By: Daniel Stickradt
On the move: Schools across state beginning conference shifts
BY DAN STICKRADT
As enrollment figures continue to dwindle in certain areas of the state, coupled with steady growth spikes in other regions, administration at numerous high schools, school districts and private/parochial schools have begun to seek different alternatives for competition regarding high school athletics in Michigan.
Much like the mid-1990s, when schools were routinely joining forces to create mega conferences, the new trend is that multiple schools across the state are on the move once again — either switching conferences for the 2016-17 school year, preparing for a move before the 2017-18 school year, or compiling some thorough research to see if a move will be viable in the near future.
There is a paradigm shift taking place in many areas around the state.
Breckenridge and Merrill, previously two of the smallest schools in the three-division Tri-Valley Conference, officially left the TVC in June to join the Mid-State Activities Conference. There they will compete along side other small Class C or Class D schools.
Pinckney and nine other schools are set to depart the Kensington Lakes Activities Association next school year. Otisville-LakeVille will be departing the Tri-Valley Conference in 2017, while two more schools, Pinconning and Standish-Sterling, recently made a move into the TVC.
The Ottawa Kent Conference gained two more schools, keeping its reign as Michigan’s largest conference, while the Oakland Activities Association also saw its numbers decrease— a trend during the past decade.
“It’s to the point that administrators have to look at the big picture and look out for what’s best for their student athletes,” said Pinckney athletics director Brian Wardlow. “When you have schools that are more than 1,000 students larger in your league or division, you have to start looking for a change.”
Class B schools Pinconning (418 students grades 9-12) and Standish-Sterling (470) recently moved to the TVC for this school year to replace the aforementioned Breckenridge (235) and Merrill (191). Most of the TVC is comparable Class B or large Class C schools.
Previously, Pinconning and Standish-Sterling competed in the Northeast Michigan Conference, which disbanded.
The NEMC closure leaves both Tawas City and West Branch Ogemaw Heights as independents for the foreseeable future.
The TVC will spread its sports into three divisions — East, Central and West — with the current members being Alma (676), Birch Run (585), Bridgeport (566), Caro (497), Carrolton (545), Chesaning (487), Essexville-Garber (550), Frankenmuth (533), Freeland (561), Hemlock (412), Ithaca (426), Midland Bullock Creek (550), Millington (396), North Branch (758), Otisville-LakeVille (445), Ovid-Elsie (477), Pinconning (418), Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (200), Saginaw Sawn Valley (607), Saginaw Valley Lutheran (342), Shepherd (498), Standish-Sterling (470), St. Charles (379) and St. Louis (350).
Saginaw Nouvel Catholic (248) applied earlier this year for the TVC, but withdrew its application because the school was going to be placed in the division with the highest enrollment schools.
The shakedown leaves Breckenridge and Merrill competing against schools close in size, including Ashley (195), Blanchard-Edmore-Montabella (258), Carson-City-Crystal (268), Coleman (208), Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart (146) and Vestaburg (195).
“Size-wise, it’s a perfect fit for us,” noted Breckenridge athletics director Ryan Sklener. “Merrill first started talking about it, and then we started to research it. We are only seven miles apart from Merrill and they are one of our rivals. Now we’ll be going up against schools a lot closer in size — and none of them are that far away travel-wise.
“The Mid-State really wanted to have eight schools, and Merrill only wanted to make the move if we did,” continued Sklener. “Really, it’s the right fit for both of us. A lot of the schools in our league (sponsor) the same sports and this will give us a chance to build up some other sports. I think everyone is looking forward to a more level playing field. Some of the schools in the TVC were double our size.”
LAKEVILLE JUMPING SHIP AGAIN
Over the post two decades, Class B Otisville-LakeVille has seen a slow enrollment decrease from 796 students in 1996-97 to around 445 for 2016-17. Currently, LakeVille is the second smallest school in the TVC and the Falcons have struggled in many sports, including football where the school is 2-16 over the past two school years.
With the consistent decrease, O-L will leave the TVC next summer and head back to the Genesee Area Conference. The Falcons competed in the GAC from 2002 until 2012, when it left for the TVC.
