By VINCE PELUSO
The ever-expanding All-American Conference got a little bigger this week as the conference elected to expand the league by six teams, returning to its original model of a three-tiered conference.
Jefferson, currently the lone Ashtabula County representative in the league, will be joined by fellow Ashtabula County schools Pymatuning Valley and Edgewood.
For Edgewood, it will be its first opportunity to go for a league title since the NEC dissolved. PV, on the other hand, will be leaving the Northeastern Athletic Conference in favor of the AAC.
Also joining the league will be Warren G. Harding, Youngstown East, Boardman and Brookfield.
“We went with the expansion process to try to go with three tiers and (Edgewood and PV) individually and collectively fit,” AAC commissioner Rick King said. “We needed some big additions at the top tier (Boardman, WGH, East) to meet the three tiers. We were really impressed with the size and facilities at Edgewood.
“And we thought highly of Pymatuning Valley’s programs and facility and felt they’d be a good fit for our bottom tier.”
At this point, the only thing that is official is that the conference has voted to expand, however PV and Edgewood had previously applied to join the conference so it is just a matter of time before the official announcement and breakdown of tiers.
The tentative breakdown of the conference will have Edgewood in the third tier for football, placing them with Niles, Poland, Struthers, Hubbard, Lakeview and Jefferson.
The Lakers, on the other hand, will be in the bottom tier with Brookfield, LaBrae, Girard, Liberty, Campbell, Champion and Newton Falls.
Edgewood’s third tier for football would become the second tier for all other sports and include the same teams, while PV’s fourth tier become the third tier for all other sports and includes the same teams.
The four tiers for football were necessary so that schools such as Howland, Niles and Poland weren’t forced to play teams the size of Harding, Austintown Fitch and Boardman every season.
King said teams from the third tier (Edgewood’s tier) will play one or two crossover games with tier two and four. The teams in the top half enrollment-wise will play teams from the second tier while teams in the bottom half will cross over with the fourth tier (PV’s tier).
All this is to assume that the Lakers accept a bid, something PV athletic director Melody Nowakowski said isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“It’s not final yet, they’re giving us until July 1 to accept or decline and can’t say at this point if we’re going to or no,” she said. “It’s probably 50-50, at this point. We need to talk to all the coaches and the community, school board members. There are pros and cons both ways.”
Nowakowski said one draw to the AAC is the Lakers would be in a conference with schools similar to their own size.
She said it’s a common misconception that they would be paired with schools bigger than themselves.
“We’re not really upset with the league we’re in, not disappointed or unhappy, we’ve built great relationships there; it would be tough to leave,” she said. “But, the AAC is more schools our size. The misconception is that they’re all bigger down there but our tier is very average size for us.
“We’re so much larger than the NAC schools that come tournament we’re at a disadvantage. So that’s probably one of the reasons we would leave, if we did. Still, we’re very happy in the NAC, it would be very tough to leave. I would say we’re 50-50.”
Edgewood, who has been without a conference since 2009, is looking forward to the prospect of competing of a league title.
Athletic Director Steve Kray said the final step will be presenting the information to the board of education.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity that the AAC provides us,” he said. “We’re looking forward to being a part of this conference. Obviously we’re still gathering some information from them and presenting it to the board in the coming weeks.”
Kray said the Warriors got the call that they’d been accepted yesterday, but is still flushing out the details and waiting for any paperwork.
“We haven’t been given any specific time table for accepting, we’re still waiting for written correspondence,” he said. “We’ve been without a conference since 2009 and the opportunity that a league provides us is great. The kids haven’t had a chance to experience a league championship or the games and the hype that comes with that.
“We like the possibility of being in a well-established league with great competition. We’re excited and will see where it can take us.”
Falcons Athletic Director Steve Locy said he’s been pushing for the league to invite more Ashtabula County schools.
“It’s definitely a good thing for us,” he said. “The one thing I did when I got there was I starting pushing for those schools up here to be included. It was nice to see many athletic directors were very receptive to that idea.”
Locy said the Jefferson coaches are excited about the expansion.
One advantage he pointed to was a tougher football schedule, that could allow the Falcons more access to the playoffs without having to get nine-plus wins per season.
“Obviously all our coaches are excited about it,” he said. “For football, even though we’ll play a school like a Poland or a Niles, if we are going to head into the tournament and move on, those are the type of teams we need to play.
“I think if things work out how they look, we’re going to be in with all the schools that are basically our size, and that’s a great thing. Now I think it’s not where we have to go 8-2 or 9-1 to make the playoffs. We can go 7-3 or maybe even 6-4 and still have a shot to get in.”
The Falcons have been on the outside looking in at the playoff picture the past two seasons despite going 7-3 and 8-2.
Edgewood, on the other hand, snuck into the playoffs last year as the eighth-seed in Division IV, Region 13.
The Warriors recent run, as well as a familiarity with the program, were all benefits for King.
“We had a lot of people who are familiar with the Edgewood program,” King said. “When I was coaching 20 years ago at Howland, we scrimmaged Edgewood. Now, Howland plays Madison, Lakeview plays Madison, we’re familiar with those schools up that way.
“I think Edgewood is going to be a very good fit.”
Locy believes that the structure of the league will not only help his football team, but the tougher scheduling will help other teams that will get exposure to a tougher regular season, whether they win or lose.
“I think it’s a mindframe too,” he said. “You go down and see these kids on a regular basis. They hear about a Poland and think, ‘oh my goodness.’ But, now you see them in regular season, and you say, ‘yeah they’re good but we can hang with them.’ There’s no longer an aura of having to play those teams.
“I think some of the parents are seeing that and seeing we gotta play these teams if we want success in the tournament. Most of the schools our size go in cycles. You’ll have a good team for three or four years and then you’re gonna be down and build up. You look at some of our programs, for example the girls basketball team was outstanding for years, now they’re rebuilding a bit. It all goes in cycles.”
The expansion plan can begin as early as spring sports for the 2014 season.
King said the AAC held off it’s master baseball schedule in anticipation of the league voting to expand.
“Any team that’s available, we’re going to offer them in the spring of 2014,” he said. “We held off on that master scheduling, waiting to see what will happen. In Harding’s case, they’re able to get out of their league commitment and will join us then. Boarmdan, for example, can’t.
“Edgewood being independent, we hope and think they’ll be available and we’ll have to wait and see what Pymatuning Valley is able to do with their league commitment.”