Five teams confirm; AAC made official

The new-and-improved All-American Conference is officially set.

AAC Commissioner Rick King received confirmations from five schools on Monday that are set to join. Warren G. Harding, Brookfield, Boardman, Youngstown East and Ashtabula Edgewood. Pymatuning Valley declined its invitation, according to King.

The additions will begin conference play in the spring of 2014, with the exception of football, which commences in 2015 because of contract obligations with other leagues. The AAC will grow to 20 teams and three tiers. Unofficially, the upper division will consist of six schools (Austintown Fitch, Boardman, Harding, Howland, Canfield and East) while the middle (Niles McKinley, Poland, Hubbard, Struthers, Edgewood, Lakeview and Jefferson) and lower (Champion, Liberty, Campbell, LaBrae, Brookfield, Newton Falls and Girard) will have seven. King said he and the athletic directors will meet on Aug. 1 to finalize the tiers.

The tiers change some in football with Harding, Boardman and Fitch – all Division I schools – going into a “super tier,” while Howland, Canfield and East will stay in the upper tier and also play Niles and Poland as part of their regular conference schedule.

“It’s a bit unusual, but we needed to do it to keep those schools that are bigger separate,” King said.

And there could be more to come. King confirmed reports that Steubenville and Massillon expressed interest in joining the conference in a football-only role. That would place five schools with rich and successful traditions in the “super tier,” if in fact it happened.

“When you talk about the game of the week and the radio games, we’re going to dominate,” said King of the potential showdowns.

For now, King is just excited about the schools who made their commitment official. One of the biggest attractions of adding the aforementioned teams is the rivalries it will create – and renew. Fitch, Boardman, East and Harding were part of the Steel Valley Conference before its demise a few years ago.

“The friends of mine that I talked to and acquaintances over the last couple of months are excited about seeing Howland-Harding back on the schedule in all sports,” he said. “And I know in Mahoning County, Fitch and Boardman will be good, and also the fact that Boardman, Canfield and Poland will be playing in all sports. I think it’s great for everybody. There will be some great rivalries.”

Harding athletic director Paul Trina couldn’t agree more. Trina’s Raiders are currently in the Lake Erie League, which means Harding must take long, expensive drives to Cleveland. That will come to an end in less than a year.

“We’re ecstatic about having the opportunity to be part of the local conference,” Trina said. “Overall, when you look at the whole scope of things, it’s really good for us – it cuts down on travel, we’ll have a better (attendance at the) gate and we’ll be able to renew some rivalries. I think a lot of people are looking forward to some renewed rivalries and maybe seeing some new ones develop.”

Trina added that he’s “hopeful” Steubenville and Massillon join the conference in football to help with scheduling challenges that surface because of the “super” tier only consisting of three teams.

“We’re hoping to put a meeting together,” Trina said. “There’s been some dialogue with both schools. I think Rick wants to get the conference up and running first, and then maybe we can expand on it.”

There will be few tweaks made to the current format during the August meeting, King said. Since some schools don’t have certain sports, teams could move to a different tier depending on the participation of the sport.

“For example, Youngstown East happens to have the least amount of sports that they have to offer, so what we’re going to do in a couple of the sports is we’re going to see if we can move one of the teams up from one of the lower tiers,” King said.

One part of the expansion that fell through was adding Pymatuning Valley. King said the Lakers, who currently participate in the Northeastern Athletic Conference, were ready to join until recently.

“If I’m not mistaken, the AD, principal and superintendent were all in favor of the move, they just couldn’t convince their board members,” King said. “They would have liked to make the jump, and they thought it was good for their student athletes, and I think the board members thought, from a historical standpoint of who they’ve competed against, that they just wanted to stay status quo.”

Lakers athletic director Mel Nowakowski said there was no one reason why they didn’t accept the bid, just that they did what they felt was best.

“There’s not just one reason, overall we felt it was best for Pymatuning Valley to stay where we are,” she said. “The NAC has been really good to us and it would be difficult to leave there. It was a serious consideration, we weren’t trying to pull anyone’s strings.

“Obviously if we weren’t interested, we wouldn’t have applied.”