The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 11, 2013

A Don McCormack column: A Spartan existence

Conneaut’s plight as it desperately searches for a league to call home branches in many directions

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— As I turned right, my eye caught the street sign on the corner. Upon reading the white words on the pine-green background, I smiled.

“Harry Church Drive” is the name of the road leading into the baseball and softball fields at Skippon Park, the home of the Conneaut Local Youth Organization.

As my thoughts drifted to what a wonderful man Mr. Church was and how sad we were when we lost him last August, I made my way down to the ballfields.

On one diamond, there was a varsity softball game going on.

On a neighboring field, it was a junior-varsity contest.

Down the road a bit, it was a sandlot game.

Balls rolled around and flew out of play. Kids yelped and chased one another. Music blared from a car occupied by a teenage couple. On one field, a dog somehow found his way through an opening in a fence and everyone laughed as players — and umpires — gave chase after the pooch, who was finally corralled.

For anyone partial to the world of sports... of play, it was a Norman Rockwell image ready to be captured.

Suddenly, as is often the case, my mind did a complete 180, almost in the snap of a finger.

Something a friend sent my way as part of a Facebook message a day or two previous, for some reason, came to the fore:

“Conneaut — The School Nobody Wants.”



On the outside

The previous sentence was in reference to the news that the All-American Conference superintendents had voted to extend invitations to Ashtabula County schools Edgewood and Pymatuning Valley. Another Ashtabula County school, Jefferson, has been a member of the AAC for two years, now.

Conneaut was also considered by the AAC, which sent representatives up this way to tour the school’s athletic facilities.

For the past few years, a lot of hard-working people in Spartan Country have been working their tails off in an effort to upgrade the school’s athletic facilities, which had been plagued by age and lack of funds.

The football facility, the previously named Municipal Stadium, was constructed in 1939 as a Work Project Administration project.

The basketball facility was built in 1952, named “Garcia Gymnasium” in honor of the now-late five-time Hall of Famer and Conneaut coaching legend Andrew Garcia on July 27, 1968.

In fact, the “Care for Kids” committee, people who organized and have been diligently working to provide private funding in an effort to upgrade the Spartans’ facilities, have done an admirable job.

The efforts to revamp and redo the football facility have produced Conneaut Stadium, built on the same land as Municipal Stadium.

Garcia Gymnasium, while spruced up with paint and lighting, is one of the oldest gymnasiums still in use in the Buckeye State.

Still, Conneaut superintendent Kent Houston has led the charge to find a home for the district’s athletic squads in terms of a conference.

Therein, is the white elephant in the room.



Looking back

A quick brush up on the not-too-distant past:

At one point, the Northeastern Conference was a 10-strong collective, through 1997.

Then, in 1998, the Premier Athletic Conference got off the ground and NEC members Madison and Riverside jumped ship and headed west.

When ancient rivals Ashtabula and Harbor consolidated to form Lakeside in the fall of 2001, the skids were immediately greased for the eventual demise of the NEC.

Wanting no part of matching up against two schools the size of Lakeside and Geneva on an every-sport basis, Pymatuning Valley, on its second tour of duty in the NEC, asked for and was granted its release to exit.

Still, the NEC stood at six — Lakeside, Geneva, Conneaut, Edgewood, Jefferson and Harvey.

On Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002 a merger of the six NEC schools and the five from the PAC — Chardon, Madison, Riverside, North and South — to form the Premier Northeastern Conference was announced.

Nonetheless, no one actually totally bought it was ever going to happen, the then-leaders of North and South, especially, leading the charge for it not to happen.

And, it didn’t as PAC schools Chardon, Madison, North, Riverside and South bailed on their NEC brethren on Monday, Dec. 6, 2004, roughly 34 months after the merger was announced.

Harvey — which the NEC had stepped up and accepted starting in the spring of 1987 (along with Jefferson, which was joining the loop for a second time) after the Painesville district threatened pretty much every conference across Northeast Ohio with a court case, claiming racial discrimination — defected to the Chagrin Valley Conference on Thursday, March 20, 2008.

When Geneva and Lakeside announced they were exiting, stage west, to join fellow former NEC members Madison and Riverside in the PAC, the fate of the NEC — one of the longest-running athletic conferences in Ohio — was sealed.

By the time Jefferson found its new home in the AAC two years ago, the plug had all but been pulled. The deed was done.



