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NOAH GENSON/Ludington Daily News File Photo

Whitehall defenders Emily Martin (left) and Camryn Evans swarm a Ludington ballhandler during a February basketball game at Ludington. Ludington is among the eight schools that applied to join the WMC in June.

The West Michigan Conference has inched forward in its expansion plan within the past couple of weeks, with eight schools formally applying to join the league.

The original deadline for the application was June 26. According to a Muskegon Chronicle report, by that time almost the entire Lakes 8 Activities Conference — Ludington, Manistee, Muskegon Catholic, Orchard View and Western Michigan Christian — had submitted a formal application. Central State Activities Association members Fremont, Hesperia and Holton also applied to join the conference. It’s possible Muskegon Heights, the only Lakes 8 school not to formally apply, may also submit an application, but they had not at press time.

Of the eight schools to apply, four — Ludington, Manistee, Fremont and Orchard View — are Class B schools. WMC, Hesperia and Holton are in Class C, and Muskegon Catholic is in Class D. The mix is more or less what the WMC had hoped for when it put out the call for interest back in December.

Long discussed, expansion now seems far more likely than not.

“Unless something is lying in the weeds that I’m not aware of, it has some pretty strong legs,” Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell said. “I’m excited about it. It’s going to give the league a bigger footprint. It’s good to have more voices, at the state level, if there are issues.”

Montague athletic director Pat Collins said the group of eight presents a good mix of bigger and smaller schools to potentially add to the league.

“I thought back to when (former Montague coach) Chuck Hulce had talked to me about it,” Collins said. “He said, it would be perfect if we added these eight schools. I’d have to look back at his list, but he said the eight that applied (were) the exact list he sent.”

The WMC’s stated goal in expanding is twofold: First, to boost schedule strength for the five WMC-sponsored sports that determine district brackets by power ranking (football, boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls basketball), and second, to potentially split the WMC into divisions, which would allow for more equitable competition for the smaller schools in the league.

An expansion of the WMC, if approved, would be more likely, Collins said, to take effect in the 2022-23 academic year than in 2021-22. While theoretically possible, Russell agreed that a ‘21-’22 move is unlikely, given that final approval for expansion wouldn’t come until later this fall.

“Making it happen faster would be a difficult thing,” Russell said. “It’s a two-year process. This coming year, we’d be doing our evaluations, making recommendations, and if approved, we would begin to work on the schedules, with the teams that were admitted, with a new schedule for that following year. That’s just my intuition talking. Some schools would like to see it move faster...If all of a sudden, school boards want to move it faster, we’ll move faster, but that’s not what’s in our guidelines.”

It’s unclear, though, how quickly the next step will take shape. When the WMC began its expansion process back in December by unanimously voting to solicit interest, we lived in a relatively normal world. The COVID-19 crisis has made the status of school, and school sports, for the 2020-21 academic year an uncertain one, which could spill into the WMC’s evaluation process.

Provided, though, that the state doesn’t move backward from its current Phase 4 spot on the MI Safe Start plan, the process would begin in August.

“We’ll evaluate the schools when we get back in August and September, and hopefully have a recommendation to the principals’ group this fall,” Russell said. “They’d obviously take it to the boards and superintendents...Obviously the superintendents have the final say.”

The procedures of evaluating schools for expansion have long been on the WMC’s books, Collins said, but given the conference’s enviable stability — Whitehall’s return to the WMC from the Seaway Conference in 1985 was the last time membership changed — no one now affiliated with the league has had to execute them.

The divisional split, should the WMC add those eight, would be largely self-evident. The league would then have seven Class B schools — Whitehall, Montague and Oakridge are the current ones in the league, plus the four Class B applicants — who would join an undetermined eighth school in the larger-school division. Russell said Western Michigan Christian has made it clear to the existing league schools that it would like to be in the larger-school division if admitted, although it doesn’t sponsor football, co-opping with Muskegon Catholic. That issue, of course, is far down the road.

“I’d be fine with Christian in the big tier, but what if North Muskegon wants to play up?” Russell said. “Maybe we’d ask schools, ‘What tier would you rather play in?’...I think leaving it as enrollment-based takes a lot of politics out of it. Christian is probably close to Montague, about 400 kids. They would probably be next in line in terms of size. If they were admitted and we take those eight, plus the other schools to make another eight, that would be interesting.”

Russell did emphasize that he didn’t want to see tiers that changed periodically, as is the case in the massive O-K Conference, which is scheduled to begin play under its most recent realignment this fall.

“That’s not something I want to see occur,” Russell said. “If you look at the traditional schedules — baseball, soccer, volleyball, all those things — having eight schools is a nice setup.”

The smaller-school tier of this version of the WMC would likely have fewer sports offerings than the large-school tier. Tennis, bowling and girls golf are three examples of sports that would be part of the large-school tier but not the small-school tier.

Presuming the expansion occurs, Montague and Whitehall are both looking forward to playing the more difficult schedules that would come with it. Both schools believe that would better prepare them for the postseason.

“We’d kind of be in the bottom of that top division (enrollment-wise), which is where we want to be,” Collins said. “It’s been frustrating, because we’re a very small Class B school, but the best way to curb that is to play tougher schools in the regular season. That’s how you advance in the postseason. It’s important for Montague to play a tough schedule.”