YOUNGSTOWN – It’s that time of year again in the Mahoning Valley. As school years are coming to an end, athletic departments and superintendents across the area are scrambling to find a new conference for their high school to join.
Within the past few months, the Mahoning Valley’s two premier athletic conferences, the All-American Conference (AAC) and the Inter Tri-County League (ITCL), both fell apart.
The AAC will still remain a competitive conference in the Valley, keeping hold of stronghold programs like Austintown, Boardman, Canfield, and Warren Harding. The ITCL, however, will lose all of its members as two separate leagues are being formed:
The Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference will include Columbiana, East Palestine, Leetonia, Lisbon, Southern, United, Wellsville, and Toronto.
The Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference will include Jackson-Milton, Lowellville, Mineral Ridge, McDonald, Sebring, Springfield, Waterloo, and Western Reserve.
Geographically, the two new conferences make complete sense. Northern schools like McDonald and Jackson-Milton no longer have to make the trip down the Ohio River to Wellsville. Likewise for Wellsville, who will no longer have to make the trip to Lowellville.
As for the AAC, basically the entire middle tier of the conference has disappeared. Girard, Hubbard, Jefferson, Lakeview, Niles, Poland, and Struthers have all decided to leave the 21-team conference and form their own – the NorthEast8 (NE8) Conference. Former-ITCL school South Range has also accepted their invitation to join.
This new conference will be sure to cause problems for teams who regularly play. Rivalries like Jefferson – Ashtabula Edgewood, South Range – Crestview, and Poland – Canfield will all carry on, but problems can arise when it comes to playing home-and-home series for sports like soccer, basketball, and baseball where these schools would usually see each other twice a year.
I do not quite understand the push and politics for the new conferences in the area to be formed. Every year, every school seems to have to be on their toes for the next big move. It is amazing that school districts that have been supporting sports in the Mahoning Valley for longer than my family’s ancestors have been in the United States have the ability to lose their historic ties.
The tri-county area of Columbiana, Mahoning, and Trumbull Counties should come together as one to form a single, unified set of conferences that not only values their ties, but also create new ones. For too many years, there have been missed scheduling opportunities, dismantling of seasoned rivalries, and nonsense conference championships.
What is the point of a high school owning a trophy that reads “All-American Conference Blue Tier Champions” if the schools that were in that tier and conference then are not in it now? Meaningless confusion is what comes to mind. If a high school is not beating their rivals or schools in the area, then how could a conference championship be justified?
Conferences are created because communities and schools share a similar region and enrollment. Spreading apart conferences has caused major travel issues for schools that have no business playing each other until the Regional Finals due to their proximity.
Here are my proposals:
Included next to each school’s name is their estimated high school enrollment (per U.S. News and OHSAA).
1. Put all the big schools together and add in the Catholic schools. It is no secret that competitive balance only comes with competitive head counts. Let the big schools play and let the rest trickle down. The new Steel League will be more competitive and more enjoyable for every competition in every sport. For years, Cardinal Mooney and Ursuline have been struck with terrible traveling accommodations and unequal representation. Those schools are known for excelling in football, but this new conference gives them an opportunity to compete in all sports in the Valley. Playing schools like Poland and Boardman would be good for all parties involved because those schools not only share similar proximities, but also similar competition levels.
The Steel League
- Austintown Fitch (1,677)
- Warren G. Harding (1,381)
- Boardman (1,358)
- Canfield (910)
- Howland (884)
- Poland Seminary (725)
- Ursuline (478)
- Cardinal Mooney (450)
2. Move teams away from the Canton and Ashtabula areas. Schools like West Branch and Salem have found a home in the Northeast Buckeye Conference, but those trips to Canton South and Carrollton can be equaled with trips to Niles and Hubbard. Schools like Jefferson and Ashtabula Edgewood have also found homes in the NE8 and AAC, but those schools need to find a more local audience with their sports rather than travel an hour per contest. Eliminate Stark and Ashtabula counties all together. I would also extend an invitation to Beaver Local, who has been isolated from the rest of Mahoning Valley athletics. I have also included Chaney High School in this group upon their impending reopening. East & Chaney’s new enrollments are merely predictions based on their current enrollments and district realignments.
