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Changing times

Demise of old City League allows rise of powerful TRAC

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    St. Francis and Bowsher scrimmage Friday at Rogers. It will be the only meeting for the teams this season. A widening competitive imbalance forced St. Francis and six other teams to leave the City League for the newly formed Three Rivers Athletic Conference.

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st-francis-bowsher-scrimmage-08-14-2011

St. Francis and Bowsher scrimmage Friday at Rogers. It will be the only meeting for the teams this season. A widening competitive imbalance forced St. Francis and six other teams to leave the City League for the newly formed Three Rivers Athletic Conference.

THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
Enlarge | Buy This Image

There have been so many changes to local high school athletic leagues this year, fans might need a program to keep up.

Unprecedented change is under way with the start of the 2011-12 school year.

From three of the five leagues closely connected to the Toledo area and surrounding suburbs -- the City League, the Northern Lakes League, and the now defunct Suburban Lakes League -- 15 of the 27 schools involved with those leagues last June are now competing in different leagues.

Two entire leagues ceased existence -- the seven-member SLL and the six-member Greater Buckeye Conference are gone.

Two new leagues were born -- the 10-member Three Rivers Athletic Conference and the eight-member Northern Buckeye Conference.

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"The wiser people got together and said, given the size of the schools in northwest Ohio, it just made sense to make this league," TRAC commissioner Ken Myers said. "We think it has the potential to be just a super league."

The TRAC will include the seven schools which exited the City League after the 2010-11 school year -- Central Catholic, Clay, Whitmer, all-boys schools St. Francis de Sales and St. John's Jesuit, and all-girls schools Notre Dame and St. Ursula. Joining them in the TRAC lineup are Findlay, Fremont Ross, and Lima Senior, each from the defunct GBC.

"When you look at the history of all 10 of these institutions and the background and class, not only in athletics but academics and all the way around -- they are 10 institutions that are very well respected around the state of Ohio," Myers said. "It is an interesting mix."

Northwest Ohio as a whole did some substantial mixing.

Six leagues that were in existence two months ago underwent changes which involved 25 total schools, representing the area's largest single-year realignment ever.

The last time northwest Ohio saw a similar league change was 55 years ago when the Great Northern Conference formed two six-team divisions (Orange and Blue) which became the Great Lakes League and Northern Lakes League, respectively.

Although forming the TRAC meant breaking ties with some longtime rivals in the City League, the move has very positive overtones.

"With the small amount of downfall, this was as good as it could get," Central Catholic athletic director Bill Axe said. "When you look next door and there's a league that's better than you in what it offers, it's hard to get kids in your building and keep them there. You have to show the excellence and quality that you're going for.

"I would imagine that all the schools who have made those moves have done it for their benefit. Maybe some were left on the side, so they had to patch up. But it's been better for a lot of schools."

The 2011-12 athletic season is already under way with practice in most fall sports and actual competition in others.

The most profound change came in Toledo, where the storied City League -- notable for its longstanding, unique, and highly successful blend of public and private schools -- lost more than half of its 13 members.

Central was a CL member since 1928; St. Francis since 1963; St. John's, 1968; Notre Dame and St. Ursula, 1977; and Clay and Whitmer, 2003.

Their exodus left the CL with only the six Toledo Public Schools entries -- 1926 charter members Scott, Waite, and Woodward, 1962 CL additions Bowsher and Start, and Rogers (1967).

"I am saddened by what happened because of the relationships that you build up with people over 30-some years," City League commissioner Ed Scrutchins said. "I'm going to miss a lot of these people.

"Also, we're losing things like the final four in basketball. That is not a good feeling. But my whole thing is, you look to the future, and you try to get busy trying to make sure you have the best things for the kids who are remaining."

Such change seemed imminent in recent years as the all-around competitive quality of the TPS contingent waned along with the district's finances.

Except for solid performance in select boys or girls sports at some schools (Start baseball, Scott and Libbey boys basketball, Waite wrestling, Start and Waite girls basketball, Bowsher girls track), TPS competitiveness and fan interest continued to dwindle.

At the end, however, it was a TPS budget crisis which sparked the split.

Victim of the economy

The termination for the traditional public-private City League mix came in July of 2010 when a TPS budget deficit, reported at $39 million, led the district to make across-the-board cuts, including the closure of Libbey High School, a City League charter member (1926).

Besides the $39 million deficit, other numbers help illustrate the story.

Since 2000, when there were seven TPS high schools (including Libbey), the combined boys and girls high school enrollment in the upper three grades -- the numbers used by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for setting divisional alignments -- was 7,463 students.

Entering the 2011-12 school year, the OHSAA enrollment numbers currently have the six TPS high schools combining for 5,476 boys and girls in grades 10-12. That reflects a decline of 27 percent in 12 years.

"Not only are we in a declining area for factories and manufacturing jobs, but also the real estate values are going down, down, down," Scrutchins said. "That's the bottom line. Not only is our area declining, but the state legislature is obviously trying to balance their budget without raising taxes. That makes for more cuts.

"You're getting less locally from your tax base, and you also have less coming in from the state [funding]."

