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West Michigan Conference expansion in 2022-23: Football, aim for competitive balance fuel change

Growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ along with enrollment disparities, are big drivers for expansion.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories examining West Michigan Conference expansion, which takes place beginning in the 2022-23 school year. This story focuses on what prompted conference expansion and changes to the league.

School and community pride tend to be apparent on a football Friday night. It’s when high school football teams, their schools and communities aim to put their best foot forward.

But what happens when football teams struggle? What happens when they’re overmatched and scores grow more lopsided?

In the case of the West Michigan Conference, a growing competitive imbalance between the “haves” and “have nots” on the football field has prompted major changes. It’s been a driving force for West Michigan Conference expansion, according to current and incoming athletic administrators in the league.

“All the way back into the ’90s when the Western Waterways Activities Conference was created and the West Michigan Conference was invited to be a part of that, football was a driving factor at that point,” said Tim Genson, who is entering his 31st year as Mason County Central’s athletic director.

“Football has always been a driving factor. I think there is a desire to have more competitive Friday nights, especially for some of the smaller schools in the league.”

Mason County Central athletic director Tim Genson poses for a portrait in the CatchMark studio Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Starting with the 2022-23 school year, the West Michigan Conference is expanding from eight to 14 members. Fremont, Hesperia, Holton, Ludington, Manistee and Orchard View will be entering the very stable, 90-year-old league, which for years has consisted of Hart, Mason County Central, Montague, North Muskegon, Oakridge, Ravenna, Shelby and Whitehall.

For sports in which every member school fields a varsity team, the conference will be split into the Lakes Division (seven largest schools enrollment-wise) and Rivers Division (seven smallest schools). Beyond that, the West Michigan Conference will offer other extracurricular activities that could range from debate to forensics to quiz bowl to robotics.

“I know it’ll bring additional opportunities for more of our students at Montague to be involved not just in athletics. To me, it’s exciting. I want all our kids to feel they belong and have part of something at Montague,” Montague AD Jay Mulder said.

Last week, this series on West Michigan Conference expansion focused on the rich history of the league. In this story, we’re examining what prompted expansion and other impacts or related topics.

Football is a great place to start.

It’s no secret that football is the tail that wags the dog for many athletic departments. It’s seen at collegiate and high school levels, and that includes the West Michigan Conference.

This graphic is an illustration of the all-time league football champions in the West Michigan Conference. (Jesse King | CatchMark)

Oakridge and Montague have dominated the conference in football over the last decade, with one or both teams capturing the title in each of the last nine seasons. For much of the last three decades, Oakridge, Montague and Ravenna have served as the pre-eminent powers of the league, as those programs have combined for 10 state titles.

Whitehall and North Muskegon also have been very competitive for a number of years, including recently, with the Vikings seizing league titles in 1998 and 1999 and sharing the championship with Montague and Oakridge last fall. Through history, the Norsemen own the most football titles in the league with 22 outright and four shared.

Shelby has had its moments in recent years with an outright conference championship in 2013 and shared titles in 2010 and 2011. Mason County Central earned playoff wins in 2004, 2006 and 2015. But, by and large, Hart, Mason County Central and Shelby have struggled to keep up with the other five football programs in the conference in the last two or three decades.

Montague’s offensive line and Oakridge’s defensive line square off during the Wildcats’ 33-7 victory Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Montague, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

“It took us years to get to this point with the expanding conference, I’ll be honest,” said Ken Diamond, the retired Montague AD and football coach, who serves as league secretary for the West Michigan Conference. “Every year for probably the last 10 years it’s been an item of discussion. Football really drove it, as became apparent with all the mismatches among the existing members.”

The gap between “haves” and “have nots” in West Michigan Conference football has never been more apparent than in the last two seasons, although it’s been trending that way for a number of years.

For example, in Week 4 of the 2020 football season, Montague, Oakridge, Ravenna and Whitehall defeated Shelby, North Muskegon, Hart and Mason County Central by a combined 196-8 tally. In Week 7 of the 2019 season, in those same matchups, the combined score was 215-9.

The top five in the league – Montague, North Muskegon, Oakridge, Ravenna and Whitehall – have been largely competitive amongst each other in comparison to how Hart, Mason County Central and Shelby have fared.