The All-American Conference (Red Tier)
- Niles McKinley (722)
- West Branch (625)
- Youngstown Chaney (613)
- Youngstown East (613)
- Hubbard (611)
- Salem (588)
- Beaver Local (581)
- East Liverpool (578)
- Struthers (567)
3. Combine the bottom of the AAC with the top of the ITCL. Separating the schools on the bottom of the AAC from the schools at the top of the ITCL was just wrong. These are schools that will see each other in nearly every sport come tournament time, and it will also be way more competitive. Proximity between these high schools is also a huge benefit for this tier of the new AAC.
The All-American Conference (Blue Tier)
- Lakeview (550)
- Girard (534)
- Champion (437)
- South Range (426)
- LaBrae (412)
- United (381)
- Newton Falls (372)
- Crestview (369)
- Liberty (357)
4. Restore the big division of the small schools. Having the small schools, mainly of the former-ITCL, become unified is important. Separating them between the bottom tier of the AAC and the top tier of the ITCL was a mistake because it eliminated rivalries that are not only neighborhood-bordering, but also more balanced.
The Inter Tri-County League (Upper Tier)
- Springfield (349)
- East Palestine (347)
- Campbell Memorial (335)
- Columbiana (330)
- Mineral Ridge (308)
- Brookfield (306)
- Southern Local (271)
5. Create a new middle tier and give the small Catholic schools a home. The politics of the old ITCL have to go. The conference had a great original setup; based on enrollment numbers, schools would move up or down between the two tiers of the conference so the competition was relatively equal. Same goes here for this multi-conference platform, while adding a few more schools to the mix. In the end, Maplewood is the ultimate winner of this situation. Since they don’t have football (*), this also allows the middle tier of the ITCL to play at least one game in the Upper Tier and one game in the Lower Tier every year. The middle tier of the small school’s conference would not only be more competitive, but also would create new rivalries between schools that should have been together already. Giving schools like Warren JFK a conference would be great for all sports – proximity and scheduling; not to mention a new rivalry with Valley Christian.
The Inter Tri-County League (Middle Tier)
- Lisbon David-Anderson (263)
- McDonald (253)
- Badger (252)
- Maplewood* (233)
- Western Reserve (232)
- Valley Christian (216)
- Warren JFK (189)
6. Bring in more small schools. Another problem with the old ITCL is that schools like Mathews and Southington Chalker weren’t in it. By adding them in, it gives the new ITCL a more stable base and a great sports schedule across fall, winter, and spring.
The Inter Tri-County League (Lower Tier)
- Leetonia (225)
- Mathews (222)
- Wellsville (217)
- Jackson Milton (210)
- Sebring (189)
- Lowellville (188)
- Southington Chalker (164)
7. Keep the old Northeastern Athletic Conference (NAC). This conference doesn’t need to change a thing. Most of these schools don’t offer football (*) and have a stable conference already. Although schools like Southington Chalker, Mathews, and Maplewood would move up to the new ITCL, the other schools would remain the same. This would also give Heartland Christian a conference for the sports they compete in.
The Northeastern Athletic Conference
- Pymatuning Valley (386)
- Grand Valley (369)
- Joseph Badger* (252)
- Newbury (184)
- Bristol* (176)
- Windham (171)
- Lordstown* (154)
- Bloomfield* (67)
- Heartland Christian* (76)
This system only works if superintendents and athletic directors all cooperate. All of these conferences need to be tied together so that if enrollment numbers drastically change, schools can be rearranged to move up or down to play with schools their own size.
This system would not only value rivalries, but create tons of new ones. Keeping these ties would be great for communities and school districts. Football is also valued greatly with this setup and gives schools proximity to other schools in their conference.
It’s time for the end of the dismantling and realignment.