An earlier budget crisis two decades ago led to the closure in 1991 of two previous TPS teams with longstanding CL ties -- DeVilbiss (1933) and Macomber-Whitney (1938). The 2010 budget cuts hit extracurricular programs, including sports. In addition to eliminating the entire programs for cross country, wrestling, golf, and boys tennis at the six remaining high schools, all freshman-level and junior high sports were cut out.

Lack of teams in these programs left the seven non-TPS City members (five boys teams, five girls teams) with too few league opponents on their schedules for several sports and forced the hand of their respective administrators, who were prepared for the situation.

Those seven non-TPS members enacted their backup plan and joined ranks with the three GBC schools.

GBC membership became insufficient for competition after Sandusky announced its move to the Northern Ohio League, and Napoleon to the Northern Lakes League, beginning this fall. Fremont Ross had already covered itself by receiving membership in the City League (but will now be in the TRAC). At the same time, the CL denied membership to Findlay and Lima Senior.

Traditions lost

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Gone with the old City League lineup will be one of the league's most coveted traditions over the years -- the playoffs.

Unlike any other league in northwest Ohio, and rare elsewhere in the state, the City League established a tradition of championship games and, later, four-team playoff tournaments, to determine its team champions in several sports over the years.

It began in 1965 when the Shoe Bowl championship football game was first staged at the University of Toledo's Glass Bowl between winners of the league's Red and Blue divisions.

What would become the CL's real jewel, the boys basketball championship game began pitting the Red and Blue winners together for the crown in 1968. Some of Toledo's all-time greatest athletes -- such as future NBA players Kelvin Ransey, Donald Collins, Todd Mitchell, and Jim Jackson -- gained their early notoriety by starring in these basketball clashes.

By 1990-91, the City League had installed four-team playoff formats for boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, and volleyball.

A golden goose?

LEAGUE LINEUPS
CITY LEAGUE
Bowsher
Rogers
Scott
Start
Waite
Woodward
THREE RIVERS ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Central Catholic
Clay
Findlay
Fremont Ross
Lima Senior
Notre Dame
St. Francis
St. John’s
St. Ursula
Whitmer
NORTHERN LAKES LEAGUE
Anthony Wayne
Bowling Green
Maumee
Napoleon
Northview
Perrysburg
Springfield
Southview
NORTHERN BUCKEYE CONFERENCE
Eastwood
Elmwood
Fostoria
Genoa
Lake
Otsego
Rossford
Woodmore
TOLEDO AREA ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Cardinal Stritch
Danbury
Edon
Emmanuel Christian
Gibsonburg
Hilltop
Maumee Valley
Northwood
Ottawa Hills
Toledo Christian
(Edon, Hilltop are TAAC members only in football)
NORTHWEST OHIO ATHLETIC LEAGUE
Archbold
Bryan
Delta
Evergreen
Liberty Center
Montpelier
Patrick Henry
Swanton
Wauseon

 

Members of the TRAC appear, at the outset, as the biggest winners in the mass realignment.

Increased travel distance and high gas prices are clear negatives with the geographical mix of the Toledo-area schools, Findlay, Fremont, and Lima. But the marriage of the former City League and GBC schools almost certainly awaits a significant bonus in two important areas -- increased competition level and gate receipts. Central, Clay, St. Francis, St. John's, and Whitmer will no longer be splitting gate receipts from football and basketball games played against TPS schools, which typically generated sparse crowds on their side.

Instead, these five expect to be part of much larger gates when they play Findlay and Fremont Ross in particular, each having proven to be traditionally strong supporters of their teams.

"What we've noticed in conversations with our athletic directors and coaches all the way around is that you'd better come ready to play every night in this conference," Myers said. "There are no patsies in this league.

"Every time we talk about the potential revenue, the athletic directors' eyes light up." "Our ultimate goal is to be known as one of the best leagues in Ohio," said Whitmer AD Tom Snook. "We are trying to do everything we can with our coaches, our sports, our kids, our sportsmanship, our academics, our public relations, and the ingenuity on our Web site.

Hardscrabble future?

By contrast, in the former City League alignment, only one TPS school (Rogers in 2000) had won a CL football title in the last 25 years, and the head-to-head football competition between TPS and non-TPS teams has been decidedly unbalanced.

Four of the six TPS football teams have never qualified for the state playoffs, and a fifth, Scott, made its only postseason appearance in 1972. Rogers has reached the playoffs three times. On one hand, the TPS schools should benefit, competitively, from no longer having to compete in league games against powerhouses like Whitmer, Central, St. Francis, and St. John's.

On the other hand, not splitting gate revenues with those high-drawing programs will undoubtedly put a significant financial strain on the TPS programs in terms of purchasing the essentials, like equipment and uniforms.

"Even if you were one of our lower schools and had to play a Whitmer or a St. John's or St. Francis, you knew you were going to make money because of their fan base and the formula we had for splitting the money," Scrutchins said. "That's something that will be missed.

"We have a little bit of supplement that comes from the board, and it's predicated on revenues produced at the gate. We call it the minimum base formula. But, we will obviously have to live within our means."

Scrutchins acknowledges that the TPS schools will now have a more level playing field competitively, but believes it would be a mistake for the CL athletic programs to settle for their present lot.

"We have to strive to be the best we can be, even with our limited resources and facilities," Scrutchins said."We know we have to build our programs."

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com or 419-724-6461.

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