Change is name of game

WHO remembers the Turnpike Conference? How about the Ohio Scholastic League, the Northeast Ohio Athletic Conference, the Ohio Big 8, the Grand River Conference, or the All-American Athletic Conference?

Who recalls that Boardman was a charter member of the Tri-County League in 1932, along with Columbiana, Lisbon, Leetonia, Sebring and others? Or that Poland replaced Boardman in the TCL and competed for 21 years against those same schools.

The first series of questions about defunct high school athletic conferences or leagues emphasizes the fact that the only constant in high school sports is change. The second paragraph emphasizes that the main reason for that change is shifting population — some Mahoning Valley communities have grown over the years and others have shrunk.

The Tribune Chronicle today begins a multi-part series of stories regarding changes in conference alignments. With the new eight-school Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference beginning competition this fall out of the demise of the larger Inter Tri-County League, and the news that several teams will leave the All-American Conference and form an eight-school conference beginning next school year, it seemed the timing was perfect for this series.

Today through Wednesday the Tribune Chronicle will look at conference alignments — the history of conferences in the area, why changes happen, what makes an ideal league, how being in a conference differs from being independent, and other factors, from the viewpoint of coaches, athletic directors, school superintendents and fans.

An interesting facet of the history of leagues in the area is the growth in popularity of the mega-conference with multiple tiers. For years, most area leagues included eight or fewer schools and the emergence of rivalries was a key factor in those leagues.

The multi-tiered conferences developed locally in the first decade of this century and seemed to be modeled on successful multi-tiered conferences in the Cleveland and Columbus areas.

Crossover games and schools being moved to other tiers in sports in which they have a history of success were some of the positives of the larger conferences. However, there also was much confusion as coaches and ADs often weren’t sure if a particular game counted as a league game.

In the end, at least locally, population changes and geographic drawbacks have resulted in what appears to be a trend back to smaller leagues.

Ironically, one of the longest lasting leagues in the area started as a huge, multi-tiered league. The Trumbull Interscholastic Association, which operated from as early as 1921, included Trumbull County’s local school districts, which for much of the time featured one high school in each township.

In the 1948-49 school year, the TIA featured 24 schools in four six-school tiers. According to Tribune Chronicle records, only games within a school’s tier counted as league games, but there were plenty of crossover games. And, again according to Tribune records, the league lineup changed over the years, presumably based on changing enrollment figures.

A huge factor in the late 1950s and early ’60s was the series of school mergers, which significantly reduced the number of local schools in the county and ultimately led to the demise of the TIA as originally formatted.

Another factor that influenced league and conference lineups was that 10 schools in Trumbull County began fielding football programs during a period from 1959 (Mineral Ridge) to 1968 (Mathews). Between those two, football programs were begun at Warren Western Reserve, John F. Kennedy, Howland, Lakeview, Champion, Leavittsburg (later LaBrae), Liberty and Chalker.

And, as we will find out this week, it turns out that football often is the driving force in determining a school’s conference alignment. No surprise to most area sports fans.

One of the most memorable conferences in the area was the original All-America Conference which featured Warren G. Harding, Niles, Canton McKinley and Massillon, and later, Steubenville and Alliance. It was a football-only league which began play in 1963 and broke up in 1979.

But, despite football’s immense popularity in the Mahoning Valley, there are other factors which go into a school choosing a league, including costs, income from attendance, geography, non-revenue sports, junior high sports, etc.

Just about every sports fan out there has his or her idea for a perfect league lineup. The reality is, though, that its much more difficult than one would think.