Before that, Otisville-LakeVille was a member of the Flint Metro League during the 1980s and 1990s before leaving in 2002.
PiNCKNEY DEPARTiNG FOR SEC
With 1,279 students, Pinckney ranks 22nd out of 24 schools in the KLAA mega league. The Pirates have competed in the KLAA-West Division against substantially larger schools.
“You look at the schools in our league and we’re way smaller,” said Wardlon. “Some of those schools have more than 1,000 more students — even more. I think the top four schools in our division of the KLAA average around 2,300 students. Grand Blanc has nearly 2,700 students and ranks in the top five in the state in enrollment. Howell, Brighton and Hartland are all over 2,000 students. It’s hard to compete against schools that large in some sports.
“In sports like basketball, where it’s 5-on-5, you can compete. But in other sports, not so much,” continued Wardlow. “Where you really see the difference is at the sub-varsity level. The big schools can bring up young players to varsity and there’s so many other athletes on the junior varsity or freshman teams that it doesn’t hurt. When you are smaller, your sub-varsity teams you leave smaller and you begin to start to get killed in sports. I think these are some of the reasons why so many schools in the state are starting to switch conferences. You have to compete against schools closer to your size.”
Pinckney, located in southern Livingston County, will compete in the White Division of the SEC next year along with Ann Arbor-area schools Adrian (794), Chelsea (867), Dexter (1,146), Tecumseh (832), Ypsilanti (1,115) and Ypsilanti Lincoln (1,404).
Nine of the schools which are defecting from the KLAA in 2017 hail from Oakland County. Currently these schools make up nine of the smallest 12 schools of the KLAA, which features 24 schools this school year, its final year as a mega conference.
The KLAA was formed back in 2007 with the merger of the Kensington Valley Conference and the two-division Western Lakes Activities Association.
With the aforementioned Pinckney already signing on to the Southeastern Conference White Division for 2017-18, Milford (1,417), South Lyon (1,234), South Lyon East (963), Walled Lake Central (1,772), Walled Lake Northern (1,631), Walled Lake Western (1,370), Waterford Kettering (1,528), Waterford Mott (1,638) and White Lake Lakeland (1,822) will compete as business as usual for the next nine months within the four-division KLAA before its mass exit.
The new league does not have a name or logo just yet, but should have them in place by Thanksgiving.
“We are working on the by-laws, the name, and the logo right now,” said Walled Lake Community School District Director of Athletics Brian Swinehart. “As for the logo and name, we are opening that up to students, offering a contest to students. We’ll know more in a few months.
“There were a lot of proposals to keep the KLAA in tact, but we couldn’t come up with an agreement,” said Swinehart. “I think the new league would like to have 10 schools or 12 schools. We will begin with the nine schools and hopefully reach out to some others and see what’s out there.”
There is no official word of the divisional lineup for the reduced KLAA lineup for next school year, or whether the 14 remaining members will seek more changes or additional schools. Brighton (2,144), Grand Blanc (2,727), Hartland (2,000), Howell (2,499), Livonia Churchill (1,580), Livonia Franklin (1,507), Livonia Stevenson (1,839), Northville (2,375), Novi (2,051), Plymouth (2,103), Plymouth Canton (2,035), Plymouth Salem (2,172), Wayne Memorial (1,717) and Westland John Glenn (1,712) are expected to remain in the KLAA in 2017-18.
OK FOR EXPANSION
One of Michigan’s oldest conferences will see an increase this school year. While some of the state’s mega conferences are dwindling or splitting up, the Ottawa Kent Conference, which serves the Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland areas, is still swallowing up schools.
For 2016-17, both Spring Lake (841) and Fruitport (857) have come aboard from the Lakes 8 Athletic Conference, while the entire OK Conference will now boast seven total divisions — one division will compete with eight schools while the other six divisions will compete with seven schools each for a total of 50 schools.
The league, which started way back in 1958-59 with six western Michigan schools, peaked with 51 members in 2011-12.
Over the last five years the OK Conference has lost Grand Rapids Central and Grand Rapids Creston to closure, plus saw Wyoming Park and Wyoming Rogers merge into Wyoming High.
