Burlington Central ready for Fox Valley challenge
Burlington Central opened a sparkling new state-of-the-art field house this year, one that has drawn rave reviews from Rockets and opposing coaches alike.
Even more change is coming soon for the school, a big one that should make the 2019-20 school year a most interesting season to follow.
The Rockets are heading into their final few weeks as members of the Kishwaukee River Conference, one they have dominated in several sports.
That challenge will grow quite a bit harder next fall when they move to the Fox Valley Conference. In many ways, Burlington Central is going from being the big fish in a small pond to the, well ... hoping they don't get swallowed up.
No sport is that fear more real than football -- 3-6 last year and 15-30 over the last five now headed into matchups against the likes of Cary-Grove, Huntley and Prairie Ridge.
"Football is going to be a challenge, we all know that," Rockets athletic director Steve Diversey said. "Everyone thinks the FVC is this big giant and we're going to get killed. If you look, they were all senior dominated the last two years. It's a roller coaster. In any kind of sport confidence builds wins. In any sport it's going to be a season to season thing.
"Boys and girls basketball, we're going to be right there. I think upper half if not vying for a conference title. It's so hard to tell but we're gearing our kids to go in and compete."
Rockets football coach Brian Melvin said his players and staff have heard the talk and are using it as motivation.
"This will be a great challenge, but we are prepared to take this head on and compete," Melvin said. "What is really happening, however, is that the team is bonding more. They are surrounded with negative comments from everybody about how they are going to struggle in the Fox Valley. They hear it every day and from everyone. It is bringing the team closer together and closer to the staff as they need somebody to tell them that they can compete. We know that we can compete in the FVC and so do the players. We are excited for the challenge."
Of course, that challenge could change once again if the IHSA goes through with its district plan in two years which would match football teams against schools with similar enrollments. (The district plan only affects football and none of Central's other teams.)
"Districts obviously helps our program, however, I see how it can be a detriment to others," Melvin said. "I, like many other coaches, still have a lot of questions."
According to the IHSA, Burlington Central's enrollment of 1,078 this year leaves the school as the smallest of the 10 in the Fox Valley. The Crystal Lake schools -- Prairie Ridge (1,436), Crystal Lake South (1,462) and Crystal Lake Central (1,508) -- are closest, followed by Hampshire (1,636) and Cary-Grove (1,705). Jacobs (2,169), McHenry (2,192) and Dundee-Crown (2,458) basically double the Rockets while Huntley (3.045) triples them.
Diversey expects the gap to close in upcoming years. The district projects 1,243 students next year, 1,331 in 2021-22, 1,380 by 2024-25, 1,423 in 2025-26 and 1,393 in 2026-27.
"From an enrollment standpoint, with Crystal Lakes declining and us growing, I think we'll be the smallest school for a year or two and then we'll be right with the Crystal Lakes," Diversey said. "We're never going to be McHenry, Dundee-Crown, Jacobs, Huntley, Hampshire, but we have been playing those schools and we compete with them now. That's a tribute to our community and how they care about sports."
Softball coach Scott Richman, who used to coach at Jacobs, offers firsthand knowledge of the Fox Valley.
"That's where I came from," Richman said. "I know all about the schools. I know there's a really good tradition of quality softball over there. But we're ready. It doesn't matter if we are a 3A or 4A school. We'll be ready for the Fox Valley."
Baseball and girls golf coach Kyle Nelson has scheduled FVC teams through the years in nonconference baseball games including Dundee-Crown, Crystal Lake Central and Cary-Grove this spring.
"The Fox Valley Conference is an outstanding baseball conference and we are looking forward to the challenge," said Nelson. "We try to play most of our nonconference games against the FVC teams. We will be ready."
It's been a busy year for Diversey and his staff. The Rockets' athletic director since the 2012-13 school year, Burlington Central was a member of the Big Northern his first four years and the Kishwaukee River the past three.
The stability of the FVC ended up being a deciding factor in picking a new conference for the administration over finding a mix of schools like Kaneland and Sycamore that are more similar in size.
Changes to look for
Diversey said one of the biggest changes for him is scheduling. In some cases, especially lower level sports, it's much better now.
