Aquin Football Team in Jeopardy
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
April 27, 2023
FREEPORT—Something of a perfect storm is impacting the near future of the Aquin Central Catholic High School football team.
Aquin is a small school, but for many years its football team has been legendary. That success makes it harder to fathom the possibility that it may have to sit out next year.
The main cause of this “storm” is low numbers. At present, there are 80 students in the entire high school. Even more sobering, “Our enrollment is declining, particularly in junior high and younger,” says Elizabeth Heitkamp, superintendent/principal of Aquin Elementary, Junior High and High School.
“Right now we have nine students in eighth grade,” she says, “and only a handful of boys — who are not terribly excited to play any sports.” Couple that with a high school graduating class that includes football players, and football team numbers are not looking good for the 2023-24 school year.
Additionally, Aquin has lost its most talented junior varsity football and basketball players who “see the writing on the wall,” Heitkamp says of the families who are opting for other schools with teams that have plenty of players.
Also, student safety is a greater-than-normal concern for next year. 
“If we play 8-man football, a good portion will be freshmen and sophomores,” Heitkamp says, mentioning one upcoming player who loves the game but currently stands around five feet tall. “There’s a big difference,” she says, in the sizes of students in upper and lower grades. “Especially in football, (player) size matters.”
But the future for football at Aquin is not without hope.
Aquin currently co-ops with the public school in Orangeville for softball, Heitkamp explains. The two schools received approval from NUIC for the co-op team, and the combined team allows the handful of girls from each school who want to play to compete.
The Northwest Upstate Illini Conference is a high school conference in northwest and north central Illinois. The NUIC is made up of small public and private high schools with enrollments between 60-340 students in Carroll, JoDaviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside, and Winnebago counties. 
All Aquin sports are done through the NUIC — except football. 
Aquin and Orangeville worked for several months to write an agreement to combine their football teams. They submitted a proposal to the 8-Man Football Conference, and the conference “very quickly rejected” it in January by a large majority. After a requested zoom meeting “so we could explain the circumstances,” Heitkamp says, “in the end, they voted 14-13 to turn us down.”
As a result, the 8-Man conference may lose both teams this coming school year, Heitkamp says, noting that Orangeville “doesn’t have a ton of kids” and are lacking a coach. Had the proposal been approved the schools “would be able to have a varsity and a junior varsity team.”
The rejected proposal was “really disappointing on our end,” Heitkamp says, noting that Orangeville has “a proud football tradition, and we have a proud football tradition,” adding the combination would be “a natural fit.”
With the success of the co-op softball team, Heitkamp says the schools are looking at possibly forming co-ops together for volleyball, basketball, baseball and golf, and are also considering bringing both schools together for theater and other extracurriculars.
“Our parents know this is how we’re going to keep sports in our building,” Heitkamp says. “They are open to it as long as their kids get to play.”
“It’s about numbers,” she adds, pointing to both students and staff. Aquin’s staff “already has extra things (and) already puts in a lot of time and effort for elementary and high school” extracurriculars.
However, football is a key to the school’s spirit. “It’s important to kids and families to be able to play,” she says. Football “is part of the high school experience that needs to be there.”
“Our plan is to put out a team, but we have no idea what it’s going to look like,” she says, again noting that safety remains a big factor for all sports, especially football. Parents and staff alike are not enthused about creating a varsity team of younger, smaller, less experienced kids to go up against big junior and senior high athletes. “It’s simply a numbers game,” Heitkamp says. “There’s not enough to field a team at each level.”
At this point football next year is a waiting game for both Orangeville and Aquin, and Heitkamp thinks it will take “a year or two for (it) to pull around, where you’ll see a difference.”
It is, she says, “not the easiest answer anymore.”
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