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West Michigan Conference expansion in 2022-23: Rivalries continue and renew, maybe some new

Oakridge vs. Orchard View football rivalry is one that’s renewing with conference expansion.

Video by Billy Mann | CatchMark

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories examining West Michigan Conference expansion, which takes place beginning in the 2022-23 school year. This story focuses on existing, developing and rekindled rivalries in the league.

The all-time football series between Oakridge and Orchard View is a tight one, with the Eagles holding an 18-16 edge over the Cardinals.

More recent history depicts a much different story: Oakridge domination over Orchard View, as the Eagles won 10 straight between 2007 and 2016, most of those in lopsided fashion. After Oakridge’s 47-0 victory over Orchard View in 2016, the Hall Road football rivalry was placed on hold.

“A lot of that had to do with, we had just gotten to the point years ago that we weren’t competitive,” Orchard View athletic director Leroy Hackley Jr. said. “You can’t have a rivalry if one team is dominating. It doesn’t become much of a rivalry. We wanted to take some time to get ourselves better.”

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)

Oakridge and Orchard View continued squaring off in other sports in recent years. This fall, the battle of the birds will resume in football as the Eagles and Cardinals are now conference foes. Both schools will be competing in the Lakes Division of the West Michigan Conference, which is expanding from eight to 14 members beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

Orchard View is a newcomer to the West Michigan Conference, where Oakridge has been a member since 1966. For football, they’ll be joined in the WMC Lakes Division by mainstays Montague and Whitehall along with other newcomers Fremont and Ludington plus Manistee, which was a member of the West Michigan Conference for a brief stint in the 1960s.

In the Rivers Division, longtime West Michigan Conference members Hart, Mason County Central, North Muskegon, Ravenna and Shelby will be joined by newcomers Hesperia and Holton in football.

For sports in which each of the 14 West Michigan Conference members fields a varsity squad, the two seven-team divisions will exist. Those sports include football, volleyball, cross country, basketball, baseball, softball, and track and field. For those sports where one or more members does not field a varsity team, the squads will compete as one conference rather than be split in divisions. Those sports include golf, soccer, wrestling and bowling.

This graphic illustrates the members of the West Michigan Conference from 1932 to 2022, what years they’ve been in the conference and how long they’ve been in the league. (Jesse King | CatchMark)

In the last three weeks, CatchMark SportsNet’s series on West Michigan Conference expansion examined the rich history of the now-91-year-old league, the changes that are coming and what caused them, and the new divisions.

This week, in the final story and video of the series, we address rivalries of the West Michigan Conference: Those which have stood the test of time, such as Montague vs. Whitehall, Hart vs. Shelby, Oakridge vs. Ravenna; those that are being rekindled, such as Oakridge vs. Orchard View; and those which could be created.

A couple more longtime rivalries will go on, just changing conferences. Ludington vs. Manistee is going from the Lakes 8 Activities Conference to the West Michigan Conference Lakes Division. Hesperia vs. Holton is moving from the Central State Activities Association Silver Division to the West Michigan Conference Rivers Division.

Some rivalries will continue even if their schools are no longer in the same division. One that comes immediately to mind is Oakridge vs. Ravenna. Even though the Eagles will be competing in the big-school Lakes Division and Bulldogs in the small-school Rivers Division, the bordering, longtime rivals have agreed to continue their matchups in some sports, notably football.

While some series are coming to an end, others are going on via nondivisional or crossover matchups between West Michigan Conference members.

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

“It’ll be weird for us — we’re not going to play Shelby in football anymore or Hart. We’ve been playing those schools forever. All of a sudden, now we’re going to be playing Orchard View or Ludington or Manistee,” said Montague AD Jay Mulder, who noted that the Wildcats have already been playing those three latter schools in nonconference matchups for sports such as basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball and soccer.

“(WMC nondivisional scheduling) allows us the flexibility to maintain some of the big-game rivalries. For example, in football, we’re still going to play North Muskegon and we’re still going to play Ravenna. Those have been two strong rivalries that we have,” Mulder said.

North Muskegon and Orchard View have played each other in recent seasons in sports like football and basketball and they’ve been relatively competitive amongst each other. The Norsemen and Cardinals, who are quite close in proximity, will play each other in football this season in a nondivisional matchup.

Ludington and Mason County Central have played each other for years in multiple sports, even though there is quite the gap in enrollment numbers. The natural rivalry will continue as a nondivisional matchup.

“Back in the old days, Fremont and North Muskegon always used to be rivals back in the ’40s and ’50s,” said Jim Moyes, longtime radio voice in the Muskegon area, West Michigan Conference historian and North Muskegon native, who is still calling games as a retiree in Florida.

“Now you’re going to have another big rivalry (in the West Michigan Conference): Mason County Central and Ludington. There’s no love lost between those two teams when they play, although Ludington’s always been the much bigger school.”

Karel Bailey was a highly successful coach at North Muskegon for 37 years, particularly in track and field and volleyball. Her Norse teams always sought out the best competition regardless of enrollment numbers.

Bailey retired in 2010, but she remains a big-time proponent of high school sports and the West Michigan Conference. She respects the strong rivalries that have stood the test of time, but she also appreciates the fact that in conference expansion schools can still schedule nondivisional games against existing rivals.

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

“In some of the other sports where you’re not confined by like nine games for football, for basketball we’re still going to play North Muskegon, we’re still going to play Shelby,” Mulder said. “Same thing in like baseball and softball. It allows flexibility where you have your league dates and you have your flexibility if you want to continue to play a North Muskegon or Shelby.

“Most athletic directors are in 100 percent agreement: (Even if) we’re in different divisions, we’re still going to play each other.”

Tim Genson, who is entering his 31st year as Mason County Central’s AD, has advocated for West Michigan Conference expansion. He believes the conference is bringing in “some really good schools, some really good people.”

Meanwhile, Hackley hopes to maintain crosstown rivalries against the likes of Muskegon Catholic Central, Muskegon Heights Academy and Western Michigan Christian, schools which were Lakes 8 Activities Conference peers of Orchard View but were not invited to join the West Michigan Conference. Ludington and Manistee also were most recently Lakes 8 members.

“I’ll still play them on a nonconference level. I’ll miss that piece of it, but looking forward to going into a new conference, sharing some new ideas with (existing West Michigan Conference members) because, like I said, they’ve been around for a long time,” Hackley said.

“I think we can bring a lot of new stuff to them. I think there’s things that they’ve done well that we can pick up on and I think it’s just going to make for a very good conference. We’re taking two good conferences and we’re going to make a great conference.”

This graphic illustrates a basic timeline of milestone moments in the West Michigan Conference since its inception in 1932. (Jesse King | CatchMark)

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