Beginning of the end

AAC on verge of crumbling

WARREN — Rivalries were lost, and some could be gained. There were hard feelings, and there could be some grudges held. In the end, teams did what was best for their schools — like it or not.

The likely demise of the All-American Conference was swift and abrupt to some, but it’s part of a continuous process in the world of high school sports.

Leagues have formed and then broken up on a regular basis for decades, and the hunt for the perfect conference continues. One group hopes they found it.

Seven teams that made up the majority of the AAC’s White Tier (Lakeview, Niles, Girard, Hubbard, Poland, Struthers and Jefferson) departed in May, leaving the conference in shambles.

The teams then joined South Range to create the Northeast 8 Conference, which is set to begin in 2018.

The schools had their reasons for leaving. Some didn’t like playing teams with considerably larger enrollments. Others, like Poland and Niles, weren’t fond of being part of two tiers (Red and White).

Some teams left out of the newly-formed conference — namely Canfield and Howland — understand their complaints, but they still aren’t happy about the mass exodus, for a couple of reasons.

“I think the AAC is going to fold, unfortunately,” Howland football coach Dominic Menendez said. “That’s the way that some of the people wanted it, and I think they’re going to get their way, which is sad because they’re looking out for themselves, obviously, and as long as they can jump in with somebody else, they’re going to be OK. But nobody is talking about the people they’re leaving out, which right now is Howland and Canfield.”

The changes also could end longstanding rivalries between several schools — Howland vs. Niles, Liberty vs. Girard, Canfield vs. Poland, among others.

Rivalries were mostly created through old conferences. The word “old” is a key part to that sentence because leagues rarely last more than 10 years. Remember the All-American Athletic Conference during the 1980s? Or how about the Metro Athletic Conference and Trumbull Athletic Conference of the 1990s and early 2000s? There was the East Suburban Conference and the Tri-County League. No one can forget the storied Steel Valley Conference, which was the longest-running league in the Mahoning Valley — spanning from 1949 to 2008.

The constant changing of communities’ populations ultimately leads to schools looking for a better fit more suitable to their enrollment, which is exactly what happened to the AAC.

Coaches like Niles’ Brian Shaner understand the disappointment of losing traditional matchups. He admits the rivalry with Howland is the game “everyone looks forward to,” but Shaner and the Red Dragons couldn’t continue to play nine league games. Being part of both the Red and White tiers left them with one non-conference game, meaning Niles didn’t have the ability to manipulate its schedule to put its teams in the best position to reach the playoffs. They also couldn’t take a breath after any game.

“Every week’s got to be your best week,” Shaner said. “Every week you have to find that fine line of who do you rest and how many snaps do they play.

“Everyone has their own opinion, and everyone’s opinion is right, but us and Poland have walked that line. We’ve done it (played in both tiers). We did it for the league, and if now it’s time to make a change because it isn’t fair to our kids, then that’s what’s best for Niles and the Northeast 8.”

The question now is what’s next for the AAC? The conference was a 21-team league with three tiers (four in football), and with the departure of seven teams, the end of the league may be near. It will be hard to compensate for the loss of the middle tier, but bringing in new teams is an option.

“There’s talks all over the place, but nothing is concrete, about bringing in Louisville and Marlington and places like that, but who knows,” Menendez said. “It’s too far off the path yet to tell what’s going to happen.”

If something doesn’t change soon with the AAC, another league could dissolve and leave a lot of teams searching for answers.