High School Sports

What’s next for Granite City and the Southwestern Conference?

Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said Wednesday that he and his colleagues in the Southwestern Conference are concerned about ensuring the safety of student athletes and fans attending football and basketball games.

But Dosier doesn’t believe a metal detector will make it safer for fans at a football game, for example.

“We all talk about our safety and security plans a lot,” Dosier said. “If you look at a football game, a football stadium, do we really think a metal detector is going to make a difference in a stadium where there’s a chain-link fence? We think something different on a safety and security plan is more important than a metal detector when you have a chain-link fence as a barrier to keep people out.

“Are we going to have them walk through a gate where there’s a metal detector, only to see them (go) outside the stadium and shoot through a chain-link fence?”

Ensuring fans’ safety is a difficult task at any level of sports. Busch Stadium in St. Louis, home of the Cardinals, has metal detectors at every entrance. Recently, however, a fan was grazed by a bullet from outside the stadium.

Dosier’s comments about security in the SWC came in the wake of the Granite City District 9 School Board on Tuesday voting 7-0 to leave the league. Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald said it was important to be proactive about safety concerns at SWC events.

For that reason, Greenwald didn’t consider it an option to hold off a year or longer before withdrawing from the SWC.

“It was time,” Greenwald said Wednesday.

Greenwald in March wrote a letter to SWC superintendents, urging them to adhere to heightened security measures that would have included the use of metal detectors and/or wands at league football and boys basketball games.

Greenwald said none of the superintendents responded directly to him about the letter, although he was told through conference principals and athletics directors that the superintendents were not in agreement about the need to boost security.

The issue became front-and-center to Greenwald on Feb. 21 when the Warriors played the East St. Louis Flyers in a boys basketball game in East St. Louis.

Late in the second quarter, some students reportedly spotted a person with a gun in the stands. There were no shots fired, but the game was postponed for precautionary reasons. It was never resumed, and both teams were forced to accept a forfeit loss.

“The conference basically said, ‘We do not really want to beef up any type of security measures,’” Greenwald said. “At that time, we felt we no longer wanted to jeopardize our students, our fans, our community members. We felt this was reason to move forward.

“I feel this will be better in the long run for our student athletes. We’ve been respected members of the conference for many years. This is nothing against anybody that is part of that conference. But I feel this is in our best interests moving forward.”

Greenwald added: “We’re not going to put our children in harm’s way. ... It’s not easy to do what we’re doing, but we are not going to jeopardize our student athletes.”

Dosier said Granite City has considered a move from the SWC for “several years.”

“Their staff has talked to our staff on many occasions about their declining enrollment, difficulty competing and how difficult it is to play every night in the Southwestern Conference,” Dosier said. “I think it’s unfair to the other conference schools to make it all about that one incident (in East St. Louis). ... I think it’s misleading.”

East St. Louis Superintendent Arthur Culver declined comment.

What next?

Some have suggested the Warriors are withdrawing from the SWC to seek a new home in a smaller conference to facilitate their shrinking enrollment.

Granite City is the second-smallest school in the SWC with an enrollment of 1,831. East St. Louis is the smallest school in the league with an enrollment of 1,433.

Belleville East (2,458), O’Fallon (2,385) and Edwardsville (2,379) are the largest schools in the league, followed by Belleville West (2,143), Alton (1,989) and Collinsville (1,963).

In the high-profile sports, the Warriors have struggled to keep pace with their conference rivals. The football team has had two winning seasons in the last 11 years, while the boys basketball team has not been above .500 since the 1990s and was 1-23 this season.

Granite City has remained competitive in girls soccer, boys soccer and wrestling. Other sports haven’t fared as well, which is typical of most schools, regardless of enrollment.

East St. Louis has thrived in football, boys basketball and track and field, but the Flyers don’t even field soccer teams and struggle mightily in baseball and softball.

Granite City plans to be an independent in its first year out of the SWC in 2018-19, and perhaps for several seasons. The Warriors would like to find a new conference, but they’re still too large, at this juncture, for the Mississippi Valley Conference. That could change in coming years if enrollment continues to decline.

However, the average enrollment of MVC schools Civic Memorial, Highland, Jerseyville, Mascoutah, Triad and Waterloo is 924, or about half of Granite City’s enrollment. The largest schools in the MVC are Triad (1,107), Mascoutah (1,042) and Highland (953).