"With us being as big as we are and only growing we get the chance to maximize opportunities for all our kids," Diversey said. "For example baseball this year there's no KRC baseball. We heave to scramble to find 35 freshman games. You are all over the place. We don't have to worry about that anymore. From a scheduling standpoint, it's more consistent.
"We just have to rethink how we do some of the scheduling. In the past our conference hasn't given us competition so we had to go find bigger and harder tournaments and nonconference games. Now we don't need to go play 4A nonconference games because we are going to get that on a regular basis."
Among the changes to various sports, Diversey said golf will go from triangulars to duals, volleyball and boys basketball will only have one nonconference game, and not much will be different with cross country and track schedules.
Boys basketball will play Stillman Valley in its nonconference game next year. The Rockets play in three tournaments so they don't have room for more nonconference games.
Coach Brett Porto, a 2003 Burlington Central graduate, has mixed emotions about the move.
"As a basketball coach I could go a lot of different directions," Porto said. "Besides the bus going in different directions, it's not going to change much of what we do and how we do things.
"We've been playing Fox Valley teams the last four, five years. In the summer we've been playing the biggest teams we can to get ready for the season. Our nonconference schedule has been Upstate Eight, Fox Valley for years. I think we'll be fine there. As someone who has been here awhile, Huntley was in our conference when I played. Seeing as how Huntley changed, how we've grown, I've been able to see it the whole time. It's not that big of a shock to me but definitely will be an adjustment going to different places and things like that."
One thing that will be new is having a JV schedule instead of a sophomore schedule. Another are the Saturday afternoon varsity games.
"That's different, don't know how our student body will respond," Porto said. "Always love student involvement and it has been good at our school and don't know how that will change because we've never had that many Saturday afternoon games."
There's also a chance the Rockets could add more sports in the years to come to match up better with what other FVC schools offer. Diversey said he is going to sit down with principal Chris Testone this summer.
"We want to look at what the community needs and what would make us a good steward of the FVC," Diversey said. "We are the only school that doesn't have lacrosse. If we want to go down that road what would the impact be to other sports? Bowling, I think it's a great sport to kids who don't normally have an opportunity. Especially in the winter. If you can provide another opportunity that's always in the best interests of the kids. We want to sit down and come out with a plan. I know it doesn't help the immediate need but maybe it helps the slow, steady roll out. Get some insight, our programs established, those kinds of things."
Challenges and opportunities
As a Burlington Central alum, father of two varsity athletes (senior-to-be Kathryn and sophomore Zac), and the school's boys track and field coach, Mike Schmidt has a strong interest in both the history of Rockets athletics and the future of it.
When the debate began in 2017 about what direction Burlington Central should go for a new conference, Schmidt spoke up against the FVC in favor of schools closer in size.
Now that play in the FVC will begin in a few short months, Schmidt is anxious to see how it goes.
"As a coach, our track team is always up for a challenge," Schmidt said. "Our goal is to finish Top 10 in state. We're in 2A and all the teams in the Fox Valley are 3A. I always pursue better competition all the time. So I think in that instance it will help us.
"I do always like the opportunity to win a conference championship and I do think that's going to be really challenging for us. I think we would have an easier time winning a sectional than a conference championship. I'm not concerned about our ability to compete but I do think there's some memories that every time my teams have won conference championships in the past it's kind of been a really cool moment for kids. I think some of those cool moments are going to be diminished a little bit by us going to the Fox Valley. Doesn't matter what the sport is going to be, it's going to be much less of an opportunity to win a conference championship."
At times it's hard for Schmidt, whose 1987 graduating class at Burlington Central had 92 students, to believe how things have changed.
"If you had asked me if we would ever be in the Fox Valley at that point or even my first 10 years teaching at Central, it would be comical," Schmidt said. "The growth that has come out is a product of the times we live in. People moving away from cities, they come out west. I didn't ever envision this happening when I look back 30 years but as we've evolved over the last couple years and really seen the growth coming, it doesn't surprise me especially seeing Crystal Lake and St. Charles and Geneva start to lose enrollment, start to realize that's just part of process where people are moving out where they can get a little more land. I think Burlington Central is a great place for people with kids and a great school system so naturally people are going to flock to it."