July 23, 2016

Mostly clear

Football: Suburban League exploring division format

One of the oldest leagues in Northeast Ohio could see major changes if Commissioner Keith Walker has his way.

The Suburban League has featured five to nine teams since Copley, Hudson, Greensburg (Green), Macedonia-Northfield (Nordonia) and Manchester banded in 1949. Now the SL is looking to implement two divisions with eight schools apiece in an effort to decrease enrollment disparity and ensure long-term viability.

The divisions will be based on enrollment. As the league stands, Division I football schools Wadsworth, Green and Nordonia would be in one, with Highland (D-II), Copley (D-II), Cloverleaf (D-III), Revere (D-III) and Tallmadge (D-III) in the other.

“What got the ball rolling was the Federal League inviting Green to a meeting (June 12) and they said they were going to go to the meeting,” Walker said. “Part of the reason was they were a little concerned about the enrollment difference from our big schools to our small schools.

“Football drives everything, so some of our small schools said, ‘If Green left and we got a big school to replace them, it doesn’t help us.’ Then we started talking about a divisional setup. One thing led to another, and we drew up potential schools that would be a good fit for the league.”

The SL held an exploratory meeting June 11 with 12 schools that were given a questionnaire to gauge interest. They have until July 1 to return it, and a potential follow-up meeting would take place in early August.

Northeast Ohio Conference members Medina, Hudson, Twinsburg, Stow, Cuyahoga Falls and North Royalton were in attendance alongside Brecksville (Southwestern), Barberton (independent), Aurora (Chagrin Valley), Kenston (Chagrin Valley), Kent Roosevelt (Portage Trail) and Ravenna (Portage Trail).

Norton, an SL member from 1972-2005, didn’t have a representative at the meeting but requested a questionnaire, while Uniontown Lake declined the invitation.

Simply because a school attends an exploratory meeting doesn’t mean it is seriously interested. The SL also may ultimately do nothing depending on how many schools apply, though most believe interest is high enough to move forward.

Hudson, which was replaced in the SL by Cloverleaf in 1997, is the lone school to express genuine interest so far. Longtime rivals Hudson, Cuyahoga Falls and Stow petitioned as a group to replace Barberton for the 2011-12 school year before Nordonia was selected individually, but Walker said those schools are now interested independently.

The other schools that attended the meeting have remained mum in an effort to keep their options open. The SL’s current members have deflected questions to Walker.

Green is clearly the X-factor as it decides what to do with its always-present interest in the rugged Federal League, which is clearly a better geographical fit. Walker said he thinks Green is leaning slightly toward staying after attending the Federal League meeting.

Should Green leave, Walker said the SL will avoid operating with seven schools at all costs. The preference is expanding to 16, but lowering that number to 14 or 12 has not been ruled out.

The SL also could accept one replacement and maintain its eight-team format, but the fear is the smallest and most eastern school, Tallmadge, would explore a logical move to the Portage Trail Conference. The Blue Devils have won seven of the last nine SL football titles, but haven’t finished in the top half of the all-sports standings since 2001.

Wadsworth attended the Federal League meeting alongside Green, though chances of it leaving the SL are very slim. The Grizzlies previously turned down an invitation from the 18-school Northeast Ohio Conference, which is considering adding six members.

Highland joined the Grizzlies and Green in nixing the NOC. The Hornets are the SL’s fourth-largest school and enjoyed two of their most successful all-around seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13 since joining the league in 1976.

If it applies, Medina’s chances of joining the SL are considerably less than 50/50 due to the voting power of the five smaller schools. The Bees are 45 percent larger than Wadsworth and would only be accepted if the two-division format came to fruition.

Another concern would be Medina splitting from old Pioneer Conference rivals Brunswick and Strongsville, but scheduling has already been adjusted to fill non-league games with those schools since the Bees are moving to the NOC River Division in football.

The case for Medina lies in the fact it is coming off its worst football season in two decades, has not won a league title since 1973 and owns a 10-15 record against Wadsworth since 1988. Even in boys and girls basketball, the Bees have not been superior to the Grizzlies on a consistent basis.

The ancient state Route 57 rivals haven’t competed in the same conference since Medina left the long-defunct Western Reserve League in 1931.

“Obviously, the geographical location is of interest to us,” said Bees athletic director Jeff Harrison, who must receive clearance from high school Principal Bryan Farson and interim Superintendent Dave Knight before applying. “Not that we’re unhappy with the NOC, but any time we’re offered an opportunity to sit down and meet with the Suburban League, we’re going to listen because of the closeness of the schools, the familiarity of the schools, the potential for new rivalries and to hopefully build attendance.

“Bringing in Green or Nordonia to play football would definitely bring in more people than Shaker Heights because of the distance of travel. We’re evaluating our options at the moment.”

An interested bystander is Cloverleaf, which has finished seventh or eighth in the SL all-sports standings in each of the past four school years. Dealing with an enrollment that is expected to further decline, the Colts were on the verge of joining the Patriot Athletic Conference last year before the deal fell apart at the last minute.

After the failed move to the PAC, Cloverleaf was rumored to be part of a U.S. Route 224-based league with Barberton, Orrville and Canal Fulton Northwest. Those negotiations never passed the exploratory stage.

Cloverleaf’s desire to leave the SL would likely all but diminish if divisions were implemented.

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.

Albert Grindle About Albert Grindle

Albert Grindle is a sportswriter for the Gazette. He can be reached at 330-721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.