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Published: Wednesday, 8/20/2003

Whitmer, Clay ready to enter City League

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The two schools have moved from the seemingly constant state of flux that was the Great Lakes League and entered the more stable Toledo City League.

In its 46-year existence, the now-defunct GLL, which began in 1957 with six members (Bowling Green, Clay, Fostoria, Rogers, Sylvania and Whitmer), experienced membership changes in 18 of those years, with 27 additions or subtractions.

“Most of the people here are very excited,” Whitmer football coach Dan Fought said of his school's move. “Some of the old-timers here are still probably a little ticked off [leaving the GLL], because you want to have your own separate entity.

“But there was just so much flux that took place in the past five or 10 years - in, out, back in, back out - that it created a lot of turmoil and there were no common ties anymore. You were looking at new people and new relationships all the time.”

There were 14 adjustments to the GLL lineup in the final 12 years, and Clay was the only entry to remain for the entire 46-year ride. Whitmer was an independent from the fall of 1969 through the spring of 1984 before rejoining the GLL.

The departure of Clay and Whitmer for the City League was announced in 2001.

The GLL officially ended its run last spring. Three remaining members - Findlay, Fremont Ross and Sandusky - joined with Napoleon, Lima Senior and Marion Harding to form the new Greater Buckeye Conference.

The Lima and Marion entries were originally discussed as part of a plan to expand the GLL, and that talk proved to be the final straw for Clay and Whitmer, whose administrators, coaches and athletes had grown weary of travel that bordered on the absurd. Lima Senior is 84 miles from Clay High School, Marion Harding 103 miles.

With the start of the 2003 football season Friday night, Clay and Whitmer embrace change once more in an effort to establish some continuity and permanence.

Unlike the GLL, the City League has remained relatively unchanged for three decades. Until this year, the last football entries to the City League came when Rogers and St. John's joined in 1967 and Cardinal Stritch entered in 1971. Stritch discontinued its CL football membership after the 1990 season and left the league altogether in 1994.

The City League's two all-girls schools, St. Ursula and Notre Dame, joined the league in 1976 and 1977, respectively.

Whitmer enters the City League as a strong contender for a football championship in its first year, while Clay is expected to finish somewhere in the middle of the 12-team pack.

“I don't mind the bull's-eye because that means the expectations are high on our part too,” Fought said. “We shoot for excellence every year.

“Our motto this year is: The future is now. We've been looking forward to this point in time [with a veteran team] whether we were in the GLL or the City League. We finally have three classes together that had won on a consistent basis at the junior high level, and that should equal success.”

Fought feels his squad was well-prepared by a competitive GLL slate. He sees the transition being smooth because of Whitmer's familiarity with many of its new league foes.

The Panthers opened each of the past eight seasons with the same trio of non-league games against City League foes - Start, St. Francis de Sales and Central Catholic. Last season Whitmer went 5-5, but all five losses were to teams ranked in the top 10 in Ohio in either Division I or II.

Preferring a challenge, Whitmer officials requested a more difficult seven-game CL schedule than what the Panthers were originally slated to play for the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

The plan in place for the new 12-team football alignment is to rank the teams in order of their state computer-point averages from the 2001 season, and create more difficult seven-game league schedules for the higher-rated teams and decreasingly difficult schedules for the lower teams.

Whitmer, which ranked seventh after an uncharacteristic 2-8 finish in 2001, asked to be moved up. Scott, which ranked fourth that season but anticipated a dropoff in talent, according to CL commissioner Ed Scrutchins, agreed to move down a notch. The end result was that the Panthers actually wound up with the most difficult schedule, facing team Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10 based on the 2001 rankings.

“We feel good about the schedule,” Fought said. “We have loved playing the Catholic schools, and Start is a natural rivalry. This just puts a little more emphasis on it because now it's a league game.

“With this schedule [system], you've got to prove yourself. You're not going to get to play the top teams if you finish near the bottom.

“We want to stay in that upper three every year.”

Clay, which has traditionally played East Side-rival Waite plus Bowsher in its non-league schedule, is also no stranger to the City League.

Coach Jeff Lee, whose Eagles graduated several key seniors from last season's 6-4 team, is comfortable with where his squad enters as far as the scheduling hierarchy.

The Eagles ranked eighth among the 12 teams in 2001 and, in the midst of a moderate rebuilding phase talent-wise, seem appropriately suited to their moderately challenging CL schedule. This year Clay plays CL teams rated Nos. 1, 2, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12 from 2001.

“I like the way they aligned it at the beginning,” Lee said. “I like that format.”

“We're starting in the middle and I like that. The ball is in our court to either get better, win some games and hopefully get ourselves into that upper echelon, stay where we are, or get our fannies kicked and fall to the bottom.”

The most obvious advantage to Clay and Whitmer joining the City League is the reduced travel time and expense in transporting athletes to games, a decrease that is even more beneficial to the lower-revenue or non-revenue teams.

No longer will freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams in boys and girls sports have to take bus rides that exceeded two hours, round trip, to compete in midweek events. Also, Clay and Whitmer parents will have more opportunities to attend games and meets.

Comparing driving distances, had the two teams stayed in the GLL, Clay's average travel to its seven foes would be 55.7 miles and Whitmer's 58.9. In the CL, Clay's average trip to its 13 foes is 13.3 miles and Whitmer's 7.6.

“We're still playing good competition,” Lee said. “We just don't have to drive an hour or two anymore to do it.”

For Clay and Whitmer players, especially seniors, the City League represents a cold-turkey adjustment.

“It's a little weird because I'm used to going in and looking at the GLL,” said Whitmer senior running back Edwin “Petey” Hood, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his sophomore and junior seasons. “But change is good. I'm going to like it. It's something different and new.

“I approach every game the same but, with those games being in the league now, it'll be even more intense.

“We can't wait because we want to show everybody what we can do.”

Finding out what they can do remains a mystery.

“When you go all through junior high and high school playing against the same guys, you kind of hope to play those same guys your senior year too,” said Clay senior defensive back Ross Graham, a member of last season's All-Blade team. “Now we're going into a new league and we're a little unsure of what these teams are going to do, just like they're unsure of what we're going to do. It could be an advantage or a disadvantage. Only time will tell.

“I'm very excited. I think we can compete and I'm really looking forward to playing some of those teams.

“I think we're going to be ready. All the guys are looking forward to playing in the City League. We're the underdogs, so we're going to have to go out there and fight and play hard 'til the end.”



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