North Central College's football team has won or tied for a conference title the last seven seasons.
But head coach John Thorne knows maintaining that kind of success in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin will only get harder.
"I think the conference has gotten more and more competitive," said Thorne, who is heading into his 12th season at NCC. "The coaches in place are having good success recruiting people and everybody is competitive. Nobody wants the next program to get ahead of them."
That's easier said than done.
During Thorne's tenure, six of the eight schools in the CCIW have won or taken a share of the conference title. North Central and Wheaton College have won outright titles while Augustana, Elmhurst, Illinois Wesleyan and Carthage have tied for titles.
Wheaton College head coach Mike Swider has spent nearly 30 years coaching in the CCIW and has seen the overall competition get better in the NCAA Division III conference.
"The conference has always been strong, but from top to bottom it has gotten stronger," Swider said. "From top to bottom, the conference is as good as there is in the country. If you are picking the four or five top conferences, no doubt the CCIW is in there."
To gauge just how high the level of play is, Swider points to a specific area. As a conference, CCIW teams are 16-1 in the first round of the playoffs since 2001.
"That tells you a lot," he said. "Our conference always wins the first playoff game and that gives you credibility."
In terms of recruiting, CCIW schools compete with other Division II and III schools, NAIA institutions and players that receive walk-on offers from Division I schools. The competition for players can be fierce, but Division III schools are looking for a different type of student-athlete than the Division I scholarship athlete.
“I think one of the things that I set off to do once I took the program over was to have excellence not only on the football field, but not to sacrifice the academic model,” said first-year Elmhurst College coach Joe Adam. “We’re not going to compromise academics for guys that can play the game well.”
The schools in the CCIW are private institutions, which adds another speed bump on the recruiting trail. NAIA schools can offer scholarships, and the smaller state schools in Wisconsin, such as perennial D-III contender Wisconsin-Whitewater, are public institutions with lower tuition rates.
For local players who are serious about school and are interested in playing competitive football, the CCIW is a premier destination.
"Around the Chicagoland area, there are some great high school football players and only so many guys can go Division I," North Central senior Shane Dierking said. "Plus the CCIW has outstanding coaching staffs and outstanding institutions where you can get a great education as well as be a part of great athletic programs. Why not sign the papers?"