Genson said the degree of separation ramped up discussion on West Michigan Conference expansion in recent years. Gaps in enrollment from the biggest schools to the smallest have factored in significantly, he noted.

Orchard View athletic director Leroy Hackley Jr. poses for a portrait Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in the CatchMark studio in Whitehall, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

“Football Fridays are a big community event and when you see that begin to wane a little bit and when you have some of the schools going up against some of the other schools and they’re getting beat, somebody’s hanging 70 points on you and you’re getting beat 70-6 and those types of things and it’s week after week (something has to be done),” said Leroy Hackley Jr., AD for West Michigan Conference newcomer Orchard View, which did not field a varsity football team last fall because of low numbers.

“You see your program going down because kids don’t want to be part of it anymore because of that. I think that was a big driving force (for expansion) was that some of the smaller schools were beginning to say, ‘You know what, we need to do something.’”

Hackley added that expansion could benefit the larger schools as well given the strength-of-schedule component in playoff qualification.

This graphic is an illustration of the enrollment-based divisions in the expanded West Michigan Conference in 2022-23. (Jesse King | CatchMark)

Genson pointed out that Whitehall and Oakridge have separated themselves as the largest of the current eight members of the West Michigan Conference, both with well over 500 students, and how the other six members have ranged from 330 to 450 students.

In the new-look conference, the pecking order enrollment-wise for 2022-23 will be Ludington, Fremont, Whitehall, Orchard View, Oakridge, Montague and Manistee in the Lakes Division and Hart, Mason County Central, Shelby, Ravenna, North Muskegon, Hesperia and Holton in the Rivers Division.

“I think part of (the competitive disadvantage) also goes to those rural opportunities vs. more of that metro/city opportunities where it’s just harder for our kids to be involved in a travel league,” Genson said. “It’s usually an hour, hour and a half, to go to one of those things (from Scottville).”

Mulder said that Montague “really didn’t have a dog in the fight” when it came to expansion talks related to competitive balance in football, as the Wildcats have more than held their own.

At the same time, Mulder said he can bringing in more schools could ultimately be a big positive.

Montague athletic director Jay Mulder poses for a portrait Thursday, June 16, 2022, in the CatchMark studio in Whitehall, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

“In regards to the ‘haves’ or ‘have nots,’ I guess our motto is, ‘Hey, you’re in the league – do better,’” Mulder said. “Everybody has their sports they’re going to be strong in, everybody has their sports they’re maybe not as strong in, but our motto is, ‘Get good people involved, get good coaches and improve from there.’”

Fremont comes to the West Michigan Conference from the Central State Activities Association, where the Packers competed in the Gold Division. Hesperia and Holton join the WMC after being in the CSAA, where both were members of the Silver Division.

Ludington, Manistee and Orchard View come to the West Michigan Conference from the Lakes 8 Activities Conference, where they competed alongside Muskegon Catholic Central, Muskegon Heights Academy and Western Michigan Christian. The latter three schools were not invited to join the West Michigan Conference.

Whitehall defeated Ludington, 3-0, in a Division 2 district soccer semifinal Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Spring Lake, Mich. (Courtesy of Tim Jones)

“It’s no secret, we’ve tried to be above board as best we could,” Diamond said. “The problem was the schools didn’t have enough sports to offer. (For example) Western Michigan Christian had a lot of sports, but (many) were co-ops and they didn’t have the necessary number of standalone programs. It didn’t have anything to do with private vs. public.”

Mulder said the West Michigan Conference was very particular about the direction of its expansion. Administrators went over the criteria process in several meetings went through each application. He said that the conference did its due diligence.

Mulder said that the West Michigan Conference wanted to make sure the schools entering fit the ideas and mold of the league.

“I wish we could have brought (Muskegon Catholic Central, Muskegon Heights and Western Michigan Christian) in because they were in our (Lakes 8) conference. I’ll still play them on a nonconference level,” Hackley said. “I’ll miss that piece of it, but looking forward to going into a new conference, sharing some new ideas with them.

“(The West Michigan Conference is) a nice conference to be in. Like I said, it’s a well-respected conference. They’ve done well on the state level and so we’re just hoping to ride that coattail and we’ll see what happens the next couple years.”

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