Video by Billy Mann | CatchMark
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining West Michigan Conference expansion, which takes place beginning in the 2022-23 school year. This story focuses on the rich history of the conference.
When Karel Bailey arrived at North Muskegon in 1975, the Norse featured only two varsity sports offerings for females. At that time, the Norse boasted no state titles in any Michigan High School Athletic Association-sanctioned sport.
Fast forward to modern day, North Muskegon showcases a dozen MHSAA state titles representing seven sports spread between male and female teams. Bailey attributes part of the success of her girls teams to Title IX, which is now 50 years old, but she chalks up a large part to competitiveness and stability found in the West Michigan Conference.
My, have the Norse and their conference come a long way.
Embarking on its 91st year of existence, the West Michigan Conference is one of the most stable and longest-standing high school sports leagues in the state, but a milestone moment is fast approaching. Beginning in the 2022-23 academic year, the league consisting of mostly Class C and some Class B schools is expanding from eight to 14 members.
Fremont, Hesperia, Holton, Ludington, Manistee and Orchard View are joining Hart, Mason County Central, Montague, North Muskegon, Oakridge, Ravenna, Shelby and Whitehall. The West Michigan Conference will feature two seven-member divisions, the larger-enrollment division called “Lakes” and smaller-enrollment division labeled “Rivers.”
“All in all, the stability of the conference is just amazing how they haven’t really expanded that much. It’s just been an incredible conference, unlike any I think there is in the entire state of Michigan,” said historian and North Muskegon native Jim Moyes, a well-known radio voice in the Muskegon area, who is still calling games as a retiree in Florida these days.
“I like what they’re doing right now (with expansion),” said Moyes, who didn’t feel that way originally. “I was one of those old Fuddy Duddies that don’t like a lot of change. But, from what I’ve seen, expansion in the West Michigan Conference, I’m proud of the administrators in the (conference). They did not have to fix this. The old cliché, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”
Subsequent stories in this series will address reasons and impacts of expansion, but this one focuses on the rich history of the West Michigan Conference.
The conference was founded in 1932 with charter members Hart, Montague, Scottville, Shelby and Whitehall. North Muskegon joined the West Michigan Conference in 1936, but the Norse and Whitehall left the league for the Seaway Conference for stretches of time before returning.
Reed City and Manistee were WMC members for a short time. For many years, the conference has been comprised of eight schools with Ravenna being the last to join in 1969 and Whitehall rejoining for good in 1985.
This fall, the WMC will feature two seven-member divisions for sports in which each member fields a varsity team, such as football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball. The largest eight schools enrollment-wise – Fremont, Ludington, Manistee, Montague, Oakridge, Orchard View and Whitehall – will make up the Lakes Division. The smallest seven schools based upon enrollment – Hart, Hesperia, Holton, Mason County Central, North Muskegon, Ravenna and Shelby – will form the Rivers Division.
While the West Michigan Conference is not the state’s oldest league – the Detroit Public School League existed in 1904, for example, according to longtime Detroit Free Press reporter Mick McCabe – the WMC ranks at or near the top in stability and success through the course of time.
The West Michigan Conference has tallied 42 team state championships in Michigan High School Athletic Association-sanctioned tournaments. The representation between boys and girls sports has been good, too, with 25 state titles by the former and 17 by the latter.
“I truly believe that female sports in the West Michigan Conference have had a tremendous amount of parity. I truly believe that, that’s the situation,” said Bailey, who within six years at North Muskegon had guided the Norse girls track and field program to three state championships.
In her 37-year tenure, Bailey also coached basketball and she turned the Norse into a state power in volleyball with eight West Michigan Conference titles, 15 district championships, six regional crowns, four state semifinal appearances and one state finals showing.
Bailey believes that with the enrollment gap between larger and smaller schools widening in the West Michigan Conference over the years, expansion was long overdue.
“When I was coaching, it didn’t matter who we were going to compete against. We were still going to be prepared and we were going to be very competitive, and we probably won more than what we lost, even against some of the larger schools,” said Bailey, who is a Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Famer. “We enjoyed the competition and that is basically what is boils down to is playing a sport and being competitive and doing your best.”
Ken Diamond, who retired in 2016 after 19 years as Montague’s athletic director and longtime football coach (1986-2004), currently serves as league secretary for the West Michigan Conference. He also handles scheduling for varsity and junior varsity football and varsity and JV boys and girls basketball, in addition to assigning officials for all of those games.
