Loss of rivalries bothers some fans

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Vince Perrotti (15) of Warren G. Harding looks for a receiver during football practice on Friday. The Raiders, like many area teams, are unsure of the future of their league, the All-American Conference, since the announcement that seven schools will withdraw to form a new league beginning next school year. That uncertainty of league alignment is not a new factor in area high school athletics.

In life, change is inevitable. For Mahoning Valley high school athletes and sports fans alike, change seems to be all-around. Recently, the All-American Conference experienced a shakeup that will see at least one new league begin play in the coming years, while the Inter-Tri County League has already been replaced this fall with two new leagues, including the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference.

All of this change has left many peoples’ heads spinning, as they search for answers as to why the local conference landscape continues to change as much as it has in recent years.

A decade or more ago, things were more simplified with the Metro Athletic Conference (MAC) and Trumbull Athletic Conference-8 (TAC-8) — which merged to form the AAC in 2008. Many of those schools will soon move on to greener pastures.

Among the beliefs regarding the advantage of larger, tiered conferences was that it would make scheduling easier and teams wouldn’t have to travel as much. However, the league has experienced many flaws, such as trying to understand “crossover” games, as teams from one tier take on teams from another.

The mass confusion has frequently led to coaches, players and fans alike not understanding which games count as league games and which games do not.

For local sports fan Jerry Campbell, a 1979 Newton Falls graduate, the drawbacks of the larger leagues include not only the confusion of who plays who, but also the loss of true rivalries in the area.

“How can you have a winner in two divisions?” Campbell said, of Poland football winning both the Red and White tiers a couple years back. “Conferences were pretty decent before the AAC.

“There’s a lot of rivalries that aren’t rivalries, (that’s why) I just go to games that I pick out — whichever are the best games playing that night (regardless of conference or rivalry).”

Campbell is certainly not alone in his thinking. Former Niles standout running back Matt Estes, who rushed for over 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his career while leading the Red Dragons to back-to-back postseason trips in 1999 and 2000, was used to playing rival teams like Howland, Poland and Canfield in the MAC.

However, with the announcement of most of the AAC White Tier leaving to form the NorthEast 8 Conference, Red Tier teams like Howland and Canfield were left out, as their growing schools have enrollments significantly higher than schools like Niles, Hubbard, Girard and South Range, all of whom will play in the new league.

What it all means is that Niles may have to find a new backyard rival, much like other programs have done in recent years.

“It’s just different,” Estes said. “When I was growing up, we played certain teams, and the old-timers in Niles would talk about playing teams like Warren (Harding), (Warren Western) Reserve and Massillon. Now Niles could potentially drop to Division IV, and it’s hard to compete with Division II Canfield. I guess the athletic director’s gotta do what’s best for the kids.”

Part of the reason for shifting conferences comes down to the inevitable factor of some schools growing, some schools shrinking. In recent years, there have been particular peaks and valleys with enrollment, as virtually every public school in the area has shifted to open enrollment, which has seen a number of local high school athletes hop from school to school.

According to Estes, rivalries have become even more de-valued based on athlete movement and other factors.

“With social media, all of these kids are friends with kids from other schools,” Estes said. “We had none of that when we were in school. There was more hatred when we were in school. I played with the same kids my whole life, (but) the game of football is changing.”

Bristol boys basketball coach Craig Giesy, who was a star for the Panthers basketball team before graduating in 2003, experienced conference change in his own playing days. After three years of playing in the East Suburban Conference, Giesy’s Panthers moved to the newly-formed Northeastern Athletic Conference during his senior year.

While Giesy went on to explain that the transition was easy with many of the same teams moving from the ESC to the NAC, it didn’t really matter because his teams were so dominant back then, which included a trip to the state tournament.

Playing — and now coaching — at a small program like Bristol has certainly had its challenges for Giesy. He himself wanted to see Bristol play in the AAC, which he believed would have been a huge advantage for the boys basketball program.

However, the Panthers do not possess a football team.

“I think for most coaches, realignment is what it is,” Giesy said. “I don’t know why they keep changing. Conferences make it easy for athletic directors. However, it is dictated by school district consolidations in the next 10 years, plus, any charter schools and private schools that are created. It’s whatever’s best for football.”

Indeed football, the No. 1 athletic revenue generator for the schools that have a team, ultimately decides who stays and who goes in any era. At the end of the day, however, it may not really matter how much conferences get changed or rivalries get put to rest.

For many fans, including recent Lakeview graduate and standout basketball and volleyball player Addie Becker, the postseason is the ultimate goal for every team.

“For myself, it’s gonna sound really bad, but winning our league was not as big of a deal,” Becker said, laughing. “We were expected to win our conference every year, and we were always looking ahead to the postseason.

“Our league wasn’t as competitive some years, but when you get the right teams together, it can be really fun.”