A couple of new looks and a new league.
That’s what awaits Sheboygan area high school football fans in 2015 with the season’s kickoff less than a week away.
After the latest round of conference realignment by the WIAA, gone is the Central Lakeshore Conference, last year’s Eastern Wisconsin Conference has been given a makeover and even the Fox River Classic Conference got a slight adjustment for this year.
Sheboygan area teams — those that play 11-man football — will now be spread out over four conferences with only a handful of teams playing in the same conference it did a season ago.
Here’s how the new conferences break down:
The Big East
This will be the home of the six members of the former CLC — Cedar Grove-Belgium, Howards Grove, Kohler/Sheboygan Lutheran/Sheboygan Christian, Oostburg, Ozaukee and Random Lake — and they will join forces with five members of the former Olympian-Packerland Small Conference. Those teams are Hilbert/Stockbridge, Manitowoc Lutheran, Mishicot, Reedsville and St. Mary Central.
All 11 teams are on a fairly equal footing when it comes to enrollment as well as with the size of the teams, which coaches believe should make for a pretty competitive league.
“The teams that are coming in to play football, fit our conference and our coaches and our styles and our sizes. They couldn’t really have picked any better matches. It will be a really good blending of schools,” said Howards Grove coach David Schmid. “It will make our conference a lot tougher and give our conference a little more respect throughout the state.”
One of the biggest benefits for the former CLC members comes down to scheduling.
With only six teams in the league, that meant schools had to find four non-conference foes to fill out the schedule. That translated into some cross-state — or even out-of-state — matchups and some long bus rides.
“We’ve traveled two or three hours to find non-conference games so to have our schedule set up where we are traveling an hour max,” said Oostburg coach Scott Ring. “It’s huge to not have to find those non-conference games and to not have to travel so far.”
The difficulty in finding non-conference opponents cost K/SL/SC a game last year as it played only an eight-game schedule.
“We couldn’t find a ninth game,” K/SL/SC coach Matt Zavada said. “For us, as far as scheduling goes, I like it because we will never have to worry about that.”
Teams will still have to find one non-conference opponent as the conference opted for an eight-game league schedule.
That schedule, though, means that not every team will play each other in a given season. The conference did a random draw to set the schedule that will change every two years after a home-and-home series.
“With not playing every conference opponent every year, it might make for some crazy conference standings,” Mishicot coach Kevin Fix said. “We’ll just see how that shakes out.”
With this year’s draw, as well as next year, one of the games that got knocked off the schedule was the rivalry game between Ozaukee and Random Lake. The schools, located less than 10 miles apart, had played each other for roughly 50 years.
“It’s little disappointing but what are you going to do,” Ozaukee coach Jim Lippe said.
“It’s weird we won’t play (Ozaukee) for a couple of years but it is what it is,” Random Lake coach Christopher Bichler said. “I’m sure down the line, there will be a situation where Oostburg and Cedar Grove don’t play. Those rivalries are always fun and interesting, but that’s the way it worked out and we’ll deal with it.”
Something else new that the Big East Conference members will have to deal with is playing league games starting with the season-opener.
In the past, teams always had its non-conference games to open the season, but with an odd number of teams in the league and eight conference games, it means that most teams will start out the year playing a league foe.
“There’s a little more pressure to get those wins now because you want to make the playoffs,” Zavada said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had this and we’ve actually had much more focus in practice so I think it helps as far as the focus goes.
“But it was nice having non-conference games before the first game because it was closer and you had easier to iron some things out.”
Of the 11 teams, five made the playoffs last season — Ozaukee, Cedar Grove-Belgium, Howards Grove, Manitowoc Lutheran and Mishicot — and because of the unbalanced schedule it’s possible the league could send six or seven teams to the postseason this year.
That’s the goal of every team entering league play, but it’s possible only one will finish the year as the first-ever Big East Conference champion.
“We’ve talked about that as a group. It would be pretty special,” said Lippe, who led Ozaukee to the final CLC title last year. “A lot of other teams would like to be that team to get that first one. We’d love to do it.”
Eastern Wisconsin Conference
Half of last year’s roster of teams in the EWC remained the same, while four schools joined the league — including two that had been members of conference in the past.
Kiel, New Holstein, Sheboygan Falls and Two Rivers are the holdovers from last year, while Brillion, Chilton, Roncalli and Valders slide over from the Olympian-Packerland Large.
The most noticeable fact about the new-look league is that perennial powerhouses Plymouth and Kewaskum have been moved out, putting the conference’s playoff bids up for grabs.
“Year in, year out those two teams are making the playoffs every year,” New Holstein head coach Matt Rupp said. “That’s basically two playoff spots gone every year so it opens up spots for other teams.
“We’re very happy about it. Size-wise, it’s a good fit for us. We’re in a spot that I think, for us, is more fair. I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy. But it’s probably a little more like it should be.”
Of the eight teams in the league, only three — Kiel, Valders and Roncalli —made the playoffs last year but each were bounced out in the first round and combined for 13 losses.
“The whole conference in general is going to be more even across the board,” Valders coach Jesse Schneider said. “In essence, it may not be as high-end at the top, but it’s going to be more even across the board.”
East Central Conference
The two powerhouses from the EWC landed in the newly formed eight-team ECC, which is a combination of teams from three different conferences.
Plymouth and Kewaskum are joined by Waupun and Campbellsport from last year’s EWC, while Berlin, Ripon and Winneconne from the Eastern Valley Conference and Kettle Moraine Lutheran from the Flyway Conference round out the roster.
Five of the eight teams made the playoffs a year ago, while Winneconne is just two years removed from winning a state title. Ripon also won state championships in 2003 and 2005.
Fox River Classic Conference
The 12-team league which includes Sheboygan North and Sheboygan South has now become a 10-team league as Green Bay East and Green Bay West have been moved to the Bay Conference.
Other than removing two teams that have struggled in league play — the two schools combined for 10 conference wins, all by East, the past five years — the only real change for the conference is that each team will now play every member of the conference each year.
In the past, the teams rotated its eight conference and one non-conference game among the 12 teams, while this season all 10 teams will play each other, with eight counting toward the conference record.
Steve Clark: email@example.com or follow in Twitter at @skcreno27
Big East: Cedar Grove-Belgium, Howards Grove, Kohler/Sheboygan Lutheran/Sheboygan Christian, Oostburg, Ozaukee, Random Lake, Hilbert/Stockbridge, Manitowoc Lutheran, Mishicot, Reedsville, St. Mary Central.
Eastern Wisconsin Conference: Brillion, Chilton, Kiel, New Holstein, Roncalli, Sheboygan Falls, Two Rivers, Valders.
East Central Conference: Berlin, Campbellsport, Kettle Moraine Lutheran, Kewaskum, Plymouth, Ripon, Waupun, Winneconne.
Fox River Classic Conference: Ashwaubenon, Bay Port, De Pere, Green Bay Preble, Green Bay Southwest, Manitowoc Lincoln, Notre Dame, Pulaski, Sheboygan North, Sheboygan South.