The West Michigan Conference realignment discussion, which kicked back up late last year when the league announced it would pursue expansion, is still moving, although the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress.
In late March, the Muskegon Chronicle reported that eight schools responded to the WMC’s call for formal interest with non-binding letters of application prior to the March 27 deadline. (No league changes would take effect until at least the 2021-22 academic year.)
One of those eight was Oceana’s Hesperia High School, although much like its application two years ago, athletic director Jeff Knapp described it more as keeping the Panthers’ options open rather than any dissatisfaction with its current league, the Central State Activities Association.
“We don’t dislike our situation with the Central States,” Knapp said. “There are things we like better (there) than in the West Michigan (Conference). There are non-athletic things — Quiz Bowl, for instance — that are good for kids that the league does that we enjoy.”
The only major con with the CSAA Silver, Knapp said, is that the league has six teams, making scheduling difficult, and in particular in football, where few schools in the area need games in week two and week eight due to conference commitments. (For 2020, Hesperia is scheduled to play St. Louis and Orchard View, respectively, in those weeks.) He said if the Silver could get to eight schools, Hesperia would likely prefer to stay there rather than consider a move to the WMC.
As was the situation two years ago, Hesperia was surprised that fellow CSAA Silver member Holton did not apply; Knapp said that conversations with the school had led him to believe they would. (The other seven applicants were Fremont, Ludington, Manistee, Manistee Catholic, Muskegon Catholic, Orchard View and Western Michigan Christian.)
Ludington’s interest in the WMC came after the school had also considered a look at the CSAA. Athletic director Randy Fountain said the school’s coaches leaned towards the WMC when he solicited their opinions last fall.
“While no conference is going to fit everything we would want, the WMC seemed to be the best fit,” Fountain told the Ludington Daily News.
At a meeting in March prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, the concept of a “super-league” between the WMC, CSAA and Lakes 8 Activities Conference was briefly considered but quickly shut down.
“There’s no mass league going to be formed,” Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell said. “There’s no interest there. Too many people at the table, and not many people are unhappy (with their current situation).”
The situation remains fluid, but there’s clearly an appetite within the WMC to move forward with expansion, especially from the smaller schools such as Hart and Ravenna. That group has a stated goal of adding enough schools to split the league into two tiers, much like the CSAA has done with its eight-school Gold and six-school Silver divisions.
Hart superintendent Mark Platt told the Chronicle that six of the eight superintendents in the league are ready to move forward with expansion, not specifying the holdouts, and Ravenna superintendent Greg Helmer said in a Twitter post last week that the school is ready to apply to the CSAA if expansion is not approved. Needless to say, there are plenty of moving parts involved.
“It comes down to each individual school district,” Russell said. “As a league, do we want to see anyone leave? No, but I’d understand if I were in a different chair. If I were in a school of 300 (students) or less, would I consider my options? I think some schools are doing that.
“There’s no ill feelings whatsoever. it’s a very close-knit conference. But we understand that some schools might feel that, if there’s no expansion, how well do they fit?...I do think they’d be more inclined to stay if we can get more schools.”
The next formal step for the WMC, Russell said, is sending out formal application packets to the interested schools. That would take place by June, giving the schools the summer to complete them. Then, in the fall, the schools that formally apply would be evaluated by the current WMC schools prior to a series of votes involving league athletic directors and principals. The superintendents and school boards would then make a final decision.
“It’s kind of a lengthy process when it gets to the application phase,” Russell said.
Until that phase hits, things remain up in the air as schools and leagues juggle what fits each party best.
“We’re looking to see what’s best for the WMC and what’s best for the schools in the conference and for the best for schools that may be interested as well,” Shelby athletic director Chuck Persenaire said.