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Back together again! PBL joins the Illini Prairie Conference

By way of an overwhelming decision three days ago, Paxton-Buckley-Loda's bid to join downstate Illinois' premier prep sports conference was unanimously approved school administrators.

PBL, the league's first expansion team of sorts and the 11th school in the conference, joins St. Joseph-Ogden, Unity, Monticello, Rantoul, Prairie Central, Pontiac, Olympia, Central Catholic, St. Thomas More and Illinois Valley Central to make up the Illini Prairie Conference starting in the fall 2021.

Spartan defensive back Cole Berry picks off a pass intended for Panther receiver Matt Poll in the second half of their game on August 29, 2017. St. Joseph-Ogden, ranked #1 in Class 3A in The Associate Press pre-season poll, went on to defeat Paxton-Buckley-Loda in their non-conference battle, 27-7. The Spartans and Panthers will face each other once again under the Friday night lights starting in 2021. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

The Panther athletic program is a comfortable fit in the void that left the football schedules of nine teams open when St. Thomas More announced in January that they would move to 8-man competition. The Sabers will stay in the conference competing in all the remaining sports they offer.

Four schools applied for the opening after conference commissioner Brad Allen, a former teacher and coach at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, announced the IPC was looking for another program to help round out the conference football schedules.

The Panthers, with an enrollment of 472 this year, were already scouting a new conference affilation to compete with schools with similar number of students. They will leave the Sangamon Valley Conference after a 31-year run in a year from this May.

"I think the Illini Prairie has a lot to offer. A lot of conference schools has three levels of volleyball, freshman, junior varsity and varsity football and junior varsity and varsity baseball," PBL athletic director Brock Niebuhr told the Ford County Chronicle. "From that standpoint, I’m excited that we’ll be able to, hopefully, be able to step right in and compete. That’s what our goal is. I’m looking forward to doing that.”

From a scheduling standpoint, PBL was also an easy choice for many of the IPC athletic directors.

"For other sports, we will simply go to an 11 team conference schedule, kind of like what the Big Ten looked like from 1991-2011 when Penn State became the 11th conference team and before Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011," said St. Joseph-Ogden athletic director Justin Franzen. "We can now play 35 regular season volleyball, softball, and baseball games, 31 regular season boys and girls basketball games, 25 soccer matches. We already compete against PBL in almost every other sport that we offer, so adding a conference school just simply means that AD's need to adjust their schedules, which we do each year anyway."

Paul Bigham runs the ball for PBL
Panther running back Paul Bigham is brought down while running the ball in the second half. Bigham left the game after this play suffering a shoulder injury as he was brought down by the three Spartan defenders. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

Head football coach Shawn Skinner noted the Panthers recent success on the gridiron, which includes qualifying for the Class 3A playoffs over the past five seasons, and the quality of their other their athletic programs such as basketball and cross country. Without a doubt PBL will raise the bar.

"Aside from football they compete well in all sports. I think it’s a solid fit for them to join the conference and maintain the high level of competitive balance in our league," Skinner pointed out. In regards to football he thinks PBL joining the conference is a great addition. "Their proximity is ideal and they are a similar school from a size standpoint."

St. Joseph-Ogden was able to fill the open week on Skinner's schedule relatively quickly inking a one-year deal with Nashville. With veteran quarterback Crayton Burnett coming back to lead the offense, the Spartans will open the 2020 season on road against last fall's 2A state runner-up.

Skinner said the Hornets will have "almost their entire starting team" back this fall.

"It will be a real challenge for us week one," Skinner added.

While SJO's open date was quickly filled in February, Franzen acknowledged some schools are still looking for a team to play.

Unity, one of the programs looking to replace the STM game, announced yesterday that they will travel 430 miles to Pierce City, Missouri, where they will play their week seven contest.

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