The long-awaited West Michigan Conference expansion is now one step closer to being official, as the league invited six schools to join Friday.

The invitations, first reported by Scott DeCamp of the Muskegon Chronicle, went out to each of the six public schools that applied to the conference, including Oceana County’s Hesperia Panthers. The invitations were unanimously approved by the league’s executive committee, which consists of the schools’ principals, after being recommended by the league athletic directors.

In addition to Hesperia, Holton and Fremont were invited from the Panthers’ current league, the Central State Activities Association, and Ludington, Manistee and Orchard View were invited from the Lakes 8 Activities Conference.

Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell said that he believes all six invited schools will accept the invitation to the WMC. The process now moves to the WMC superintendents and school boards, and final approval could be given as soon as next month, Russell said.

“We’re really excited,” Russell said. “I think it’s going to be fun. It’s a new chapter to the WMC. It’s been around a lot of years and been really stable...It’ll be interesting and it’ll be fun. It’ll be exciting and maybe create some new rivalries.”

The move would create a 14-school conference that would be divided into two seven-team divisions by enrollment. The initial alignment — which could be changed, if necessary, every two years — would see a straight split into a Class B division and a Class C division. Hart and Shelby would play in the latter division alongside Hesperia, Holton, North Muskegon, Ravenna and Mason County Central. Whitehall, Montague and Oakridge would join with Ludington, Manistee, Orchard View and Fremont in the Class B division. (Division names have not yet been determined.) Middle school divisions would be arranged geographically.

Muskegon Catholic and Western Michigan Christian had also applied out of the Lakes 8, but did not receive invitations, as their sports offerings and school sizes did not line up with what the WMC was looking for, said Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell.

Hart athletic director Tim Hertzler said that Western Michigan Christian’s not currently fielding a football team — the Warriors have a co-op arrangement with Muskegon Catholic — was a big factor in their not receiving an invitation, and Catholic’s school size was an issue. Muskegon Catholic would have become easily the smallest WMC school had they been invited, as the Crusaders are in Class D.

Hertzler did say, though, that the WMC isn’t ruling out the possibility of adding more schools, including those two, in a future realignment if the chance comes up again.

For the moment, though, everyone seems thrilled with the coming change. Russell had said a year ago that the ideal alignment would see two eight-school divisions, but Hertzler said seven-team divisions should not be an issue.

“Eight and eight is kind of the sweet spot when you’re scheduling, but seven and seven isn’t bad,” Hertzler said. “Six and six would even be ok. No one is too worried about having seven in each division. From our perspective, it creates a much better competitive balance in some of our sports. Having seven instead of eight gives us more flexibility to find competitive schools (in non-conference play).”

Other multi-division conferences, like the CSAA and the Ottawa-Kent Conference, see teams regularly play across divisions. Hertzler said it’s likely that in sports where the teams in question are on a competitively equal playing field, that will be a regular sight in the WMC as well. A good example would be Hart and Montague from last season in girls basketball, as the two teams ended up playing a de facto WMC championship game to end the regular season.

“There’s a lot of details we’ll work out in scheduling, but there’s a familiarity with the schools,” Hertzler said. “Oakridge, Montague and Whitehall won’t be in our division, but in our programs that are competitive with theirs, we’ll be more than happy to play them, and likewise (for them).”

Hertzler added that in sports like football, where the Pirates have long not been able to be competitive with the largest schools in the league, the new divisional alignment should lead to more turnout to play those sports.

“I couldn’t tell you the exact names, but I’m guessing there are five kids that will come out for football when we take those three schools off our schedule,” Hertzler said. “That’s a program that hasn’t had a lot of success, and football, of our sports, is the most physical. To have even competition matters a lot. Grand Valley State, which is a great program, isn’t looking to get Michigan on its schedule.

“In some sports, we might have crossover competition with the #1 school in each division (playing each other). But that stuff will work out down the line, assuming it gets through the school boards.”

Attempts to reach Hesperia athletic director Jeff Knapp for comment on this story had been unsuccessful at press time.