The current breakdown for the OKC for the 2016-17 school year sees several school moving divisions. The new alignment is as follows:
OK CONFERENCE—RED DIVISION: Caledonia, East Kentwood, Grandville, Grand Haven, Holland West Ottawa, Hudsonville, Jenison, Rockford.
OK CONFERENCE—WHITE DIVISION: Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern, Grand Rapids Northview, Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills, Greenville, Lowell.
OK CONFERENCE—BLACK DIVISION: Fruitport, Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills, Grand Rapids Union, Muskegon, Muskegon Mona Shores, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer, Wyoming
OK CONFERENCE—GREEN DIVISION: Byron Center, Hamilton, Holland, Holland Christian, Hudsonville Unity Christian, Zeeland East, Zeeland West.
OK CONFERENCE—GOLD DIVISION: East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Christian, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Eastern, Grand Rapids South Christian, Hastings, Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg, Wayland Union.
OK CONFERENCE—BLUE DIVISION: Allendale, Comstock Park, Coopersville, Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Grand Rapids West Catholic, Spring Lake, Sparta.
OK CONFERENCE—SILVER DIVISION: Belding, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, Grandville Calvin Christian, Hopkins, Wyoming Godwin Heights, Wyoming Kelloggsville, Wyoming Lee.
OAA DOWN TO 23
The Oakland Activities association, which was formed before the 1994-95 school year, has dipped to 23 members in 2016-17.
With Southfield Lathrup shuttering its doors in June and merging into Southfield to form the Southfield Arts & Technology, the merger creates yet another loss for the mega league.
Over the past 10 years, the OAA has already seen Ortonville Brandon defect to the Flint Metro League, Waterford Kettering and Waterford Mott go to the KLAA, and Clawson, Madison Height Lamphere and Madison Heights Madison head to the Macomb Area Conference. The OAA has also seen three other schools close their doors in less than a decade — Royal Oak Dondero, Pontiac Central and Bloomfield Hills Lahser.
Farmington Harrison, a small Class A school, is entering its final three years of existence before it will merge into Farmington and North Farmington.
The OAA did reach out over the summer to the nine Oakland County-based schools who are leaving the KLAA in one year, but none of those schools have stressed interest in the OAA at this time.
WOLVERINE CC IS BACK
The Fundamental Baptist Athletic Conference, which formed with five small schools in 1993-94, has been renamed the Wolverine Christian Conference.
The original WCC disbanded after the 1991-92 school year with six small Christian schools and reopened with a much different lineup two years later as the FBAC.
Part of the name change is due to several members not being of the Fundamental Baptist Christian denomination.
The current makeup for the WCC will see Clinton Township Faith Christian, Davison Faith Baptist, Lake Orion Baptist, Rochester Hills Christian and Troy Bethany Christian in its upper division, while the lower division will feature Auburn Hills Christian Academy, Bloomfield Hills Christian (formerly Troy Christian Leadership), Clarkston Springfield Christian, Smith’s Creek Blue Water Christian, Waterford Oakdale Christian Academy and Wixom Christian.
Over the past 23 years, this league has lost multiple members to school closures, including Garden City United Christian, Lake Orion Shalom Baptist, Oxford Christian, Ruby Faith Baptist, Sterling Heights Christian, Warren Antioch Baptist, Ypsilanti Calvary Christian and Ypsilanti Faithway Baptist.
The original group for the FBAC back in 1993 included Rochester Hills Christian, Warren Antioch Baptist, Wixom Christian, Ypsilanti Calvary Christian and Ypsilanti Faithway Baptist.
When the Wolverine Christian Conference disbanded in 1992, the league’s makeup consisted of Burton Genesee Christian, Davison Faith Baptist, Rochester Hills Christian, Roseville Calvary Christian, Temperance Stateline Christian and Troy Bethany Christian.
AN INDIE STATE OF MIND
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep will compete as a Class B independent this school year.
The Fighting Irish left the Catholic High School League after a dispute regarding crossover games with larger, more powerful schools in football.
NDP may apply to regain entrance to the CHSL in the future. The school is remaining tight-lipped on its future plans.
(Dan Stickradt is a 23-year veteran multi-media journalist in Michigan. He can be reached at (248) 884-1051 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @LocalSportsFans and on various social media platforms.)