The Salem Wildcats are the newest member of the Cahokia Conference.
The conference on Thursday voted to accept the Wildcats into the league in all sports. As currently constructed, the Cahokia Conference includes Carlyle, Central, Columbia, Dupo (in all sports but football), Freeburg, Lebanon, Marissa, New Athens, Red Bud, Steeleville, Valmeyer and Wesclin.
Apollo Conference officials met recently and unanimously voted to allow Salem to leave their conference a year earlier than league by-laws allow. As a result, Wildcats will begin competing in the Cahokia Conference in 2017-18.
“I think it’s going to be a real good fit for us,” Salem Athletic Director Scott Steward said. “We know some of those folks and they’ve been playing us in some of the other sports, too. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s going to be exciting, but there’s a lot of things ahead of us, too.”
In many sports, the Cahokia Conference is broken up into two division. There is Mississippi Division with larger schools Carlyle, Central, Columbia, Freeburg, Red Bud, and Wesclin. Playing in the Kaskaskia Division are smaller schools Dupo, Lebanon, Marissa, New Athens, Steeleville, and Valmeyer.
Dupo announced recently it was leaving the conference in football only because of concerns about dropping enrollment and participation numbers. The Tigers will begin playing football in the Prairie State Conference in 2017.
Dupo’s official enrollment is 311 students, making it the smallest school is the Cahokia Conference. The football conference currently includes Columbia (673 students), Freeburg (607), Central (550), Wesclin (409), Red Bud (401) and Carlyle (340).
Salem, which had been the second-smallest school in the Apollo Conference, will become the largest school in the conference with an official Illinois High School Association enrollment of 729 students. That puts the Wildcats in the Class 3A playoffs for sports like boys and girls basketball, girls volleyball, baseball and softball.
“We already see Carlyle and Central in a lot of sports,” Steward said. “We play Wesclin in some sports, we currently play Freeburg in football. Knowing those schools and how they operate, it’s a good fit demographically. Having stability is a big thing, too. They’ve shown the ability to stay together and work together and they’ve got good schools, good communities and good programs.”
Salem has been in the Apollo Conference since 2003 and before that had been in the North Egypt Conference since 1929.
“I hate to see Dupo go (in football) but Salem will be a welcome addition, particularly on the big-(school) side,” Columbia Athletic Director Joe Iorio said. “It means a little bit more travel by Columbia, but Salem will definitely helps us out with the football situation and slide into the big side of the conference in the other sports.”
Mahomet-Seymour and Lincoln are the most recent additions to the Apollo Conference and will begin competing in that league in 2017. Steward said there were travel concerns since both schools are more than 130 miles one away from Salem, plus the Wildcats were looking at average trips of 95 miles or more for conference games.
“We realized the league was not only expanding, but expanding and migrating to the north,” Steward said. “It just wasn’t practical for us any more. We were looking around and exploring different options.”
Travel might be something of a concern in the Cahokia Conference as well, depending on how much Salem plays certain teams.
According to Mapquest.com, Salem is 103.7 miles from Columbia (one hour, 39 minutes), 100.2 miles from Dupo (one hour, 36 minutes) and 99.9 miles from the Randolph County town of Red Bud (one hour, 51 minutes). Salem is the county seat of Marion county and is located along Illinois 50 east of Interstate 57.
The football side of the Cahokia Conference currently includes Carlyle, Central, Columbia, Freeburg, Red Bud and Wesclin. Freeburg has been playing Salem in Week 9 for the past five seasons.
Salem’s strongest sports program in recent years has been girls basketball, with nine regional titles, two sectionals and a state tournament appearance since 1998-99 under coach Janet Holst.
The Wildcats’ football team made 17 state playoff trips under former coaches Chuck Budde and Steward from 1981 to 2006. Steward coached Salem to its last playoff appearance and last winning record (6-4) in 2006.
The Salem boys basketball team won regional titles in 2011 and 1944.
Several area athletic directors said there are rumors of other potential conference realignment in the region involving the Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference and Black Diamond Conference