Partners in isolation

Since then, longtime fierce rivals Conneaut and Edgewood, have been pretty much in a lifeboat, desperately searching for the figurative ship of a new conference to call home to spot them bobbing in the waves.

Officials from both schools turned over every possible stone in search of a place to call home, to allow them to come staggering in from the dessert that is Life As An Independent.

Despite the fact officials from both schools have spent the past few years sending out SOS messages, no one heard — or answered, anyway — their pleas.

Until the AAC, which has rebooted more than once in its young existence, extended some feelers, including to Edgewood and Conneaut.

Buoyed by the potential to be part of a conference again, hopes ran high at both schools that the AAC would agree to take them in, especially when league officials toured both schools’ athletic facilities.

But when it was announced last week that the AAC would offer only one — Edgewood — an invitation to join its embrace, Conneaut was left waiting at the altar.



What happened?

With Edgewood almost a lock to accept the AAC’s invitation, and with Pymatuning Valley having the option to do the same or to remain in the Northeastern Athletic Conference, Conneaut will be proof that, yes, a man can be an island, so to speak.

What didn’t the AAC like when it looked Conneaut’s way?

Likely, it was the older sports facilities, which were toured by the AAC search crew a few weeks ago, especially tiny Garcia Gymnasium. Those things, though, can be upgraded, as is shown by Conneaut Stadium, though it will take still more private funding to do so.

What can’t be changed, though, is geography. Being located in the upper northeast corner of Ashtabula County, it’s perceived by many that Conneaut is simply too far a drive to be part of a conference such as the AAC, which is dominated by Trumbull County schools.

Having spoken with many people from schools across the AAC, that is, unfortunately, the perception.

And in terms of conference affiliation, perception is, like it or not, reality.



Blame game

In truth, the fact Ashtabula County’s seven Ohio High School Athletic Association member schools are in this situation is no one’s fault but their own, though not the fault of the people currently in charge of the districts.

Years ago, decades, in fact, there were plans to bring Jefferson, PV and GV into the arms of the NEC and form a big-school, small-school configuration.

That would have allowed the larger schools in the NEC — namely, Madison and Riverside and, eventually, Lakeside and Geneva — to play whom they wanted to play in terms of the always-dominant monolith in terms of league affiliation and scheduling — football.

In turn, it would allow the smaller schools, ones that want no part of playing against schools that size on the gridiron, to do the same.

However, the men in charge of many of the NEC schools at that time were the fat cats, sitting pretty, if you will, saying “we don’t need them. We’re fine.”

Hmmmm. How’s that working now?

It’s not, and it’s the people in charge of the districts now who are left trying to put the pieces back together.



Now what?

That didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty. Who knows if it would work, now?

What Ashtabula County needs is someone with credibility, who is respected, though not necessarily liked, by all seven OHSAA member districts, to step to the fore.

That person must not only have a plan for the present, but a vision for the future.

He or she has certainly heard the rumors of some cracks forming in the PAC, with Geneva and Lakeside perhaps being willing to consider some other options, at this point.

There is talk Harvey is not exactly thrilled by being mauled on the gridiron in the CVC.

Jefferson and Edgewood have a home in the AAC, as do PV and GV in the NAC, though PV does have the option to join Jefferson and Edgewood in the AAC. But they’d almost certainly be willing to listen to anything anyone has to say. There are rumors running rampant that another former NEC member school, St. John, will be reapplying for membership in the OHSAA, perhaps even this summer.

As for Conneaut? All the district’s leaders are waiting for is a lifeline.

Will one ever be cast its way?

I mean, all that’s at stake is what’s best for our young people, after all.

That’s all. No biggie.

The kids at Conneaut are no different than anywhere else. All they are asking for is a chance, an opportunity to experience the same opportunities as their peers.

Almost three decades ago, Harvey went to court and threatened its way into a conference, and the people of the NEC — most of whom were in charge of schools from Ashtabula County — did the right thing, stepped up and took Harvey in.

And the relationship lasted for 20 years, a relative lifetime in this day and age.

Conneaut hasn’t gone that avenue... it shouldn’t have to and Lord knows what grounds it would have to do so, anyway.

Question is, does anyone have enough energy, enthusiasm and vision to bring everyone together, perhaps forming another division of the AAC and going to a flex-scheduling system, even?

I just did it again — a complete 180.

We need someone like the man whose name adjourns the sign at the CLYO Complex.

Unfortunately, they don’t make them like Harry Church, anymore.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.