116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Formed in 1920, the Northeast Iowa Conference is one of Iowa’s oldest high school alliances, and one of its most stable.
But now, most likely, it’s dying.
Three of the NEIC’s six schools — Waukon, Crestwood and New Hampton — are high on the wish list of the Upper Iowa Conference, which is looking to expand.
“We’ve seen other conferences grow, and maybe it’s our turn,” said Nick Trenkamp, superintendent at Central Community School District in Elkader and current president of the UIC.
“Instead of other conferences looking to take any of our schools, we decided that maybe we should be marketing ourselves to other school districts. And we’re pretty sure that New Hampton, Crestwood and Waukon are very interested.”
Speaking only on behalf of Waukon, Jay Mathis confirmed his school’s interest.
“We know we need to do something, with the Northeast Iowa Conference down to six schools,” said Mathis, superintendent of the Allamakee Community School District, which includes Waukon High School.
“We are certainly interested in that invitation. We’ve got until June 1, and our school board has to make the final decision.”
Setting the scene:
The UIC, as it stands today
The Upper Iowa Conference consists of nine schools, with 2021-22 BEDS numbers (based on last year’s enrollments of grades 9-11):
North Fayette Valley (240), MFL MarMac (175), Postville (170), South Winneshiek (152), Clayton Ridge (152), Elkader Central (103), Turkey Valley (88), Lansing Kee (82) and West Central (58).
After a February meeting by the UIC superintendents, 10 schools received letters of invitation:
From the NEIC: Crestwood (316), Waukon (265) and New Hampton (260).
From the North Iowa Cedar League: Oelwein (288) and Sumner-Fredericksburg (181). Oelwein was an NEIC member in the 1920s, then from 1931 until 2021; Sumner (and then Sumner-Fredericksburg) was a UIC member from 1939 until 2014.
From the Top of Iowa Conference: Osage (218).
From the Iowa Star Conference: Tripoli (92) and Riceville (67).
From the Tri-Rivers Conference: Starmont (144) and Edgewood-Colesburg (109).
“Ed-Co and Starmont have told us that they’re not coming, and we didn’t expect them to,” Trenkamp said.
Those two schools left the Tri-Rivers for the UIC in 2013. Ed-Co returned to the Tri-Rivers in 2017, Starmont in 2018.
In the new, expanded UIC, schools would be divided into two divisions — or possibly three — based on enrollment.
The proposed timeline
June 1, 2022 — Deadline for schools to submit a formal request to join the Upper Iowa Conference.
July 2022 — Current UIC school districts will individually act on each request.
Around Aug. 1, 2022 — Upper Iowa Conference superintendents will vote on accepting requests.
2022-23 school year — Planning for UIC expansion.
2023-24 school year — First year of UIC expansion.
The next move for the NEIC castoffs
The potential exit of Waukon, New Hampton and Crestwood surely would force the dissolution of the NEIC.
The three remaining schools most likely would go three different directions:
With a BEDS number of 596, Waverly-Shell Rock has the most — and the best — options.
The Mississippi Valley Conference will be down to 15 schools at the end of the current school year upon the exit of Waterloo East. The MVC invited WSR upon East’s decision to exit and was turned down. If Waverly-Shell Rock changes course and reaches out to the MVC, it’s difficult to see the MVC declining.
Another option for WSR is the new Iowa Alliance Conference. If the school pursues that option, it would give the IAC an even number, at 12, and would present potential new rivalries with schools like Waterloo East, Mason City, Fort Dodge, Marshalltown and Ames.
The Wamac also is a possibility, but probably a long shot. That conference will be at a comfortable number with 12 upon Grinnell’s entrance in 2023.
Charles City (BEDS 397) could look westward for a new home, probably the North Central Conference, an eight-team league of schools with similar enrollments.
Travel would be a stretch, though. The closest school, Clear Lake, is 40 miles away, and schools like Webster City and Humboldt are in the vicinity of 100 miles.
That leaves Decorah (BEDS 431), which has no good options geographically.
“Our best option is finding a way to keep the Northeast Iowa Conference viable,” said Decorah superintendent Mark Lane. “With our history and sentimentality, we would love to keep the NEIC together. We feel a deep connection and attachment to this league.
“If it falls apart, it forces us into a challenging spot. It’s a complex problem.”
The best solution, and perhaps the only option, would be for Decorah to petition to the state for entrance into the new, expanded UIC.
“Decorah’s size is a concern, but I could see the state getting involved,” Trenkamp said.
Waukon and Decorah have been border rivals as long as organized high school sports have existed.
“Decorah would be left high and dry. My guess is that they would petition the state for a conference, probably the Upper Iowa, if the other three of us were to jump in,” Mathis said.
“We don’t want our neighbors to be left high and dry, but we need to find the best place for us.”