What about no league?

Independent status has its pros and cons

WARREN — A lot of coaches only know what it’s like to be in a conference, while others have only been independents throughout the entirety of their careers.

Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold knows both sides. So does Ursuline football leader Larry Kempe. And, in a way, Niles’ Brian Shaner understands each situation just as well.

With the constant changing of conferences — over and over again — and some schools being left out of leagues, there’s a question of whether schools are better off in a conference or as an independent?

Some feel the incentive of playing for a league title is a key factor, while others dismiss the notion because the focus of almost any team is to reach the playoffs — and beyond.

“I think it plays a small role,” said Arnold of the motivating factor for kids to play for a league title,” because ultimately every team strives to get into the playoffs. You can possibly not win your conference … and still get in the playoffs and make a run. I personally don’t look at it is as a big deal — playing for a conference championship.”

One of the perennial powerhouses in the Mahoning Valley — and arguably the state — for the past few decades, reaching the playoffs and battling for a state title is always on the Raiders’ radar.

Other coaches have different expectations and make a league title goal No. 1 for the season. Putting another banner on the wall or trophy in the case serves as a source of motivation for some.

“You always talk about (being a league champ) because if you’re a league champ, your percentages of being in the playoffs are a lot higher,” Shaner said. “It does (become a goal) — those games mean a lot.”

Yet sometimes they can mean too much and take a toll on teams.

Niles, for instance, plays in two tiers of the All-American Conference, which results in nine of its 10 football games being league matchups. That was considered too much by school officials and eventually played a role in the Red Dragons joining six other teams in a mass exodus of the AAC. The schools that left the AAC have formed the Northeast Conference 8, which is set to begin play in 2018.

The freedom of creating one’s own schedule is one of the perks of being an independent. Football teams that are independent can manipulate their schedules in a way that gives them the ability to finish with a subpar record but still earn enough computer points to qualify for the playoffs. Ursuline, for example, often plays one of the most difficult schedules in the state — especially for a Division IV school. In 2015, despite finishing 5-5, the Irish reached the playoffs and advanced to the state semifinal.

Still, scheduling problems leave Kempe, a coach at Ursuline for the past 14 years, hoping to latch on to a conference.

“I don’t know if it’s a benefit being an independent right now because with everyone in a conference, you don’t really get an opportunity to get games that you’re comfortable with,” Kempe said. “I know from our perspective, we struggle to get a 10-game schedule every year. We only play four local teams, which we’re very thankful for. We have Youngstown East, Cardinal Mooney, Boardman and Warren Harding, and I’m very thankful that we’re engaged in those games, but then we have to go out and find six games, and you’re at the mercy of whoever’s open.”

The argument is different in other sports, such as basketball where everyone makes the postseason regardless of record. Scheduling can still be somewhat difficult for schools not in a conference, but with computer points out of the equation and regular-season losses not as debilitating, finding games isn’t as challenging.

Arnold coached Harding’s basketball team for 10 years until he took over the football team in 2012. While he prefers being in a conference in football, he enjoyed the liberty of scheduling different schools in basketball (Harding was an independent in basketball for part of his tenure).

“In basketball I like the freedom because it didn’t eliminate us from playing in any holiday tournaments or anything like that,” Arnold said of being an independent. “It allowed us to travel a little bit and play top-notch competition. We had a chance to play all the big boys, so that was a plus for us. When I was doing the scheduling for basketball, (then athletic director) Paul Trina kind of just let me handle it, for the most part.

“Now football is different.”

Since football is the dominant and most popular sport in northeast Ohio, it often determines what league a school is going to be in — or not be in. That’s part of why being in a conference is often quite helpful when it comes to the gridiron. Not only does it make scheduling easier, with guaranteed games, but those opponents generally bring a fair challenge and computer points.

Even then, however, scheduling is never perfect. Harding is in the All-American Conference this year, but the Raiders don’t have a Week 2 game because, as Arnold said, “some teams said they didn’t want to play anymore,” which is a similar predicament for Kempe on a yearly basis.

Mega-conferences like the AAC (currently a 21-school league) were supposed to eliminate those types of problems, and while Harding’s case may be an isolated incident, the problem of playing too many league games has been a reoccurring issue for Niles. Shaner also was a part of a much smaller, two-team conference when he coached at East High School in Youngstown. East and Chaney made up the since-defunct City Series. He also coached at Rayen prior to that, when the City Series included Canton Timken, Wilson and Chaney.

“Those league games meant so much to us,” said Shaner of the conference clashes, “and it gave us some freedom to go out and schedule other teams to get ready for our league games.”

The ongoing debates of how a league should be constructed, which conference (or tier of a conference) a school should be in or whether living dangerously as an independent is the way to go, continue to stump coaches and athletic directors alike.

The answer may be out there — or maybe the revolving door of changing and creating new conferences will go on and on and on.

“I don’t know if there’s an answer here,” Shaner lamented.

If there is, high school sports officials in this area have yet to find it.

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