Another option could be the South Seven Conference, whose members are Althoff, Carbondale, Cahokia, Centralia, Marion and Mount Vernon. But travel concerns could be an issue, with round trips to Carbondale, Centralia, Marion and Mount Vernon being between 152 and 246 miles.

Enrollments in the South Seven are: Althoff (370, or 610 with the IHSA multiplier), Carbondale (1,015), Cahokia (977), Centralia (915), Marion (1,117) and Mount Vernon (1,110).

“I don’t want to be an independent five years from now,” Greenwald said. “I hope we can come up with something as far as joining another conference. It may an existing conference; it may be a conference that doesn’t exist right now.”

Would Granite City join a conference that doesn’t have metal detectors at football and basketball games?

“We are not going to mandate that the people we play have them,” Greenwald said. “We’re not going to say (to a conference), ‘Oh, by the way, before we even talk, you better have metal detectors.’ I don’t think that’s the direction we need to go as we look elsewhere.

“If we join another conference, or if another conference evolves out of this, we’re going to be very careful, ask all the right questions and share why we are exiting the SWC.”

On the field

Granite City administrators also expressed concern for the safety of its athletes on the field of competition. This particularly applies to football.

“Four of the schools in our conference are (Class) 8A schools. We are borderline 6A, 7A as far as football,” Granite City football coach Carl Luehmann said. “These top four schools (Belleville East, O’Fallon, Edwardsville, Belleville West) come down and play us 7A and 6A schools, get their wins and go to the playoffs all the time.

“Why don’t we play schools our size or maybe one class lower ... and then we get success for our student athletes? Why do we get beat up on all the time by these upper-class schools? They have many more athletes to go against our athletes. Our enrollment is declining, too. Our class is going to get lower, I would predict.”

The Warriors, ironically, defeated Belleville East 63-49 in football last season. Granite City, which finished 4-5 overall and 3-4 in the conference, lost to O’Fallon 44-34; Edwardsville, 49-12; and Belleville West, 37-13. O’Fallon and Edwardsville qualified for the Class 8A playoffs, while West qualified for the postseason in Class 7A.

Greenwald said parents of athletes also have broached that topic. He read a letter from a parent who expressed concern that Granite City’s declining enrollment will put them at greater risk of injury as the Warriors play ever-larger SWC opponents.

Greenwald denied that Granite City is leaving the SWC because the competition is too tough. But he acknowledged that a smaller conference might be a better fit.

“We’re not getting out of the conference because of the competition level,” he said. “It’s no secret that the issues that were talked about, as far as size of schools and things of that nature, came about. ... But the safety reason is the issue. And sometimes the main reason you do something lends (itself) to what’s best for your student athletes.”

What’s next for SWC?

Schedules in the SWC will be unaffected in the upcoming school year, but beginning in 2018, the league will be down to seven teams unless it finds a quick replacement for Granite City.

“We’ll have an opportunity to not make a knee-jerk reaction to this,” SWC Commissioner Bill Schmidt said. “We’ll look through whatever we can possibly look at, deal with it as a conference and take the necessary steps. The Southwestern Conference is still one of the best conferences in the state of Illinois. We’re not in a situation where we have to do anything hasty or anything rash. We don’t have to panic.

“Nobody wanted this to happen ... but we’ll deal with it and move forward.”

Based on enrollment, there are no metro-east schools that would be large enough to consistently compete in the SWC. It seems highly unlikely that a school from outside the metro-east would be interested in joining, and SWC officials also wouldn’t likely be interested in such a scenario because of travel issues.

“As a conference, the (athletics directors) will begin discussing how we’re going to handle Granite City’s withdrawal and how we’re going to handle moving forward as a conference,” Schmidt said, adding that “it’s way too early” to speculated about what schools might be considered to replace Granite City.

“We have time,” Schmidt said.

Dosier said the SWC is losing “a great member.”

“I understand their decision that they made,” Dosier said. “I’m sure they made it in the best interests of their students. But I think it’s unfair to the rest of us to say that a refusal to put metal detectors in place is the only reason.” 

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

At a glance

  • A public forum to discuss Granite City High School’s departure from the Southwestern Conference is at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the school’s gymnasium. All comments from the public will be welcome.
  • Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald will be on hand to answer questions and provide information about the Warriors’ departure from the SWC.