Revamped Upstate Eight hopes for return to baskeball prominence

This summer the league officially welcomed four new members, adding West Aurora, Riverside-Brookfield, Elmwood Park and Ridgewood.

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Larkin coach Deryn Carter shouts from the bench during a game against Geneva.

Larkin coach Deryn Carter shouts from the bench during a game against Geneva.

Sun-Times file photo

The Upstate Eight Conference has a long, proud basketball history.

The league has gone through plenty of change and transformation over the years, but when the basketball programs at West Aurora, East Aurora and Elgin were regularly humming along at a high level over three decades, the league was among the best in Chicago area basketball.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, those three programs were regulars in the rankings, churning out Division I talent and making state appearances.

Lately, however, the league has been absent from making a regular imprint on the Chicago area basketball scene. A large part of that has been the constant turnover within the league.

There has been some momentum at various times with the league, but the amount of schools that have been in and out of the Upstate Eight over the past 15 years is dizzying.

Of the 14 schools in the Upstate Eight Conference’s River and Valley divisions in 2010-11, eight of the schools –– Geneva, Batavia, St. Charles North, St. Charles East, Neuqua Valley, Waubonsie Valley, Metea Valley and Lake Park –– moved on to other leagues. That movement doesn’t even include West Aurora, which came and went during that time, and West Chicago joining in 2013.

The league has been stripped and revamped so many times that outsiders are unable to identify who has been in the league over the past decade. And it’s also been a disadvantage for coaches and players.

“The turnover has been extremely difficult for different reasons,” veteran Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. “The most difficult has been the lack of playing teams and rivalries consistently over the years. That’s what high school sports is all about, and the players have missed out on some of that. It’s also prevented us from establishing that league pride.”

No one in the league is more familiar with both the history and present-day Upstate Eight Conference than Carter. He graduated from Larkin in 1998 and now begins his 15th season as the Royals coach.

Carter felt like the league was really headed in the right direction with the additions of Batavia, Geneva and the two St. Charles schools. He believed the Upstate Eight was on its way to becoming one of the better basketball conferences. But that was short-lived.

“It [turnover] has prevented us from establishing that league pride,” Carter said.

Among the current 10 teams in the Upstate Eight Conference, Larkin has been the lone one to snatch any consistent basketball headlines over the past 10 years or so; Larkin finished fourth in Class 4A in 2018 and won 31 games and a sectional title two seasons ago. Carter’s program averaged 20 wins a season with four regional titles over seven years from 2012-2018.

Change in the Upstate Eight Conference isn’t stopping. This summer the league officially welcomed four new members, adding West Aurora, Riverside-Brookfield, Elmwood Park and Ridgewood. Those four will begin competition in the 2024-25 school year.

While there are certainly some geographical challenges with the new league additions, from a basketball perspective it will be a plus. West Aurora is a brand that immediately props up the league, even if it has gone 47-64 over the past four seasons. Riverside-Brookfield has been a regular 20-plus game winner the past 15 years while never being able to find a true, ideal conference home.

“I love it,” Carter said of the UEC adding teams in 2024-25. “I love competition. And it’s great to have programs with some statewide recognition and a history of winning.”

Carter hopes the league can now stay together and build some continuity going forward.

This is the third time West Aurora will be a part of the UEC. The Blackhawks were an inaugural member of the league when it began in 1963. West Aurora had a three-plus decade run in the Upstate Eight before leaving for the DuPage Valley Conference in 1997.

West Aurora briefly returned to the Upstate Eight Conference in 2014 before joining the Southwest Prairie Conference for a recent five-year run.

Now the Blackhawks, who hired West High grad Mike Fowler last spring to lead the program, will be linked up with its crosstown rival East Aurora in conference play while being reacquainted with longtime UEC foes Larkin and Elgin.

Riverside-Brookfield also adds some basketball punch to the league. Since 2010 the Bulldogs have won 20 or more games 11 times and captured six regional titles and a sectional championship.

Now after playing in the Southwest Suburban, Suburban Prairie and different forms and divisions of the Metro Suburban over the last 30 years, R-B hopes to find a longtime home in the UEC.

Coach Mike Reingruber believes it’s a chance to provide stability “with like teams.”

“Overall it’s a good fit for us from an enrollment standpoint and a competitive standpoint,” Reingruber said. “And from a basketball perspective we are excited. There are some rich traditions, historic gyms and programs in the Upstate Eight.”

Bolingbrook to replace West Aurora

The Southwest Prairie Conference will lose one of its basketball stalwarts in 2024 when West Aurora departs for the Upstate Eight Conference. But it will add a program that’s among the best in the state.

Bolingbrook is leaving the Southwest Suburban Blue and joining the Southwest Prairie in 2024-25.

The move for Bolingbrook, which has been a basketball heavyweight over the past 10 years, brings them geographically closer to both its district rival Romeoville and other nearby programs in the Southwest Prairie.

Bolingbrook will join the West Division with Plainfield North, Minooka, Yorkville, Oswego and Oswego East. The East Division will include Joliet West, Joliet Central, Romeoville, Plainfield South, Plainfield East and Plainfield Central and allow for crossover games with schools

The Raiders have made three trips to the State Finals since 2015, finishing third in the state in 2015 and 2017, along with a fourth-place finish in 2022. Coach Rob Brost’s team figures to be ranked again this season.

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