As the Mid-Eastern Conference began its meeting on Wednesday at Cowan, the future of Burris remaining a member of the league was the only item on the agenda. Burris representatives expressed their desire to remain in the league, then heard commendation from some members on their recent efforts to address the league’s concerns about its continued membership.
It was not enough.
The conference voted 8-1 to remove Burris from its membership, effective at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Burris had a vote in the matter, and was the only school to vote for the Owls to stay in the league.
Burris will remain a member for the spring season, then face an uncertain future. Wes-Del principal and conference president Derick Bright said some members of the conference expressed a desire to honor all existing contracts with Burris, but no official consensus was reached. Any such event would be a non-conference game. MEC schools will also be free to schedule Burris in the future in non-conference events at their discretion.
Burris principal Cathlene Darragh declined an interview request by The Star Press, but made a comment in an email addressed to the school community.
“Without question this is disappointing news,” Darragh wrote. “My focus right now is on our students in general and our student-athletes in particular. Let me underscore that I could not be more proud of our students and the way they stepped up to this challenge.”
Burris received a letter from the league in December outlining the conference’s concerns. Hospitality at home games was among them, which included providing administrators to meet opposing teams and answer questions. Hospitality also included providing information to other schools to help visiting fans locate venues and parking areas.
Also among the concerns was Burris’ attendance at conference meetings, its ability to provide workers at conference events, and attendance and atmosphere at home and away events. School size was also a concern, as Burris’ potential athlete population is larger than other MEC schools when factoring in students at The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities who are also able to compete for the Owls.
Burris made efforts to improve in some of those areas since receiving the letter. One of its more prominent efforts included rallying fan support for basketball games. Burris commissioned a fan bus for a game at Wes-Del, and held a blackout to encourage fans to attend the final home game against Blue River. More than 1,000 fans came to Ball Gym for that game, a sight some longtime Owls followers considered to be the best crowd at Burris in approximately a decade.
Ultimately, though, the variety of concerns proved to be too much, Bright said.
“There was more than just one item of concern,” Bright said. “And so from the vote, clearly the membership felt that the things that were brought to their attention aren’t going to be solvable problems. Obviously, there’s a tangible thing there, showing up to this particular meeting and the last meeting and having students at the last two ballgames. But the membership felt like at this time, it was in the conference’s best interest to move forward.”
Bright said the MEC plans to continue as an eight-member league indefinitely. Blue River, Cowan, Daleville, Monroe Central, Randolph Southern, Union, Wapahani and Wes-Del will make up the league when the 2014-15 school year begins.
Darragh indicated in her letter Burris plans to pursue membership in another conference, operating as an independent until it finds a new league. Darragh said Burris would continue to field teams, and continue to seek out strong competition.
“I am confident that this is not the end, but an opportunity for a new beginning,” Darragh said in the letter. “I see this as an opportunity to model persistence for the students of Burris.”
Ball State women’s volleyball coach Steve Shondell, who was a longtime coach of the Owls before taking over the Cardinals, said the MEC championship was always a coveted crown during his time leading the Owls.
“It’s really so sad to see this happen,” Shondell said. “Because I do take just a great deal of pride in the school. And (I) still think it’s a great school. It’s just so hard to believe that this could possibly happen. I just think it’s a real tragedy to see this happen.”