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Rural Schools: A Battle Between The Unvictorious


Rural Schools: A Battle Between The Unvictorious

This is slightly edited version of a story I first wrote about on my personal blog, but retold with a focus on rural consolidations & school closings.

As if the specter of a winless season wasn’t enough, a dreary fog set a somber mood in Galva, Illinois as two football teams had their last chance at winning. Photo by Vincent David Johnson

On a foggy evening in October of 2002, a pair of winless Illinois high school football teams would do battle in their final game of the season hoping to taste victory for the first and only time that fall. Looking back through the lens of time, what happened in the months and years after that game would make both schools winners and losers.

Galva, Ill – For eight weeks of the high school football regular season in Illinois, teams battle it out to finish with at least 5 victories to help their odds of making the playoffs. On a foggy October evening in 2002 that wasn’t an option for either of the teams stepping on the field in the small town of Galva in laid out in the midst of farm fields in western Illinois.

There was something more at stake here. Pride. This was a championship game of a different caliber. These two schools, Galva and Union were fighting so they didn’t end their season winless.

The Wildcats of Galva High School warm up before their final game of the 2002 regular season, in Galva, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2002. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

It was a typical overcast Midwestern fall day, a fitting atmosphere for two winless teams to meet in. From sunrise to sunset there was almost no difference in the brightness in the gray sky. Even the temperature and wind couldn’t be bothered to change that day. The temps held steady at about 44 degrees, with a zero mph wind through much of game time. Just like the teams’ 0-8 records, there was little movement.

If you’ve ever driven through the Midwest on a Friday night in the fall, the lights from football fields act almost like a beacon directing you to games taking place. Shinning for miles across the vast flatness. It was the GPS for visiting fans long before smart phones and in-car navigation. This night however when the lights at Galva High School’s field were turned on, the glow through the fog hung over the nearby freshly harvest fields, but diminished a mile or so away. It was like even Mother Nature didn’t want people to know this game was going on.

The Yankees from Union High School most likely pulled into this dreary scene after an hour long bus ride. They came from Biggsville, a small rural town of about 300 people, that was 60 miles southwest of Galva.

Both schools were part of the 12 team Lincoln Trail Conference, but played in different six team divisions. This was a cross over game, so even with a win either team would still be in the respective cellar of their division. This game was a reverse championship.

On a kickoff you can see the visitor’s bleachers during the Union vs. Galva game on Oct. 25, 2002. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

As kickoff time approached, both teams would step onto the field, the Yankees in their red, white, and blue uniforms and the Wildcats in the maize and blue, a nod to the Swedish immigrants who were the first settlers in the area. There were just over 100 fans or more who settled into the stands that night in this town of 2,700.

The game had started pretty competitively. At the end of the first quarter the Wildcats would have a 6-0 lead, but the muddy conditions and cold dampness weren’t ideal conditions even for teams that were well polished. Both sides were exchanging punts as their offenses were having a hard time moving the ball.

A competitive 1st quarter saw both teams punting and 6-0 score after the end of the quarter. Union H.S. vs. Galva H.S., in Galva, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2002. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

Throughout the season the Wildcats struggled offensively, but they were never shutout. And with exception to a 41-8 trouncing by Stark County, the Wildcats were competitive in most of their games. Including a 22-8 loss to the previous year’s 1A state champs Wethersfield, who would finish this season 11-2. One win away from returning to the state championship game in class 1A.

Union on the other had had only scored in two games the entire season and had its best defensive game when it gave up just 36 points to 2-7 Westmer. On the season Union had given up 47.4 points a game. While this would not be surprising for a school of Union’s size, possibly being one of the smaller schools on most opponents’ schedules, the Lincoln Trail Conference, where they played all their regular season games, was set up almost exclusively with class 1A teams, the smallest class in the state, these schools averaged between 200-300 students. So neither team was playing above their weight that year.

Like many small rural high schools enrollments were continuing to shrink and the consolidation of schools is an almost annual occurrence in many state.

For these smaller schools it’s was and is not uncommon for teams to have almost half their players going both ways for most of the game. Many schools lacked JV teams, where the younger players could get the skills they needed in actual game situations. Other schools of similar size had problems drawing the number of players needed to have a team and often formed co ops with a neighboring school for sports like football. Co ops are where you would combine a squad made up of two or more schools playing together under one banner.

The communities in Union High School’s district were no strangers to consolidation. Union High School was the product of consolidation in 1960 when nearby Gladstone-Oquawka H.S. combine with Biggsville H.S. to form Union H.S. While Gladstone was similar in size to Biggsville, with just about 400 people then, Oquawka had around 1,000 people back in 1948 when it consolidated with Gladstone. Both towns are about a ten mile drive from Biggsville.

