A year ago, the formation of the All-American Conference was hailed by many as the perfect solution for area schools looking associate themselves with comparable-sized opponents.
One month ago, it seemed as though the AAC was destined to become a one-hit wonder when four schools - Niles, Liberty, Lakeview and Hubbard - announced their intentions of leaving the conference following the 2009-10 school year.
Now, the conference appears to have gained its second wind. The four above-mentioned schools - at least for the time being - have decided to stay put.
While the inaugural year of the AAC has provided area sports fans with more drama than a Jerry Springer marathon, Girard athletic director Joe Cappuzzello believes the league can still have a bright future.
"When you're talking about 16 schools, there are always going to be growing pains during the first year, and we've experienced our share of twists and turns," Cappuzzello said. "But at the same time, with this many schools there is also a great deal of potential. There are plenty of opportunities to tweak things and right the wrongs. We have to take notice of the advantages a 16-school league presents."
The current league alignment includes three tiers. The Red Division includes Canfield, Howland, Poland, Niles and Beaver Local. The White Division includes Hubbard, Struthers, Lakeview, Salem and Liberty. The Blue Division consists of Campbell Memorial, Girard, Champion, Newton Falls, LaBrae and Brookfield.
Cappuzzello noted that league rules allow schools to change tiers on a sport-by-sport basis based on the strength of the program. For instance, the Salem girls basketball team competed in the Red Division this past winter, swapping places with Beaver Local. Salem and Niles also exchanged tier positions in volleyball.
"Our ultimate goal is to give every team in our conference a fair chance to compete for a title," Cappuzzello said. "The bottom line with any league is the same - a league is only as good as its smallest and weakest member."
Prior to this year, Girard was one of eight schools which belonged to the Trumbull Athletic Conference-8. Those schools joined forces with the Metro Athletic Conference to form the AAC. Cappuzzello stressed that Girard coaches and administrators were very content with their standing in the TAC, but they also understood the need for change.
"Having been a member of the MAC, we understood the concerns of the smaller schools," Cappuzzello said. "When we were a part of MAC our numbers were shrinking while other schools in the league were growing. The same thing was happening in the final years of the TAC."
Those swift changes lead Cappuzzello to believe that the AAC can quite possibly undergo positive changes in the near future.
"In today's environment enrollment numbers are constantly changing, and any league will be judged by the way it adapts to changes," Cappuzzello said. "If Lordstown (General Motors) ever pulled out, Lakeview would lose a lot more numbers than it has already lost. And what if Springfield and South Range continue to increase in numbers, and they outgrow their league? It's hard to predict the future because of how quickly things can change."
While a three-tiered system was designed to equal out the playing field between the biggest and smallest schools of the MAC and TAC, Cappuzzello stressed that no system is perfect. Girard enrolls 76 more male students than Brookfield, even though both schools are in the same lower tier. Meanwhile, Girard and Liberty (which is in the middle tier) are separated by just 35 male students.
"In a way, that's not fair to Liberty, and that's why we have teams playing up and down within the conference," Cappuzzello said. "Liberty is making a sacrifice and we owe it to them to help out from a scheduling standpoint."
And while many area sports fans judge conferences based solely on football, Cappuzzello is quick to point out that a "a league is only successful if it helps every athlete in every sport." From that standpoint, he believes the AAC has been a success.
"We'll never create a 16-team league and satisfy everyone, but I think most people will agree that things are better than they were," Cappuzzello said. "And as long as we continue to put the best interests of our students first, then the league should have a bright future."