How the Mid-Suburban League became the premier conference in the Northwest suburbs

The crazy carousel of conference affiliation in high school and college sports seems to have spun out of control. Next year the once-Midwestern Big Ten will stretch from coast to coast with 18 teams while the Pac-12 will be reduced to two schools.

Math and location no longer matters. There are Illinois high school leagues such as the Upstate Eight with 10 members, the Central State Eight and Big Twelve with 11 and the Western Big Six with eight. The DuPage Valley extends into DeKalb County.

Then there is the 12-team Mid-Suburban League, where the more everything changes around it the more it stays basically the same. The MSL doesn't require an old-school scorecard or road map or new-school electronic systems of scorekeeping and navigation to know the participants as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.

The last two subtractions from the MSL were the result of the school closings of Arlington in 1984 and Forest View in 1986. The last addition was Barrington in 1977; the last true departure was Glenbard North in 1973. The most recent alteration of significance was division realignment 25 years ago that put the six District 214 schools in the East and the five District 211 schools and Barrington in the West.

When Mike Obsuszt was hired as Barrington's boys basketball coach in 1995 he didn't know much about the MSL beyond annual trips with Walther Lutheran to Wheeling's Wildcat Hardwood Classic holiday basketball tournament. By the time he retired as the school's athletic director in 2022, he understood the stability and proximity that fostered rivalries and camaraderie was difficult for other conferences to match.

“First and foremost all 12 schools are pretty much philosophically aligned when it comes to the role of high school athletics and the overall school program,” Obsuszt said. “Everybody was on the same page about the role athletics played in the education of high school students. Academics were important. So was fan behavior.

“The other significant thing was the proximity. Barrington is the farthest school and that's not bad. Even the worst drive isn't a bad drive. Fans can travel to away games easier and for kids a contest is played and they're back home to get dinner and get their homework done. You look at other parts of the state and see how fortunate we are.”

Jack Drollinger joked that he didn't know where Fremd was when he was teaching and coaching at Maine West. The Palatine school became his permanent home for his career in education in the late 1970s and he served as the athletic director from 1991 until his retirement in 2008.

“You had a lot of people who were friends and good people to hang out with,” Drollinger said. “The enrollments were pretty similar and there were opportunities for kids to play on so many different levels. You had solid people who supported it and the communities were pretty young and in growing areas.

“We were lucky because geographically the league makes so much sense. Everybody is right in the same locality. That's fantastic vs. an hour or hour-and-a-half bus trips. You knew it was a pretty special deal.”

Only Prospect remains in MSL from the original six that comprised the league when it was formed in 1963 as cows and cornfields gave way to sprawling subdivisions and shopping malls. The early years saw a number of schools come and go from the MSL to other leagues while new ones were built and added to the mix.

Ken Grams has seen the growth of the MSL in a variety of ways since he was a teacher and coach at Elk Grove when it opened in 1966. Grams, who graduated from Arlington, has won more than 1,000 games in his current position as the school's softball coach, has been its only PA announcer for home football games, coached future big-league pitcher Dave Otto in basketball and also served as an athletic director.

“We were all pretty much the same, growing suburban communities,” Grams said. “We were all on the same footing. Initially everybody was a have and nobody was a have-not. That was a great springboard to get it going.”

Arlington's move to the newer MSL faced some pushback from parents concerned about the athletic implications of leaving the more established West Suburban Conference, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The school eventually departed the WSC after 15 years in 1966 and four years later the league made a significant change by splitting its 10 schools into North and South divisions.

That led to the opportunity for the MSL to showcase the league with championship games between division winners in football, basketball and baseball. The title-game concept expanded as girls sports were introduced after Title IX in 1972 and more boys sports were added while the league grew to 14 teams when Barrington joined from the North Suburban. The opportunity to play in those title games has always been a big deal because of the history and tradition.

But the closings of Arlington and Forest View were signs of shifts in enrollments that were declining in the 214 schools and increasing in 211 and Barrington. That led to differences in participation numbers — particularly at the underclass levels — and ultimately the division realignment for the 1998-99 school year that put the six 214 schools in the East and the five 211 schools and Barrington in the West. Some concerns that the change would irreparably divide the league into completely separate entities never materialized and enhanced longtime rivalries like Hersey-Prospect and Conant-Palatine.

“I think it was very, very important,” Grams said. “People don't realize the differences there were and still are at the lower levels in numbers. It was really a great move and it got similar schools with similar schools. It really helped bring the league together even more.”

It's no secret football has driven the seismic shifts in conference changes at the college and high school levels. In 2016 the MSL worked with the 12-team Central Suburban League to address the issue and have two crossover football games between schools from the leagues that are more closely aligned by enrollment and competitiveness.

“Football has changed the landscape of a lot of conferences,” Obsuszt said, “but we were willing to work with other conferences and think outside the box.”

Grams said the crossovers “have helped football” and hopes the league's leadership will continue to look at other ways to sustain its stability and competitiveness in all sports. Not to mention ensure the MSL doesn't go by the wayside on the Illinois high school landscape like the old Suburban League, the South Inter-Conference Association (SICA) in the south suburbs, the North Central Illinois Conference (NCIC) to the west or the Mid-State that included Peoria's high schools.

After all, there is something to be said about future generations of MSL athletes and teams striving to achieve greatness that includes Wheeling's Dana Miroballi winning 10 state titles in cross country and track, Hersey's Josh Methner breaking the 47-year-old boys state cross country record time in 2019 set by Lebanon's Craig Virgin or Schaumburg claiming arguably the state's most prestigious championship trophy in boys basketball in 2001.

“It's a great league and I was fortunate to be a part of it,” Obsuszt said.

Schaumburg's Mark Pancratz clutches the trophy after they beat Thornwood to win the title game of the IHSA boys state basketball tournament in Peoria Saturday. Daily Herald File Photo
Photo courtesy of Dana MiroballiWheeling distance runner gets a hug from coach Jim Nagel in 1984 after winning her first of 10 state championships.

MSL 60th anniversary

1963 — MSL begins with six teams: Prospect, Forest View, Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Maine West and Deerfield.

1970 — Ten-team MSL splits into five-team North and South divisions. The North consists of Arlington, Hersey, Fremd, Palatine and Wheeling; the South has Conant, Elk Grove, Forest View, Glenbard North and Prospect.

1973 — Glenbard North leaves the MSL after five years. It is the last nonschool closing departure from the league.

1977 — Barrington joins the MSL from the North Suburban Conference. It is the last addition to the MSL and gives it a peak number of 14 teams.

1984 — Arlington closes and drops the MSL to 13 teams.

1986 — Forest View closes in the MSL's last membership change and brings the league to its current membership of 12 teams.

1998 — MSL realigns from North and South to East and West divisions. The East is all six District 214 schools Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Hersey, Prospect, Rolling Meadows and Wheeling. The West is all five District 211 schools Conant, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Schaumburg and Barrington.

2016 — The MSL and Central Suburban League begin an agreement for football where their schools will play each other in two crossover games each season.

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