Glenbard West playing in the longest softball game in state history in a 1-0 loss in 28 innings in 2000 to powerhouse Oak Park-River Forest and three-time state champion coach Mel Kolbusz.

And Maciejewski laughed as he shared a story of how the WSC’s closeness could thaw frosty relationships such as the one he initially had in boys basketball with Conte Stamas, who led Lyons to fourth place in the 2001 Class AA tournament.

“We just didn’t hit it off and didn’t get along,” Maciejewski said. “Brian Kopecky (long-time Lyons coach) came up to me, and he was a friend from football, and he said, ‘Why don’t you and Conte get along? I’ve never met a man more like you in my entire life.’ “I apologized to Conte for being a jerk. When I became the interim coach at Hinsdale Central, Conte was my assistant. There’s a camaraderie and respect amongst coaches.”

A respect between schools

That trickled down from the relationships amongst athletic directors that Feigh, Lazzeroni-Kavanaugh and Leyden’s Randy Conrad experienced. While Feigh grew up four blocks from Riverside-Brookfield, he went to high school at Fenwick and didn’t know much about the WSC when he took over as Morton’s athletic director in 1988 after coaching football at Argo.

Veteran athletic directors such as Proviso West’s Bernie Skul, York’s Jack Tosh, Lyons’ Murney Lazier, Hinsdale Central’s Gene Strode, Oak Park’s Jim Brown and Hinsdale South’s Dave Smith helped guide Feigh.

“I was like a deer in the headlights going from teaching position to administrative position,” Feigh said. “I had no clue what I was doing and I had some great mentors. Those guys were legends.

“The stability and knowledge of the guys who were ADs at the time, you sat at meetings and were in awe. I learned so much from them. Everything was always about what’s best for the West Suburban Conference. The bottom line was we are a conference and what’s best for the West Suburban Conference. That was the philosophy.”

  Hinsdale Central’s Isabella Lorenzini reacts during her state semifinal match win in 2015. Hinsdale Central has won 37 state tennis trophies, 20 for first place, both the most in state history. Bob Chwedyk/

Conrad, who won an individual state wrestling title at East Leyden for Chuck Farina’s 1978 AA team champs, returned to his alma mater in 1998 after working at Conant. While Conrad was leaving the established Mid-Suburban League, which is now in its 60th year, he said he came into “a gem of a conference” in the WSC.

“Around that time people were trying to move for their football programs only to make the playoffs and being narrow-minded,” said Conrad, who retired in 2018. “I got involved with that a lot and for the most part we said if you left the WSC you would regret it.

“History mattered. When I was AD, for at least 15 years someone wanted to get in and someone wanted to get out. When I was president of the ADs I would meet with the principals twice a year. I would say, ‘Where do you think you’re going to go? It doesn’t get any better.’”

That’s why Lazzeroni-Kavanaugh, who is retiring at the end of this school year, said there continues to be interest from schools on the outside looking in at the WSC.

“As an AD you would get phone calls years through the years about joining so a process had to be developed,” she said. “It’s more common now with conferences splintering. There’s a process for people who are interested. We want to keep an open mind to see what’s going on out there.”

Lazzeroni-Kavanaugh is also at the forefront of the WSC’s success in girls athletics with state titles in 1996, 1999 and 2002 and seven top-four trophies at Downers South. Downers North coach Bruce Ritter was instrumental in getting girls cross country to become an IHSA sanctioned sport in 1979. And Spagnolo said the York girls basketball team’s 1984 AA state title-game upset of unbeaten Peoria Richwoods, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation, was a landmark achievement.

“When you walk into a gym and see the banners on the wall you understand the tradition that goes along with it,” said Spagnolo, who ran the Proviso West holiday basketball tournament during its heyday and now runs the Hinsdale Central tourney.

“For the WSC to come to be what it is today, whoever came up with joining back then, they were some pretty smart figures,” Conrad said. “To think it’s lasted this long is pretty darn impressive.”

And everyone is appreciative of what Spagnolo has done to preserve the history of the WSC nearly four decades after it appeared to be on its way to becoming little more than a memory.

“There are just a lot of stories on how things evolved,” Spagnolo said. “Everyone knows the Three Amigos (Michael Finley, Sherell Ford and Donnie Boyce from 1991 state basketball champion Proviso East) and Doc Rivers … but there are so many little stories that get forgotten but you can really hang your hat on and they make you feel good. Every school has got a story and every sport has got a story.”

With many more to be told as the West Suburban Conference begins its second century.

A few WSC facts

● The West Suburban Pioneer League begins competition Jan. 7, 1924, with six schools — Downers Grove (North), Hinsdale (Central), Glenbard (West), Maine (East), West Chicago and York — in basketball and track and field. Hinsdale won both league titles.

● The WSC is the sixth oldest continuous conference in Illinois behind the Chicago Catholic League (formed 1912-13), Chicago Public League (1913-14), Northern Illinois Conference (NIC-10 1916-17), Little Ten (1919-20) and Southwest Conference (Fall 1923-24).

● The WSC grew to its current 14 members and split into its current Gold and Silver divisions for the 1986-87 school year with the additions of Addison Trail, Downers Grove South, Hinsdale South, Leyden, Morton and Willowbrook from the Des Plaines Valley League.

● Other WSC additions are Riverside-Brookfield (1928), Lyons Township (1934), Arlington (1951), Proviso West (1966), Oak Park-River Forest (1975) and Proviso East (1975).

● The only WSC departures are West Chicago (1935), Arlington (1966), Maine East (1972) and Riverside-Brookfield (1982).

● The WSC’s 261 IHSA team state champions by participating members are the most by any conference in the state. Hinsdale won the first in IHSA Class B track and field in 1925 and the most recent this fall were in Class 3A cross country by the York girls and Downers Grove North boys.

● The WSC has three members of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Hall of Fame in Leyden wrestling coach Chuck Farina (1987), York boys cross country coach Joe Newton (2004) and Downers Grove South speech coach Jan Heiteen (2012). It is the most inductees for any Illinois conference.

● In 1978, Hinsdale Central’s boys swimming team coached by Don Watson won its 12th consecutive state title. No other school in any sport has a streak as long.

● In 1995, Downers Grove North beat York 12-11 in 23 innings in what was the longest baseball game in IHSA history. The game was tied at 10-10 after 8 innings on April 28, had 12 scoreless innings on May 8 and finally finished when Downers North scored twice in the bottom of the 23rd on May 12. Downers North’s James Frank had a state-record 8 hits in 13 at-bats and Matt Huxtable and York’s Scott Schmid both pitched 15 innings. It is now the second-longest game behind Evergreen Park beating Ridgewood in 24 innings in 2004.

● In 2000, Oak Park-River Forest beat Glenbard West 1-0 in 28 innings in what is still the longest softball game in IHSA history. The game was suspended by darkness after 19 innings on May 10 and completed May 16.

● Governor Pritzker’s office recognized Sunday as West Suburban Conference day in commemoration of the league’s 100th birthday.

* Source: WSC-100 Website (

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