Blake Eisenbeis

Crystal City quarterback Blake Eisenbeis runs the ball against Chaffee this year.

Crystal City’s football team is leaving the I-55 Conference after this season.

At its Board of Education meeting on Sept. 17, Crystal City 47 school board members voted unanimously for the Hornets to exit the I-55, which also includes Grandview, Herculaneum, Jefferson, St. Pius X, St. Vincent and Valle Catholic.

Declining participation in the football program over several years has made it hard for Crystal City to field competitive teams. The Hornets have a record of 1-24 since 2017. They are 0-5 this year and have lost by shutout the last four weeks. Valle and Jefferson have beaten Crystal 122-0 in the last two weeks.

In those two games, Crystal lost a player to a broken arm and others have sustained injuries. The Hornets had a roster of fewer than 20 players when the season began.

Athletic director Ken Jones said the school had no choice but to withdraw from the conference and seek out schools on a more competitive plane.

“There’s a couple of reasons we need to do this,” Jones said. “Every year I get phone calls from schools our size and I can’t put them on the schedule because six of our nine games are conference games. We’re booked each year Weeks 3 through 9. We have boys right now who were on the eighth-grade team last year who didn’t come out this year because we don’t have a junior varsity and they’re asked to play the likes of Valle, Jefferson and St. Pius. When you’re 14 and 15 playing against 17- and 18-year-olds, they’re young men.”

An idea that’s been floated around for years is for Crystal to fold its players into Herculaneum’s football program. That’s never been taken seriously and often scoffed at. Dropping out of the I-55 seems to be the only way the Hornets can remain viable.

But who will Crystal play next year? All of the schools in the conference are locked in to the first year of a two-year contract with the teams on their schedules. The rest of the I-55 football teams will have to scramble to replace the Hornets on next year’s schedule. Even though that’s almost a year away, finding schools with open dates will be a challenge.

Since the I-55 was founded in 2013, the Warriors have won the title in every year. Valle has long been a Class 1 powerhouse with Jefferson and St. Pius consistently fielding teams with winning records and plenty of talent and numbers.

Jefferson head coach Alex Rouggly said he wasn’t surprised by the announcement. Rouggly and the rest of the head coaches and athletic directors met last week to discuss a plan to replace Crystal City. Another meeting later this month could produce a list of schools that could join.

Dan Fox was hired last year as the Hornets’ head coach. Fox has done an admirable job of creating a weight-lifting program to benefit all of Crystal’s athletes. Rouggly has known Fox for years and the two are friends.

“Mentally, I was prepared for it,” Rouggly said. “They’re doing what’s best for the program and the kids. When we were playing them Friday night, I was thinking this will be the last time. It’s sad. I’m not mad at them. They don’t want to lose their football program.”

Along with leaving the conference, Jones has dealt with flooding at J.J. Commerford Stadium several times in the last few years. The Hornets couldn’t host Chaffee to start the season because the stadium wasn’t ready after flooding this summer. He bristles at the idea of a co-op with another school. Maintaining the Hornets’ tradition is vital for the alumni and former players and coaches. The residents of Glasstown are proud of their past.

“Have we ever talked about it? Of course, there’s going to be talk because everyone brings it up all the time,” Jones said of the co-op idea. “It’s not something we’re considering doing at this time. The caveat for a co-op to work is there has to be another school that wants to do that. You have to take on enrollment and consider that some of Crystal’s players will be taking some of (the Blackcats) starting positions.”

The Hornets’ remaining four regular season games are against conference teams. Rebuilding next year’s schedule will take time. Jones said he’s in the initial process of making calls to see who’s available. Chaffee, Kelly and Principia were Crystal’s first three opponents this fall and are under contract for 2020. That leaves six games to schedule. Jones said playing teams from Illinois isn’t out of the question.

“My hope is by putting together this schedule, we’d like to get four to five more kids to come out because the situation is safer; that’s a huge difference,” Jones said. “In Weeks 1-3 we had no injuries. In Week 4 we had a broken arm. Week 5 we had two kids we hope are back this week.”

The Hornets are down to 17 players, but there’s no plan to stop playing like Grandview did in 2016. The Eagles withdrew from varsity competition in 2017 and were back last year. Grandview is 0-15 since rejoining the varsity ranks. Crystal’s only win in the last two years is against the Eagles. It’s likely both teams will be 0-8 this year when they meet on Oct. 25.

If the I-55 ADs and coaches find a suitable replacement by the meeting this month, they will pass it along to the superintendents and St. Pius President Jim Lehn to vote on. For a new team to join, the vote must pass unanimously, said Jefferson athletic director Jason Dreyer.

Bayless and Cuba are both schools that aren’t connected to a conference. Herculaneum has opened its last two seasons against Cuba. Bayless has only had varsity football the last two years, but the Bronchos have played St. Pius and Valle this year. Eric Lawrence was hired this year to be the athletic director at Bayless. Lawrence was the assistant football coach at St. Pius before taking that job.

“I hope one of those two schools can slide right into our conference by next year,” Rouggly said.

Fox agreed that it was time for the Hornets to make a change.

“I feel fine about it. Our kids can’t compete without a JV program,” Fox said. “All of the other teams in the I-55 are great teams and have JV programs.

“We’re going to do the best we can to fill our schedule, but there’s not a lot of Class 1 schools nearby. We’re going in a different direction instead of taking a 50-0 shellacking every week.”