As conference changes have become more common than uncommon statewide, one league that stands mostly alone in stability has been the West Michigan Conference. Since Whitehall rejoined the WMC in 1985 after years in the Seaway, the league hasn’t seen any changes in membership, an enviable string of certainty.
Those days might be at an end, as the WMC athletic directors voted unanimously early this month to solicit interest for possible expansion. Any moves made wouldn’t take effect until the 2021-22 school year.
Expansion has been a topic of conversation at the top levels of the WMC for several years, as schools like Oakridge, Whitehall and Montague have seen enrollment gains while some of the smaller schools in the league have seen declines. Hart strongly considered leaving the WMC for the Central State Activities Association a couple of years ago due to its frustrations with the league not making changes, before a local public survey showed a lack of support for such a move.
A 6-2 vote is required at the WMC level to move forward with a change the magnitude of expansion, and past years have seen the league sit at a stalemate on the issue. While the league has never made its votes public, Hart pointed to Shelby, Montague and Oakridge as being the three schools against expansion in a flyer distributed at a football game during the height of its stay-or-go debate.
However, the advent of the Michigan Power Rating (MPR) being used for football starting in 2020, in addition to the MPR’s current usage for basketball and soccer, seems to have swung Montague’s and Oakridge’s support. Shelby, which is essentially the current geographic midpoint of the league, apparently fell in line as well.
“I think people understand that (Class) B schools need to play B competition,” Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell said. “That’s one of the determining factors, I think, for Oakridge to be a little more interested in that.”
The power rating system is one thing in basketball and soccer, where everyone is making the postseason anyway. However, the MPR changes in football mean that six wins will no longer automatically qualify a school for the playoffs. Shelby AD Chuck Persenaire said, while he wasn’t certain of the math, he believed that under the new system, a bigger school in the WMC could go 6-3 and not make the playoffs due to its games against the smaller schools in the league dragging down its rating.
“We’re trying to get ways to bring parity into the conference and help the schools that are larger, and being able to do that scheduling-wise,” Persenaire said.
Oakridge, which is serving as league president this year (the school in the role rotates annually), sent letters of inquiry to close to a dozen schools, Russell said, to gauge interest. He said any Class B or Class C school in the Mason-Lake, Muskegon and Newaygo intermediate school districts would have received a letter. In addition, Kent City, part of the Kent ISD and a member of the CSAA, got one as well. The league hopes to receive official statements of interest from any interested schools by March, at which point it would move forward in the process.
Russell said the schools that show interest would in turn determine the level of interest the WMC has in expanding. If exclusively smaller schools applied, their chances might not be as high.
“Who it is — is going to be a determining factor,” Russell said. “For Whitehall, for example, if it’s a large number of Class C schools that apply, we’re certainly not in favor of it, because of...the power rankings.”
However, due to the state of the Lakes 8 Activities Conference, it seems unlikely only smaller schools will be interested. Three Class B schools in that league — Ludington, Manistee and Orchard View — were among those solicited, and given that the conference has only six schools, one of whom (Western Michigan Christian) doesn’t play football, the interest level of those three would seem obvious. Due to factors like that, things seem to be pointing in the direction of an eventual expansion.
“In conversations we’ve had with the principals, superintendents, I definitely think there’s more openness now to expand than there has been in the past, for sure,” Russell said. “If the schools we’re hearing are interested truly apply, I think it has some traction.”
Should the process move forward, there will be, of course, logistical issues to figure out, not least of which is the presumed splitting of the WMC into two tiers based on enrollment. Russell said in an ideal circumstance, the conference would like to get to at least 14 schools to facilitate two tiers of seven, and 16, for two eight-school tiers, would be even better. Russell added that, under this scenario, the league would also try to preserve any rivalries that could be affected — for instance, rivals Oakridge and Ravenna would almost certainly play in different tiers, but the league would try to facilitate games between them.
However, the way Russell sees it, how this process plays out isn’t just about the field of play, but also about the identity of the league, something worth preserving even as it looks into this potentially drastic change.
“We talk a lot about the identity of the WMC, and how well our schools work together when it comes to sportsmanship, to scheduling, to other issues you run into,” Russell said. “We’re all about helping each other. That’s one of the big things I tried to hopefully express to everybody, that this wasn’t just about one school or one sport.
“This truly can help everyone compete at a more equitable level, that your smaller schools will go play schools of their size, and Class B schools will have some competition at D-3, D-2 levels that we need to be able to play.”