Several area basketball teams wanted a league of their own, so now a couple of leagues that we have known, will get a new look.
We are going into the final couple of weeks of the current configuration of the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference and the Kalamazoo Valley Association.
Following the end of the regular season, boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from Harper Creek, Pennfield, Marshall and Coldwater will say farewell to their current league partners and start a new era for hoops in the area.
Next season, the Interstate Eight will begin, a completely new conference that includes the four teams mentioned above as well as Jackson Lumen Christi, Charlotte, Jackson Northwest and Parma Western.
That not only will mean there will be a new league to talk about, but it will also mean two of the bigger current leagues will have a new look and for local basketball fans, it is an end of an era.
“It’s been coming up in my mind a lot lately. Especially when we go on the road. Every time we go somewhere, we realize it’s the last time we’re going to go there,” Pennfield coach Steve Grimes said. “When we take the court, I look around the gym and think this is probably the last time we’ll play here for awhile – especially in a league game.
“There’s been a lot of last handshakes with some coaches, and I think the other schools realize it too because they talk about playing us for the last time.”
While creating a new league, without any prior connections between the schools, is something we haven’t seen for awhile – changes in league structure isn’t all that rare. Longtime Harper Creek, Marshall and Coldwater followers can remember when those schools used to be in the Twin Valley before joining the SMAC. And the Kalamazoo Valley Association has gone through several changes in recent years as it has grown to a 10-team league.
“We see it as another transition. I am one of the old guys who has been through it and saw the Twin Valley dissolve,” Harper Creek coach Matt Bowling said. “We are starting something new with the I-8 and it will be a little nostalgic as we finish off our time in our current league, but time changes things. And for us to continue to grow as a program, we needed to make this change.”
The reason for the change for many of the schools involved was to get to a conference with teams closer to their own size. Harper Creek (with an enrollment of 780 in 2012-13), Marshall (723) and Coldwater (912), have been competing against schools such as Kalamazoo Central (1,610), Battle Creek Central (1,429), Loy Norrix (1,364) and Lakeview (1,347).
Pennfield is on the other end of that equation in the Kalamazoo Valley Association. Pennfield, with an enrollment of 656, is one of the biggest schools in its current league.
The other schools involved in the new league — Jackson NW (863), Parma Western (855) and Charlotte (851) — are all close to the B.C.-area schools in terms of number of students. Lumen Christi, at 472, is on the low end.
There is also a benefit from the new league in terms of travel, with all schools looking to reduce the time their teams spend on the bus in their current wide-reaching conferences.
“I am all in favor of the change because it is what is best for our entire school. I believe that, although it wasn’t much of an issue with basketball, the travel situation will be much better for other sports. This will benefit our student-athletes as well as help with the ever increasing costs of the athletic departments,” said Marshall girls’ basketball coach Sal Konkle. “There will be numerous new issues, but the bottom line is that across the board we will be competing against very similar sized schools. This levels the playing field for most sports and that is what is best for our student-athletes.”
A surprising negative for some of the smaller schools in the SMAC is that they will miss playing against bigger teams.
“For us, (the SMAC) was a great fit for many reasons. We played outstanding competition which may not have always resulted in a league championship, but it did prepare us well for the state tournament,” Konkle said.
The Harper Creek boys’ team saw that firsthand last year. The Beavers were a sub-.500 team last season in the regular season, due to a difficult schedule against several Class A schools, but once Harper Creek began the Class B postseason, the Beavers found success.
“It’s nice to play up and see that class of competition during the year, and when we see those high-level teams in our league, we gain experience,” Bowling said. “I think we had a pretty good team last year, but because of the grind we had, we didn’t finish the regular season as well as wanted. But then, because of our experience in the league, we had success and won the district.”
All of these teams are making the change in leagues in all sports starting in the fall. For a sport like football, that will mean an end to many current rivalries, since there aren’t opportunities for non-conference games.
In basketball, however, the schedule could still include many of the conference schools they are currently playing. With eight teams in the league, that will mean 14 conference games during the season. Schools will fill out the rest of the schedule with six non-league games.
Harper Creek has already said it will keep rivalries with current SMAC-foes Lakeview and Battle Creek Central alive in its basketball schedule.
So those rivalries can continue and there will also be a chance for new rivalries.
“We have started a rivalry with Harper Creek recently, with them being in town and that will become even more of a rivalry now. Marshall is real close and we have bumped into them at times, especially in the postseason, so that will be a good rival going forward,” Grimes said. “But as coaches, the change will mean a little more work for us. Now, with the teams we are used to seeing, we know what they do from year to year and we pull out the old scouting report and get ready to play them. Now we will have to get up to speed on some of the new teams we’ll see in the league.”