Niles to join Wolverine Conference in 2021

NILES — For the better part of nine years, Niles Athletic Director Jeff Upton and Dowagiac AD Brent Nate have been trying to figure out how to get the two schools to play each other more often in all sports.

On Monday, Niles Community Schools accepted an invitation to join the Wolverine Conference, which also includes Edwardsburg.

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“We are excited for our student-athletes to become a part of the Wolverine Conference,” Upton said. “By moving to the Wolverine Conference, we will be able to guarantee football, baseball, softball and basketball games that are closer in distance and ensure a local rivalry for the Niles fanbase.”

Last fall, Niles announced it was leaving the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference to join the BCS Athletic Conference, with such local teams as Brandywine, Buchanan, Berrien Springs and Bridgman. The Vikings will play the 2020-21 season in the BCS, except football, where they will be playing an independent schedule, which will include Dowagiac for the regular-season finale.

“It has been our goals, and it is not just me, but my superintendent and my principal, everyone wants it,” Upton said. “For that football rivalry to end in 2006, and we play them in other sports, but I think both communities thrive for that [football] to be a part of that. I think it will bring some life back to both communities.”

For Niles Superintendent Dan Applegate, it is about what is best for the student-athletes.

We are continuously looking for ways to create positive experiences for our students and the athletic program,” he said. “We appreciate the invitation to the Wolverine Conference and look forward to what the change will bring to the Vikings’ athletic programs.”

The Vikings and Chieftains have not played each other in varsity football in 13 years. When the rivalry ended, the Niles and Dowagiac football series was one of the longest-running continuous series in the state of Michigan.

Upton is also looking forward to creating a rivalry with Edwardsburg.

“In basketball alone, we have had some great games with Edwardsburg,” he said. “All nine years, we have had some classic baseball games and softball games.”

Besides Dowagiac and Edwardsburg, Niles will be joining Sturgis, Three Rivers, Plainwell, Allegan, Paw Paw, Vicksburg and Otsego. While no official division alignment has been set, it is believed that Niles, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg, Three Rivers and Sturgis will make up the South Division with Vicksburg moving to the North Division.

Even though Nate and Upton wanted to get together sooner, it was during the last year and a half that the ball started rolling. Upton, along with Edwardsburg Athletic Director Kevin Dean, were big proponents of adding Niles to the conference even before it was learned that South Haven would leave to join the BCS this fall.

“Dowagiac and Edwardsburg were at the forefront of trying to get Niles to join the Wolverine,” he said. “Kevin Dean and I, as athletic directors, met with Jeff Upton and members of the Wolverine Conference to sell the idea of Niles being a great fit for the league, especially the rivalry between Dowagiac and Niles.”

Nate cannot wait to get the Vikings back on the schedule.

“The rivalry speaks for itself,” he said. “It is great to have the ‘Black and Blue’ rivalry back on a regular basis. We are playing this year as a non-member, but to have it back on a regular basis is great for both of our communities.”

Dean agreed with Nate.

“We knew with South Haven leaving this year, we preferred being a 10-team conference,” Dean said. “Obviously for us, Niles was a natural fit due to its location, size and competitiveness. We already play them in a majority of the sports. We are excited to have someone else down in our area to join.”

Niles and Sturgis were both SMAC members until the Trojans joined the Wolverine Conference five years ago.