The Jackson native had not heard of the West Michigan Conference until he arrived in the Muskegon area and took his first job at Muskegon Catholic Central, but as he became more familiar with the league, he discovered that camaraderie between administrators and coaches was something special.
“I think that’s really what’s made it as successful as we are – being able to stick around and not break up every five years like some other leagues have done,” Diamond said. “I just think there’s a great mutual respect, I think the guys all work together very well. If there’s an issue, we’re able to talk about it and come to a conclusion.”
Mason County Central’s Tim Genson and North Muskegon’s Jeff Cooke are the longest-tenured athletic directors at 30 and 29 years, respectively.
In a sport like baseball, for instance, four head varsity baseball coaches from the West Michigan Conference had been at the helm for a combined 131 seasons prior to the retirement of Ravenna’s Paul Herremans this spring. Herremans, Oakridge’s Brandon Barry, Shelby’s Brian Wright and Whitehall’s Warren Zweigle had amassed more than 2,000 victories between them with each reaching the 500-win milestone and all four being inducted in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
The West Michigan Conference is still seeking its first state title in baseball, as well as in boys soccer, boys and girls bowling, girls basketball, girls tennis and softball. The league has really made a name for itself in football with 10 state championships: Four for Ravenna and three apiece for Montague and Oakridge. The Bulldogs got that ball rolling in 1994 with the league’s first state title in the gridiron sport.
“I think the greatest team that I saw, personally saw, was the 1994 Ravenna Bulldogs,” Moyes said. “They just dominated everybody. They had a humongous line, they had the incredible Benny Clark in the backfield, the Nichols brothers – they could throw, they could catch. That was a really dominant team.
“To show you the strength of the West Michigan Conference, here’s an oddity: Dusty Fairfield won more state championships than he did (outright) West Michigan Conference titles (three). That, to me, is unbelievable.”
The conference has captured seven state titles in boys golf and six in girls track and field, the most recent being the championship won by Hart in the Division 3 state finals in June. The Pirates have a dynasty going in girls cross country, entering this fall as five-time defending state champs.
Neighboring rival Shelby has laid claim to both of the West Michigan Conference’s team state titles in boys basketball and both in wrestling.
In a discussion on the greatest teams and athletes to have come through the conference, Moyes highlighted Shelby’s Paul Griffin and Dave Whitsell, who went on to enjoy NBA and NFL careers, respectively. He noted Whitehall’s Nate McLouth, who made it to the big leagues in baseball and was an MLB All-Star in 2008, and Ravenna’s Todd Herremans, who went on to a highly successful 11-year NFL career.
““I know I’m going to miss so many guys, but those are the ones that come to mind,” said Moyes, who also mentioned North Muskegon’s Drew Naymick, one time the blocked shot record holder for Michigan State’s basketball team.
Moyes, a 1959 North Muskegon alumnus, whose father coached the Norsemen in football, basketball and baseball, gave a shout-out to his alma mater’s legendary football teams, which in 1940-42 set a state record that still stands with 15 consecutive shutouts. North Muskegon alumnus Stan Guy, who was a football and track dynamo in the 1950s, also holds a special place in Moyes’ heart.
Moyes also highlighted the “Four on the Shore” football season in 2008, when Montague and Oakridge joined Muskegon and Muskegon Catholic Central as state champions. Ravenna also advanced to the semifinals that season as the West Michigan Conference flexed its collective football muscle. Oakridge was 14-0 that season and Montague 13-1 with the Wildcats’ lone loss coming to the Eagles, 28-21.
“That was a year you’re never going to forget, when you have two West Michigan Conference teams in a little area (of Muskegon) that, what, had 2 percent of the population in the entire state of Michigan, winning four state championships,” Moyes said. “I don’t think you could ever forget that year. That’s the era that I really remember.”
Genson, 1985 graduate of Mason County Central, noted that competition and preparation in the West Michigan Conference over the years has made everybody better. He said the Spartans have won many more district and regional championships than conference titles.
Genson said the conference’s representation from a football playoff standpoint has been “incredible,” but that the league is far from a one-trick pony.
“I think the West Michigan Conference ranks right there (across the board),” he said. “You just take this past spring and you look at the state finals in track. We had a girls state championship team, we had a number of individual state champions.
“Overall, I think you look at the West Michigan Conference and the teams regardless of season, regardless of sport, we’re very competitive. I think the West Michigan Conference is recognized as a really good conference.”
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