A deeper look

School officials look for right fit as leagues shift

Damon Dohar knew he had to be proactive, along with the familiar schools of McDonald, Jackson-Milton and Western Reserve.

The Weathersfield Local schools superintendent said Mineral Ridge High School and its three league cohorts had to make a decision.

Rumblings in Columbiana County regarding the dissolution of the Inter Tri-County League turned out to be true. The 16-team conference, formed in 2006 with the merger of the Inter-County League (which included Ridge, McDonald, J-M and WR) and Tri-County League, ended all competition after the 2016-17 school year.

So those four schools, who have competed together in the same league since 1967, joined forces with Springfield, Lowellville, Sebring and Waterloo to form the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference, coming this school season. The furthest trip — Springfield to Waterloo in Portage County — is less than an hour.

Travel and other factors decide how schools interact with one another.

Sometimes, it’s not as easy as one might think.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces at one time,” Dohar said. “I tell people it’s like an algebraic formula with like 45 different variables. If you remember algebra, it’s never that easy. Most people don’t want to remember algebra. That’s what you get when you have a league.

“It’s great, too, because you have people that are very unselfish and very good. That’s a big thing.”

One predominant factor in why leagues coexist is enrollment — an underlying factor of why other ITCL teams wanted South Range and Crestview out of the league. Those two increased in enrollment as more families either moved in the district or came in because of open enrollment.

Dohar said he’s projecting the eight MVAC schools are likely to keep the same enrollment for the next five years.

“It’s a great league for smaller schools,” he said. “That’s what you want to keep. I don’t foresee any one of us becoming massive in the next two to five years.”

Lakeview is leaving the AAC White Tier in 2018 and joining the Northeast 8 Conference with Girard, Niles, Hubbard, Poland, Struthers, South Range and Jefferson. Lakeview athletic director Ron DeJulio Jr. said his school has about 220 to 260 boys and girls, which made the new league a better option than staying in the AAC.

“If it stayed where it was, we would’ve been fine,” DeJulio Jr. said of the enrollment numbers. “We love the AAC. It all came down to numbers for us.”

The Northeastern Athletic Conference was formed in 2002 out of the Trumbull-based schools in the former East Suburban Conference — Bloomfield, Bristol, Lordstown, Maplewood and Chalker — plus Pymatuning Valley.

Badger, Mathews and Grand Valley soon followed. Newbury and Windham are more recent members.

“A lot of the schools are similar in size and local, being rural-type of scheduling,” Maplewood athletic director Mark Yoder said. “Our thoughts are a lot alike. We have the same idea what it takes to keep a conference going and keep everybody happy.”

The NAC has had other schools apply over the years, but the NAC members were selective in who they brought into the league.

“We have 11 schools right now that are compatible with each other,” Yoder said.

Berkshire and Cardinal did come to a meeting a couple of years ago, inquiring about membership.

“Things didn’t work out as we hoped,” Yoder said.

The NAC has had its share of change, adding football as a sport after the additions of Mathews, Grand Valley and Ledgemont, followed by Windham and Newbury.

Former Grand Valley football coach A.J. Calderone was the principal at Lordstown, where he saw NAC schools coexist with and without football.

“Even that league, as stable as it’s been, as recently as 2010-11, was still undergoing some change as far as new members,” said Calderone, who is the LaBrae Local schools superintendent.

The AAC has some changes in its future with the mass exodus of most of its White Tier, plus Girard out of the Blue Tier, leaving in 2018 to form the Northeast 8.

Warren G. Harding athletic director Bill Nicholson said Harding, Austintown Fitch, Boardman, Youngstown East, Howland and Canfield have had some early discussions on what to do going forward.

“We really need each other,” he said. “I think the minor sports will be really good.”

The sticking point is football. Canfield and Howland are Division III, while the others are Division I or II schools. However, Howland already plays Harding, while Canfield and Boardman play one another.

“The impact on football isn’t going to be as drastic as it’s going to be on Canfield and Howland,” Nicholson said. “Howland and Canfield are tweener teams.”

Harding is fine as far as football goes, with Fitch, Boardman, Ursuline, Cardinal Mooney, Massillon and Canton McKinley already committed to play WGH.

So, if East, WGH, Fitch, Boardman, Howland and Canfield have to go a new direction, they’ll have an idea where to go.

“It’s difficult, but we’re trying to work some things out,” Nicholson said. “We’ve made some phone calls to see if they’re interested, if we ended up trying to form a new league.”

Although those are some of the area’s bigger schools, enrollment has shrunk in this area. Calderone has seen it in Trumbull, Mahoning and Ashtabula counties in the past seven years.

“That changes your programs as well,” he said. “That creates disparity of how you play crossovers and where do you move up to play.”

The NAC aligns by size with the Stars Division housing the larger schools and the Stripes Division having the smaller ones.

The AAC shifts its schools by strength of program, not size.

“Girard has a strong volleyball program,” Calderone said. “They align with the larger tier to take on that challenge. That’s one thing the AAC has done pretty well is identifying those areas where certain programs, based on their history, tradition and strength, can move up or down. It’s beneficial to some degree.”

However, keeping every school content is harder than one thinks.

“The problem with leagues is you have so much disparity,” Calderone said. “It’s hard to please everybody. That becomes a challenge. I think in my years I’ve learned one thing.

“When it comes to conferences and leagues, the only constant is change. It seems like every few years there’s some level of change that happens. That appears the only thing you can count on.”

Somehow, schools make it work — even if it is only for a short while.

“Any league has problems like any family has problems,” Dohar said. “It’s a matter if you’re still willing to work together to resolve those issues. It’s never always going to go smoothly. There’s no way.

“You have eight individuals who are running schools. You have principals and ADs and so forth. You have different personalities. You have to get through as a family and try to solve the issues.