Area athletics officials successfully lobby for better conference setup in 2013
by Andrew Stark
Every four years, the N.C. High School Athletic Association realigns conferences based largely on the enrollment and locations of its 417 member schools.
After school administrators balked at the initial draft last fall, the NCHSAA released its final approved realignment plan last month. It is a setup that has local coaches and athletics directors much more content because, unlike the original realignment draft, the three Matthews-Mint Hill-area high schools will remain in the same conference.
Butler, Independence and Rocky River will be in a league – tentatively called Conference 6C – with East Mecklenburg, Myers Park, Garinger and Indian Trail Porter Ridge.
The changes will go into effect at the start of the 2013-14 school year, so Butler, Independence, Rocky River, East Meck and Myers Park will have another year together in the Southwestern 4A conference before adding Garinger (currently in the ME-GA 7 3A/4A conference) and Porter Ridge (Southern Carolina 3A/4A) to their schedules each season.
Matthews-Mint Hill athletics officials look forward to establishing new rivalries with Garinger and Porter Ridge, but they definitely are breathing a sigh of relief that the old rivalries will remain intact.
“Conference realignment is always an emotional time,” said Rocky River athletics director Brandy Clemmer. “The realignment process can impact the makeup of a conference and, as a result, a rival game may shift from a conference game to a non-conference game. But (now) the opportunity still exists to schedule those opponents and to continue the rivalries.”
Concerns over initial draft
The NCHSAA’s original draft had Rocky River and Independence in a conference together but had Butler in a different league. The first proposal was met with resistance from area athletics directors because they wanted to keep the three Matthews-Mint Hill schools in the same conference, and they ultimately were able to force a change to the current setup.
“Regarding the history we have with Independence, it was very important for us to continue to have them in our conference,” said Butler football coach Brian Hales. “Because of the physical distance between our schools and also with so many of our students having grown up playing both with and against each other, it produces a natural rivalry.”
Kelly Lewis, the athletics director at Independence, also felt that the Patriots needed to be in a conference with Butler and Rocky River.
“The district worked to come up with the alternative plan that ended up being what we have now,” Lewis said. “This came about after all CMS (athletics directors) met and discussed what would be best for us. It was important to us to stay in a conference with Rocky River and Butler.”
Courtney Paschal, Butler’s athletics director, said that breaking up the rivalry the Bulldogs have with Independence would’ve been a mistake. Although more of the kids who attend Rocky River came from Independence than from Butler, Paschal said she pushed to keep the schools in the same conference.
“Butler’s demographics have changed in the last few years, but we really didn’t want to lose the natural rivalry with Independence,” Paschal said. “Independence and Rocky River have a more natural rivalry, but since we are so close to both, losing either of those schools from our conference would have been detrimental.”
Hales said that since the three Matthews-Mint Hill schools are rivals in sports, it was important to keep them in the same conference.
“(A conference affiliation with Rocky River) was important because so much of the population was carved out of the student bodies at both Butler and Independence,” Hales said. “It is great for the students, the student-athletes and also the families to continue to compete against each other on a regular basis. We are competitors on the field, the court, the diamond, etc. But when it comes down to it, we all want to see these schools and their students be successful.”
Committee amends proposal
Area school officials were glad to see the NCHSAA amend its original proposal, however there is one immediate drawback: With only seven schools in the conference, each team will have an extra bye or “off” week in every sport until another squad can be added. That ultimately could affect teams’ chances of earning state playoff berths over squads from eight-team conferences.
Paschal said she thinks it won’t be long until another school is added to the new conference. With all the recent growth in south Charlotte and Union County, Paschal suspects it won’t be long before either a new school is built or an existing one moves up to the 4A classification.
“When we were in the discussion process, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be in a conference of seven (teams),” she said. “That was my main concern, and I thought we deserved to be in a conference of eight.
“(But) we will be the conference a new or existing school moving up in classification would likely turn to if they need a home, and we would have the flexibility to allow them entrance.”
Lewis also is against a seven-team league.
“Being the seven-team conference, we will have byes built into all the schedules and lose some playoff spots,” Lewis said. “Sometimes byes can be good if you are banged up, but everybody has to work harder for the playoff spots.”
Other conference rivals move to different league
When the Southwestern 4A conference breaks up in 2013, some other rivalries will be taken away from the Matthews-Mint Hill teams.
Current Southwestern 4A schools Providence, Ardrey Kell and South Meck eventually will be in a different league, although there’s a chance they could face Butler, Independence and Rocky River on a regular basis.
“I know some of our coaches have talked to Ardrey Kell and to Providence about continuing to play those schools in non-conference games,” Paschal said. “A lot of the non-conference schedule revolves around football, but Providence and AK have a competitive tradition in a number of sports – like tennis, volleyball, golf, swimming and football – and we would love to continue those rivalries, especially with the Providence campus only a few miles from ours.”
Lewis and Hales said they’re open to continuing to play Providence, Ardrey Kell and South Meck. But Hales cautioned that it’s tougher to schedule non-conference games.
“There are a lot of moving parts that go into scheduling someone,” Hales said. “Things such as common open dates, location, travel expenses, among others, have to be taken into account.”
In addition, adding a strong athletic program such as Porter Ridge to the equation means area schools also will have their hands full with in-conference competition.
Last fall, for instance, Porter Ridge football advanced all the way to the Class 4A state championship game. The Pirates have also been very successful in baseball, softball, boys golf and girls basketball.
“Myers Park is always tough, and Porter Ridge, I believe, will be very competitive, so I am looking forward to the new conference,” Lewis said. “I’m hoping the Porter Ridge-Independence football game will be a very attractive game for both schools.”
The end result of realignment
Now that the three Matthews-Mint Hill schools will remain in the same conference, their athletics directors are excited to get things rolling in 2013.
“The outcome of the conference realignment process reflects a good balance of schools across the conferences that have CMS schools as members,” Rocky River’s Clemmer said. “Our coaches and student-athletes look forward to competing in the new conference while maintaining existing rivalries in and outside of conference play.
“As a whole I don’t see the realignment having a major impact on our athletic program. We will continue to grow and improve as an athletic program and, I believe, have success in the new conference. The 2013 realignment suits Rocky River High School.”
Paschal echoed that sentiment.
“I think the original plan was not as good as the newest one, but in the end it is good for Butler,” Paschal said.
Lewis thinks the new conference will also be good for Independence.
“I think the realignment will help us as a whole,” Lewis said. “Our programs are starting to gain more interest and making the playoffs in the current Southwestern 4A, and this will continue to be the trend in the new conference.”