The Suburban Lakes League kicks off a final farewell season when conference play begins Friday night with league openers.
Traditions, records, and rivalries that took 38 years to develop will be relegated to the history books at the end of the 2010 football season. The SLL, which opened play in 1972, will be disbanded at the end of the school year.
“I'm disappointed,” Genoa coach Mike Vicars said. “It has a lot of tradition and history. When something like this goes away, you lose a lot. You lose records and you lose the nostalgia of all those years gone by.”
The silver lining is that six current SLL members will maintain league competition against each other when they join the new Northern Buckeye Conference. The NBC, which will begin play in 2011-12, will include Eastwood, Elmwood, Genoa, Lake, Otsego, and Woodmore. Fostoria and Rossford will join the former SLL schools.
Changes also abound in other area leagues.
There will be a major shakeup in the City League with the departure of seven schools, while the Northern Lakes League will see a slight shuffling of the deck with the exodus of Rossford and addition of Napoleon. Both conferences also begin league play Friday night.
Napoleon is leaving the Greater Buckeye Conference, a league that will be defunct after this season.
The lineup in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference also will change with SLL member Gibsonburg joining next school year.
Lakota, a charter member of the SLL, left the league after last season. Oak Harbor also was an original SLL member and Northwood had a stint in the league.
Eastwood veteran coach Jerry Rutherford has been at the helm of the Eagles program for 29 of the SLL's 38 years.
“If you sit and look back, everyone had their moment,” Rutherford said. “Over the whole time, every team has had their years or little runs. That's what makes football in the SLL so neat.”
Genoa has recently claimed a stranglehold on the SLL, winning three straight titles under Vicars. The Comets are riding a 32-game regular-season winning streak and have not lost in league play (20-0) under Vicars, who is in his fourth year.
“You think of all the league records and all leaguers,” Vicars said. “I hate to see those go away. I think of the great teams of Dan Cocke at Otsego. For me personally, I'm a strong traditionalist. I wanted something to work out to keep it together.”
But maintaining competition with most SLL foes in the new NBC softens the blow a bit, Vicars said.
“It's nice to continue the rivalries,” he said. “Plus the schools coming in will add to it.”
Vicars said winning the last SLL football title would be even more special.
“I think it would be for Genoa,” he said. “Genoa has been strong and stood well over the years. We've talked about that amongst the team. We have three in a row and it would be nice to get that fourth. It would make it extra nice.”
Vicars said he does not downplay the team's SLL streak which is on the line when Genoa (3-0) plays at Woodmore (2-1) Friday night.
"We talk about how we have to embrace it because it's such as a rare thing,” Vicars said. “You realize what you're establishing is really special. None of the kids want to be the group that it ends. We talk about it each week. It is a neat thing.”
Vicars said he hopes to establish a similar winning tradition in the NBC.
Eastwood (1-2), which had captured or shared five straight league titles before Genoa's recent run, is expected to contend again. Going back to the league's historical parity, Rutherford said even former members, Northwood and Oak Harbor, won league titles.
“The unique thing is that it hasn't been just one or two teams,” he said. “Gibsonburg dominated in late 1990s. Genoa is having their time right now. Otsego had a time with Dan Cocke. Elmwood had different runs and made the playoffs. In 2000 and 2001, Lake had playoff teams. Woodmore had some great teams when Mike Lee was over there. And we've been blessed to have different runs at different times.”
The Eagles host Otsego (0-3) tonight. Rutherford, who has a 175-119 career record, admitted that winning the last SLL championship would carry additional significance.
“Maybe it is a little bit different because it's the last one,” Rutherford said. “But every team's goal going in is to win a league championship. It always means a lot.
“The sad thing is to see all those records that were held go away. You start all over with a new league.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage of forming the new league is that it will have an even number of teams. The SLL has seven schools, and each team must play four nonleague games, including one in the midst of the conference schedule. Genoa plays Upper Scioto Valley in week 5 and Eastwood plays at Patrick Henry in week 9. With the eight-team NBC, each program will play three nonleague games and seven league games.
Rutherford said he hopes to be a perennial contender in the NBC.
“Twenty nine years in this league wasn't my plan,” he said. “But I've been fortunate. My three sons came through here over the last nine years and they've been on league championship teams.”
Toledo Public Schools Bowsher, Rogers, Scott, Start, Waite, and Woodward will continue to compete in the City next season.
But budget problems and cuts to some sports in TPS led to the departure of Central Catholic, Clay, Notre Dame, St. Francis de Sales, St. John's Jesuit, St. Ursula, and Whitmer. Those schools are forming a new league called the Three Rivers Athletic Conference along with Fremont Ross, Findlay, and Lima Senior. The 10-member league (eight boys and eight girls teams), and will begin play in 2011-12.
St. John's coach Doug Pearson said he has mixed emotions about the move.
“It's just kind of a bittersweet thing leaving the league. It's an awesome league. I grew up watching the City League and I played in the City League,” said Pearson, who played at St. John's.
Pearson said he will miss playing at the old venerable stadium at Waite.
The Titans have not captured a City title since 1996 and Pearson said leaving the CL on a high note is a paramount goal.
“I think it would be an awesome thing,” Pearson said. “There is not a day that goes by that we don't talk about it. Our goal every year is to win the City and make the playoffs. We've tied for the title three times and we lost on the point system. I tell the kids every year if you want to win the City then go undefeated.”
The Titans (3-0) open their final CL season against rival St. Francis (1-2) Friday night at BGSU. Pearson, who is in his ninth year at St. John's, said the City is as strong as it has been in years.
“But we're excited about moving to the new league,” Pearson said. “It will be a very tough league.”
Defending champ Whitmer (2-1) opens at Rogers (1-2) and preseason favorite Central Catholic (3-0), which had won five titles in a row, plays at Start (0-3).
NLL: Loss and gain
The NLL also will be losing one founding member, Rossford. But the NLL gains Napoleon, a traditionally strong football program, next season to remain an eight-school league.
Three-time defending champion Southview (3-0) opens league play at Anthony Wayne (2-1). Maumee (2-1), which split the title with the Cougars last season, opens at Northview (2-1).
Longtime Rossford athletic director Chuck Cox said there is an equal amount of sadness leaving the NLL as there is excitement about joining the NBC. The Bulldogs (0-3), who host Perrysburg (3-0), have not won a league title since 1990.
“It is bittersweet to leave some schools that we've had great, long-time relationships with, but we felt this is a better fit for our size of student body and competitive level,” Cox said.
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