Over the last month or so, six current Kalamazoo Valley Association schools have had a lot to ponder concerning their future league homes, while the other two have been left twisting in the wind. Athletic directors from around the KVA are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss their next moves.
For a year, the conference, which expanded to 10 teams in 2008, has been on shaky ground. Vermontville Maple Valley announced last March it would join the Greater Lansing Athletic Conference in 2014-15. In April, Wolverine Conference member Comstock accepted an invitation to fill that void to keep the KVA at 10 schools. However, KVA power and largest member Battle Creek Pennfield then declared it was leaving for the new Interstate Eight league.
Since then there continues to be seismic activity.
Olivet was the next domino to fall, informing the KVA it will also join the GLAC along with Maple Valley. That left eight schools in the KVA for 2014-15, but a league-wide decline in enrollment numbers and competitive imbalance has further eroded an already unstable foundation.
Galesburg-Augusta made it known that football independence is preferred, and Kalamazoo Christian and Kalamazoo Hackett are considering combining their football programs, which would whittle the KVA to six football teams next fall.
The 12-team Southwestern Athletic Conference saw an opportunity to strengthen its own league by extending invitations to Constantine, Schoolcraft, Hackett, K-Christian, Delton-Kellogg and Galesburg-Augusta, as well as a number of other Southwestern Michigan schools that fit the profile. Each KVA school invited by the SAC has presented the proposal to members of its community.
Though the focus is on building a giant Class C-D league in Southwestern Michigan, Delton’s Class B status, similar to SAC member Fennville, wasn’t an issue because it could very easily fall back into Class C in coming years.
Constantine Athletic Director Mike Messner is no stranger to conference realignment after overseeing a departure from the St. Joseph Valley League to the KVA in 2008 after a similar series of events reduced the SJV to four schools. He’s also very familiar with the tricky process of piecing together mega leagues.
Messner said there’s no solid evidence that, even with full support from all eight schools, they wouldn’t be stuck in a similar situation a year or two from now, making the SAC’s invitation all that more attractive.
“So after all these things have happened and you start talking about holding a league together, an my question always is: Are we going to be able to do it? Are all of you committed to holding this together? Or, if an option is presented that looks more favorable, will you leave for that?” Messner explained late last month.
“I think the merging with the SAC, keeping all of us together — the C schools [and Delton] — we think we can make a merger here of some sort and create more schools so that if somebody decides to drift off in one direction or the other, we still have enough schools that we can hold together.”
Messner said football is a driving force, but that enrollment numbers and every other sport are also major concerns. For instance, of the eight remaining schools next year, only five are expected to offer wrestling.
“It’s all out of whack and it’s not going to work very good,” Messner said. “The picture, to me, is that if you combine and form an 18- or 20-team league, if one or two or three teams want to do something different in certain sports, you’re still going to have plenty of teams to be able to have a league, and maybe even a divisional system, and find other people to play.”
Back in 2008, only Delton-Kellogg towered above the rest of its KVA brethren in terms of enrollment. It has since lost roughly 160 students and is in the 460 range this year. Both Kalamazoo Christian and Hackett were around 400 at the time of the expansion but have seen significant declines, as has Galesburg-Augusta.
In the SAC, Lawrence switched to 8-Man Football this past fall, with Martin considering doing the same.
“That is probably what drove the SAC to go bigger so they have more options,” Messner said.
Invitations were also extended to the schools forming the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Valley (BCS). Messner said there was a meeting where 32 total teams were represented. Such a large alliance worried some in attendance that ever reaching a unanimous decision would be nearly impossible.
“I’ve experienced that very thing,” Messner recalled. “Years ago we tried to do a mega thing in Southwestern Michigan. We went through a year and a half of time and we were right on the edge of thinking everything was going to be ok, and at the last minute some schools stood up and said we’re going to do this and just blew a hole in the whole deal, so that didn’t pan out either.
“I think most of the BCS schools were invited to the SAC. I don’t know who did and who didn’t show some interest. We do know that the SAC has offered the six of us in the KVA an option to join them. I think each of us six have gone back to our people and finding out what the sentiment is.”
The KVA bylaws require schools to provide a year’s notice before leaving, something Olivet didn’t do. Messner admits that there’s no real penalty, or at least none worth pursuing, and that most KVA schools obliged when Olivet felt it needed to find a better fit.
Many of the remaining schools are scrambling to fill next season’s football schedules. Though Messner said no contracts have been signed and he didn’t want to make the opponents public yet, Constantine, which had three slots to fill, appears to have found opponents for all three weeks. The tentative plan includes a repeat opponent, one from a neighboring state and an overnight trip to play a team in Northern Michigan.
With the immediate problem seemingly solved, the next step is to tackle the big picture.
“Bottom line is the six of us have agreed that we need to send back a letter of interest [to the SAC] in what’s happening and go back to our schools, talk to our boards, our superintendents, our people and see what they say,” Messner said. “The six of us are doing that right now. That leaves Parchment and Comstock sitting there wondering what’s happening next. I understand that. We’re down to eight and you can’t look at this situation and feel like all eight are solidly in the KVA, that’s it and they’re not going to think of anything else. If all six of us end up with the same feelings, then you have something a little more concrete to go on.”