BY DENNIS CHASE email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Will it be the Twin Bays League? Or, perhaps, the Northwest Football League, NFL for short?
That’s one of the details that still needs to be hammered out after school officials from the Lake Michigan and Northwest conferences agreed to merge in football, starting next fall.
The league will be split into two seven-team divisions, based on enrollment and strength of program.
Superintendents from all 14 schools reached a merger decision on Wednesday. Some details, like the league name, still need to be ironed out.
“The nuts and bolts are in place,” said Dave Jackson, secretary-treasurer of the Northwest Conference said. “We can move forward with it.”
One division will include Boyne City, Grayling, Elk Rapids, St. Francis, Glen Lake, Kingsley and Benzie Central. The other division will consist of Harbor Springs, East Jordan, Charlevoix, Suttons Bay, Kalkaska, Mesick and Frankfort.
St. Francis officials welcomed the news. The Gladiators were ousted from the Lake Michigan Conference two years ago after dominating it in football for several years.
“Feels great,” athletic director Tom Hardy said. “I’m really excited for our kids. They’ll now have a chance to play for a league title, just like kids in every other sport.”
Each school will play the other six in the division, plus a mandated crossover game with a school in the other division. The remaining two dates will be filled by playing schools outside the league or in the other division.
Boyne City, for example, will use its crossover game and two non-league openings to continue rivalries with Charlevoix, East Jordan and Harbor Springs.
St. Francis will play Kalkaska in its crossover.
The league designated weeks one and two for non-league contests. There were a couple concessions, however, that will enable schools like Frankfort and Mesick to maintain non-league rivalries in week nine.
“Frankfort has played Onekema week nine for probably the last 40 years,” said Jackson, assistant athletic director at Frankfort. “Mesick always ends its season with Brethren. We were able to do some finagling to keep those games.”
The solution? Mesick and Frankfort will play week two.
“I think every single school in this whole organization is looking to do what’s best for the kids in their schools,” Jackson said. “I think what’s best is staying as close to home (for games) as possible. I think that way we’re good stewards of our funding, our financing. You want to develop good, solid games where you can be competitive, develop some rivalries. I think this league answers a lot of those issues.
“From our perspective, we’re excited to be a part of it.”
So is St. Francis, which still has road games at Saginaw Nouvel and Muskegon Catholic Central left on its schedule this season.
“You look at the amount of travel we have this year, the amount of travel that we would continue to have,” Hardy said. “As it sits now (in new league), having weeks three through nine filled with competition that is no more than an hour and 15 minutes away is great for kids, great for families, great for communities.”
The Gladiators have one open date to fill next season — and that’s week two. New Lothrop will return to Thirlby Field for the season opener in 2014.
“They called and said they had such a great experience that they asked if they could come back,” Hardy said. “I said absolutely.”
Hardy has “reached out” to Saginaw Nouvel and Muskegon Catholic about that week two date, although those match-ups look unlikely.
“I don’t think Muskegon Catholic is an option week two,” Hardy said. “They are potentially an option week one in the long term. Saginaw Nouvel is playing Lansing Catholic right now on week two and they have a good relationship with them.”
Hardy said he may have a “solution for a long term commitment” on that week with a school that is within an hour and 15 minutes.
Frankfort, in recent years, had to pick up games with Rudyard, Webberville, Flint Beecher, Flint Northwestern and Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart to complete its non-league schedule.
“It’s nice to be locked into a bigger-picture that will allow us to stay here in northern Michigan,” Jackson said.
Officials will have the option in two years to reassess the divisions and adjust to keep competitive balance in place, Jackson said.
Matching up schools close in size should also help with playoff points.
“Unlike other high school sports, football playoffs are determined on a point system and having a more competitive schedule should result in greater opportunity for points toward qualifying for the playoffs,” said Steve Prissel, superintendent at Elk Rapids.
Prissel said there is no plan to expand the merger to other sports.