A new school year always brings new challenges, but this school year will renew old challenges in athletics for Burlington and Southeast Conference member schools.
After a vote among conference athletic directors and principals took place April 11 of 2018, Burlington High School’s request to leave the Mississippi Athletic Conference was granted and it will be a part of the Southeast Conference starting this school year.
Burlington activities director Zach Shay said the school has been approved to join the Southeast Conference, which is a league comprised of Fairfield, Fort Madison, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant and Washington.
“We were in the Southeast Conference before I was here, and there are natural rivalries with some of those schools that can energize our athletic department,” Shay said.
Fairfield, washington and Mt. Pleasant have been in the same conference together since 1919. Burlington was with them in all of those years until 1958.
Shay said travel, expenses and declining enrollment are the primary factors in Burlington’s decision to leave the MAC.
A member since the league was formed in 1978, Burlington has been the conference outlier in terms of location.
The shortest trip is a 50-mile trek to Muscatine while the majority of its league foes are at least 75 to 80 miles away.
Every school in the Southeast Conference is within an hour’s drive of the Burlington campus.
Mt. Pleasant girls cross country coach Lyle Murray was a little surprised at first hearing about the possible addition of the Grayhounds to the SEC.
“I know that Burlington has to travel quite a bit for other 4A school meets, so it kind of made sense,” Murray said. “I know they have 4A numbers but in cross country, it seems like the athlete numbers are down comparatively.”
The Grayhounds have faced the majority of SEC schools in their non-conference contests for various sports.
“Varsity sports is one thing with the travel, but when you’re talking about our lower levels and getting out of school sometimes at 2 p.m., you start to miss quite a bit of class time,” Shay said. “Some of that will be eliminated.
“Also, we’ll be able to get these young kids back home much earlier at night.”
It should give Burlington a boost in revenue.
“Hopefully, this will increase our gate for most sports,” Shay said.
Just eight years ago, Burlington’s enrollment by the Board of Education Documents (grades 9 through 11) was 872. For the next school year, it was 803, and Shay said the trend is for that to continue.
On the playing field, Burlington has had minimal success against its MAC counterparts recently.
During the 2016-17 school year, the Grayhounds finished in the upper-half of the conference in only three of 20 sports: boys soccer (tied for second), boys swimming (fourth) and girls golf (third).
They had eight sports finish last or next-to-last in the MAC standings. Football is not included since it has gone to a district model.
“That comes and goes,” Shay said of the results. “Obviously, it is something that has been considered, but it was not one of the main reasons why we’re getting out.”
In the 2018-19 school year, the Burlington baseball team had games scheduled against Ft. Madison, Fairfield, Keokuk, Mt. Pleasant and Washington. The Grayhounds were 4-2 in those games.
The Burlington softball team played against each of the Southeast Conference members this past season and went 9-2 in those games.
BHS softball had a record of 22-17. Baseball had record 16-19.
BHS boys basketball was 6-15. It defeated Keokuk and Ft. Madison but lost to Mt. Pleasant. The BHS girls basketball had a record of 4-16. It lost to Fairfield and Mt. Pleasant, defeated Washington and Ft. Madison, but hen lost to Ft. Madison in the first round of the Class 4A postseason.
BHS volleyball had a record of 6-24. It defeated Mt. Pleasant twice, lost Fairfield twice and defeated Keokuk.
“A huge benefit for us is going to be the traveling to away games,” BHS volleyball coach Amber Taeger said. “On any given Tuesday night, we were traveling at least two hours to get to the opposing school and that in itself is exhausting. Sometimes I think the kids felt like they were already beat before even stepping on the court.”
Shay admits it’ll be critical for Burlington to maintain a strong relationship with the MAC. The Grayhounds likely will remain in Class 4A for boys golf (contested in the fall) while every other Southeast Conference member is 3A and competes in the spring.
“It is something we’re going to have to work with the MAC and Mississippi Valley Conference schools to find golf meets,” Shay said.
Fairfield and Keokuk offer girls swimming and diving. Keokuk is the only other Southeast Conference school to have boys swimming.
Besides the MAC, Burlington has swam against several of the Quad-Cities programs in Illinois along with Galesburg.
Burlington’s departure would leave the MAC with nine members, but Central DeWitt is likely to leave the WaMaC Conference and join the MAC in the next school year.
The addes competition should help the athletes improve and help revenues.
“The Southeast Conference will benefit from adding BHS because we will bring that natural competitiveness to every event, and by being competitive everyone in the conference will get better,” Burlington track coach Jordan Webb said. “We will also be able to travel well to all meets/games and boost the revenue for all booster clubs in the conference.”