A competitive 1st quarter saw both teams punting and 6-0 score after the end of the quarter. Union H.S. vs. Galva H.S., in Galva, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2002. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

Now back to the game. Galva ended the 1st quarter leading by six, but the Wildcats weren’t known for putting points on the board. Well if you remember the part where I said Galva had a good defense and Union had been giving up quite a few points this season, you might have guessed what a possible outcome for this game would be.

The Wildcats put up 27 points in the 2nd quarter and Galva would cruise to a 45-0 win and finish its season with their first victory and a 1-8 record. Union H.S though would head back to Biggsville 0-9.

As a team the Wildcats rushed for over 300 yards that game, 288 alone came from one running back, Jared Wexell. One or both of those totals was a conference and school rushing record at the time.

Galva H.S. coaches get a championship celebration in these two photos as they finished the season grabbing their first victory, in Galva, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2002. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson.

In the a strange twist of fate, Union too would get its first and only victory, but after the season was over. Galva also picked up another win. Turns out Wethersfield, the in-conference team and state champions from 2001, ran into a bit of controversy when the school’s booster club helped students purchase championships rings for that 2001 team. This was against IHSA’s rules, the state’s governing athletic body, which included a stipulation that athletes cannot receive something of more than $20 in value. Since a number of juniors from the 2001 team who were now seniors on the 2002 team received rings, Wethersfield had to forfeit their entire 2002 season after it was already played. Helping Union avoid a winless season, at least in the record books.

While I’m pretty sure Union’s head coach Patrick Lynch did not get a belated Gatoraid bath, the state’s record books no longer have a winless season for Union in 2002. But like I said, the aftermath wasn’t all winning for both of these teams.

Galva H.S. is still its own school, however it no longer has its own football team and now its players are part of a co op called Mid-County, which is anchored around ROWVA High School, a school situated 14 miles away from Galva in Oneida. The team plays a home game or two in Galva each season, but the Wildcats name and the maize and blue colors of the town’s Swedish heritage have been replaced on the football field by the Cougars of blue, black and white.

The Union High School Yankees from Biggsville, Illinois played one season after this game. In an ironic twist, in 2004 they consolidated with the Rebels of Southern High School from Stronghurst. Neither mascot or name won that battle, they are now known as the Heat of West Central High School.

In the record books Union High School wouldn’t win another game before consolidating to start the 2004-05 school year with Southern High School out of Stronghurst, located 10 miles south of Biggsville. While the new consolidated high school would still be located in Biggsville, the school would become known as West Central High School.

This would be Biggsville’s second consolidation and the third for Gladstone and Oquawka. Southern H.S. was itself a previous consolidation between Stonghurts H.S. and Media H.S. in 1971.

Beyond just schools, athletics saw consolidations too. The Lincoln Trail Conference, that Union and Galva played in for all sports, stopped having a football conference after losing Alexis H.S. and Union H.S. to school consolidation in 2004. They combined with another conference to form a mega-conference in 2006. That conference was short lived and in 2010 football returned to the Lincoln Trail Conference. As of 2019 however the once two division, 12 team set up was gone, as more school consolidations and football co ops narrowed the number of schools fielding teams down to eight.

Across the board Illinois has less schools competing in football than it did in the past. With 513 eligible playoff teams in 2019, that is the lowest number the IHSA has listed in last ten years. While youth football is seeing its participation numbers decline in total players, in part to injury concerns, the number of school consolidations appear to be outpacing the number of schools creating co ops due to lack of players.

A sign outside of Sabula, Iowa draws attention to the decreasing number of local students in that area, July 31st, 2019. Photo by Vincent David Johnson.

Across the country school consolidations can be a hot button issue. Where the original logic was combing small schools would increase opportunities for students, others are taking a more budgetary look at schools in their districts. Noting a combined school would lessen stress on already shrinking tax burdens some small rural areas face.

Regardless of the outcome of opportunities, or taxes, one glaring issue remains for small towns that no longer have a school. The potential for attracting young families, who are the building block for most communities, is greatly diminished.

One thing is not up for debate; these towns lose a bit of their identity each time a school combines, or closes. The mascots, team colors, sports records, and memories matter less to each generation to come. Also, over the past 20 years all of those towns mentioned above have seen their populations decrease.

A special thanks to Illinois High School Glory Days for keeping a record of these schools. It helps prove they were there and they mattered.

Vincent D. Johnson, started documenting Lost Americana around the same time he began photographing high school sports for news outlets. He also happens to have a collection of sportswear he buys when on assignment. He’s wearing a Galva sweatshirt he bought at that game back in 2002.

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