By Joe Henricksen
There are just three chartered members -- East Aurora, Elgin and Larkin -- remaining from the original Upstate Eight Conference, which has been around since 1963. Nonetheless, the league has been a staple in the western suburbs for nearly 50 years, with plenty of basketball highlights over four-plus decades.
A couple of the chartered members, East Aurora and Elgin, have enjoyed tremendous success and notoriety since 1963. We're talking legendary coaches like Ernie Kivisto, Bill Chesbrough and Jim Harrington. We're talking 11 trips to the Elite Eight between the two as members of the Upstate Eight. We're talking two historically-rich gymnasiums that have hosted numerous holiday tournament games and etched-in-your-brain March memories.
There is former coach Ron Johnson of St. Charles, a coaching relic who is an IBCA Hall of Famer. There is the underrated success of Waubonsie Valley, along with Neuqua Valley emerging as a basketball power over the past decade.
And for 35 years West Aurora was a basketball power as a member of the Upstate Eight. Coach John McDougal and Gordie Kerkman led the Blackhawks to 15 20-plus win seasons, five state trophies and six trips to the state quarterfinals before bolting for the DuPage Valley in the late 1990s.
While the Upstate Eight has encountered significant changes over the years (Did you know DeKalb, Glenbard East, old Naperville Community and Wheaton Central were all former UEC members?), the league has held on while others have fallen. Though the league has changed due mostly to community and school district growth, the Upstate Eight has continued to produce its share of basketball success. This winter will mark another major shift in the conference.
The newest members -- Geneva, Batavia and Metea Valley -- solidify the league, provide a balance and create an added interest. After several years with a lineup of 11 schools in the conference playing 10 conference games, the Upstate Eight goes to two divisions this seasons. Schools will play each team home and away within its division for a total of 12 conference games.
The River Division features a great geographical setup and built-in rivalries and familiarity, with Batavia and Geneva joining neighboring Fox River schools like St. Charles East, St. Charles North, Elgin and Larkin. Streamwood rounds out the seven-team division.
The Valley Division includes the three Indian Prairie School District high schools in Metea Valley, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley, along with East Aurora, Bartlett, Lake Park and South Elgin. Again, the geography and distance is ideal and established and budding rivalries exist.
In addition to the excitement of new blood and additional rivalries in the Upstate Eight is the fact the immediate future is bright for UEC basketball. Yes, Neuqua Valley is finally coming back to the pack this season after a dominating run in which coach Todd Sutton's program won three consecutive outright titles. And when the Hoops Report's preseason top 25 rankings come out next month in the season preview issue, there may not be an Upstate Eight school ranked. But despite lacking a marquee team this winter, the league is ready for an upswing.
East Aurora's Ryan Boatright, who committed to West Virginia early this week, is the league's showman. The senior guard is an electric talent with the potential to put up 40-plus on any given night. The Upstate Eight, though, will feature a bevy of young underclassmen who will get fans, the media and college coaches excited.
In the current Hoops Report's rankings of the top 20 players in the Class of 2013, four of the top 20 sophomores will be playing in the Upstate Eight this season: St. Charles East's Kendall Stephens, a talented 6-3 combo guard, Neuqua Valley point guard Jabari Sandifer, St. Charles North's Quinten Payne and Bartlett's Lance Whitaker. All four already project to be Division I players.
There is other young talent littered throughout the league, including Elgin 6-3 junior Kory Brown, Larkin 6-2 sophomore Carlito Singleton, Waubonsie Valley sophomore shooter Jarred Brownridge, Lake Park junior Dominique Spencer, Metea Valley sophomore Vin Patel and St. Charles North sophomore point guard Tony Neari to name a few.
So what Upstate Eight teams can make the most noise this year in the revamped league?
In the River Division the Hoops Report really likes the potential of St. Charles North. Coach Tom Poulin's club won 16 games a year ago and will return three starters, including the senior tandem of 6-4 athlete Josh Mikes, a UEC all-conference player a year ago, and guard Chris Conrad. The addition of Payne, the talented 6-4 younger brother of current Iowa point guard Cully Payne, pushes St. Charles North to the head of the pack.
The Valley Division should be wild and wide open, with East Aurora riding Boatright as far as it can and Neuqua Valley trying to win a fourth straight conference title. Neuqua, however, has very little size or experience, with perimeter players Sam Johnson and Jim Stocki the only two players who saw significant time a year ago for the 27-win Wildcats. Waubonsie Valley will actually have size and experience, along with the addition of 6-5 Oswego East transfer Austin Keys. And keep an eye on Metea Valley, a promising team that won't have any seniors and may be a year away.