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The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL)

 

MOUNT OLIVE — On a pleasantly mild mid-August Saturday morning, about 40 high school football players worked out on a practice field. It was adjacent to the main field, where the scoreboard still proclaimed in gold and faded purple, "Home of the Wildcats."

They've played football at Mount Olive since at least 1926, according to Illinois High School Association records. There were five unbeaten teams from the late 1920s to the late 40s. Decades later, 13 teams made the playoffs.

And they're still playing football there, although the team has a new identity. In a sign of the times, falling school enrollments and a dwindling number of football players have forced two southern Macoupin County schools - roughly 15 miles apart - to join forces to become the South Mac Chargers.

Unlike North Mac, the school consolidation between Girard and Virden, Bunker Hill and Mount Olive remain separate school districts. They'll still field their own teams in certain sports.

But they're entered a two-year co-op agreement that's trying to split things down the middle as much as possible. There's a new nickname and colors (gold and charcoal gray), with home games and practices split between the two schools.

"It's been pretty positive," said first-year head coach Brian Borkowski, a Bunker Hill teacher who formerly coached at nearby Piasa Southwestern.

"Mount Olive has a long tradition, and for some people that's hard to give up. But what sold this is the the fact it's not entirely Bunker Hill. It's a joint venture between the two. With the numbers down at each school, it was either co-op or consolidate."

While some from older generations grudgingly bid farewell to the old high school team, nickname and colors, current players have embraced the new arrangement.

"Without Mount Olive, I don't know if we'd have a program," said Damin Jones, a senior running back from Bunker Hill. "I was somewhat excited when I first heard about it.

"The people I'm playing with now, they're good people. I don't think people understand what we have coming this year. Everybody has talent. I'm a running back; if I get hurt, we'll have four other running backs ready to go."

Mount Olive senior Johnny Darrah, also a running back, said it's not as if players from the two schools - Borkowski said it's roughly a 50-50 roster split - were total strangers. Some of them played together on the Jaguars JFL team during their junior high days.

"I've heard the talk about some people not liking it," Darrah said of the co-op. "But I like winning, and combining with Bunker Hill should mean more wins for us. Now we'll have plenty of backups and a full scout team to practice against."

Mount Olive graduates Chuck Cox and Matt DeVries acknowledge that their alma mater has had a football program far longer than Bunker Hill (the Minutemen first kicked off in 1999). But their hearts gave way to their heads in going with the co-op.

"It's about building a program," DeVries said. "Is Bunker Hill a little farther away? Yes. But who else do we have close enough to do this with?"

Mount Olive and Bunker Hill, both members of the Prairie State Conference, finished last season with approximately 15 to 20 players apiece. They both finished 3-6 at the varsity level, and DeVries said the lack of players ruled out a junior varsity team for either school.

With about 40 players in the co-op program this year, a junior varsity schedule will be played and young players will have a chance for playing time and development.

"It was simple," said DeVries, who along with Cox and Bunker Hill's Mike Reinhardt are assistant coaches for the Chargers.

"Looking out last year and seeing 19 kids and seeing some of the same (junior varsity-level) kids not getting to play a down, just sitting on the sideline, was hard. We had to do something."

Cox said he and DeVries heard from a number of Mount Olive graduates who were against the co-op or at least the neutral team name.

"It was very hard for us to do this," Cox said. "We had a meeting about it, and I broke down in tears. This is home, but (the co-op) is what's best for our kids. They still have football.

"It was about putting your personal feelings aside. When you start putting freshmen and sophomores out there against seniors, it's not safe."

Bunker Hill lineman Clayton David is another senior who doesn't mind closing his career under a new team banner.

"It used to be, I was on the field no matter what," David said. "Offense, defense, special teams, everything. I never got a break.

"I was surprised about this at first because Mount Olive's been our rival for a long time. But it's good we have a lot more kids playing."

Contact Dave Kane: 788-1544, dave.kane@sj-r.com, twitter.com/davekaneSJR

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