Shorter travel teams, competitive balance lead charge for expanded Chagrin Valley Conference

Lakeside's Brandon Ford (right) defends Geneva's Brandon Smith during a non-conference game at Geneva in December. The two teams will be divisional foes this year as Lakeside, Edgewood and Grand Valley have joined Geneva in the Chagrin Valley Conference.

Ashtabula County and Madison enjoyed quite the successful 2018-19 athletic school year.

Three area teams won a district championship. Track and field athletes, cross country runners and wrestlers represented the county in state-level competition.

Numerous alumni made national waves in the collegiate ranks and two 2019 graduates — Conneaut’s Matt McBride and Madison’s Nolan Landis — brought home state track and field championships.

The 2019-20 athletic year is only a few days old and not a single game has been played, but similar excitement is already brewing within the county and it is being fueled by the expansion of the Chagrin Valley Conference.

Edgewood, Grand Valley and Lakeside are three of the six newcomers to the CVC, which has grown from 16 teams to 22.

Edgewood and Lakeside, both previously members of the All-American Conference, will be making their CVC debuts when the fall season kicks off. Grand Valley is returning to the CVC after spending the last decade in the Northeastern Athletic Conference.

The CVC approved the addition of the three county schools — as well as Brooklyn, Trinity and Lutheran West — in 2018.

“When we looked across the CVC, we realized expansion was the only way to go,” CVC Commissioner Don Lewis said. “Our football balance was completely off. So, we looked at schools that could balance out the league in football and in the other sports. … We brought six teams in and played around with it and the dominos fell in place and we’re excited about it.

“Lakeside and Edgewood bring a level of competition and numbers that fit perfectly with our bigger division schools and Grand Valley fits in in a spot.”

A multitude of factors weighed into the decision for the schools to join the CVC, but travel, school size and the ability to compete spearheaded the charge. Travel had a little bit more of an influence for Lakeside and Edgewood.

During the 2018-19 athletic year, Lakeside football shared the All-American Conference Gold Tier with Austintown Fitch, Boardman and Warren G. Harding. Lakeside had to travel an average of 114.9 miles, round trip, to play its three Gold Tier opponents.

In the Chagrin Division of CVC — which, in football, includes Edgewood, Geneva, Perry, Harvey, Orange, West Geauga and Chagrin Falls — Lakeside’s average round trip drops down to 58.6 per trip.

The decrease in travel time will be even more noticeable in the other sports. Last year in basketball, for example, Lakeside drove an average of 115 miles to and from Canfield, Howland, Boardman, Fitch and Harding.

In the new CVC, Lakeside’s average round trip will cut down to 29.4 miles between Edgewood, Geneva, Perry and Harvey.

“Basketball in itself, we were on the road going down to AAC games and I think we had five or six AAC games straight and it was brutal,” Lakeside Athletic Director Jason Baxter said. “... I’m literally just making those drives and it’s just like ‘God, I'm so thankful we’re going to the CVC next year.’ It was a lot.

“And I’m out of school. We’re expecting kids to have homework done, be fed appropriately, nutritionally, and back in school. It’s a struggle. A lot of people think like, obviously yes, we’re going to spend less on gas, but things that will come of it — student sections, people going to the games in general — will improve. Just the day-to-day life of our athletes and coaches will improve.”

Edgewood’s situation is very similar.

The Warriors boys basketball team faced an average of nearly 120 miles, round trip, last year. That figure drops down to 36.7 in their new division.

“Obviously we’re grateful for the opportunity we had in the All-American and we developed some great relationships down there, but, for us, it’s about transportation and it’s about distance,” Edgewood Athletic Director Steve Kray said. “We were traveling down, on average, 1 hour and 5 minutes to an opponent. I’m getting my middle school kids home at 10 o’clock at night and my high school kids are coming home at 10:30-11 o’clock at night.

“It just wasn’t feasible anymore. We’ve been trying hard to get a county thing going here and it really has never panned out. This, in my opinion, is the best option for us.”

Grand Valley is in a different boat than Edgewood and Lakeside.

The Mustangs are actually tacking on an average of 3.2 miles per round trip in football and more in the majority of other sports.

Athletic Director Terry Hejduk said the driving force behind Grand Valley’s move was a rebalancing act in the CVC’s bylaws.

“The rebalancing was huge,” he said. “We’re a small school. Our enrollment in high school is right around 100, or just under 100. When you start getting into fifth, sixth grade and below, we’re near 70, 75 range. So, we sat there, looked and said ‘OK, that’s a good drop and that would fit us great in the NAC because we’d still fit their size, but where does that put us in the CVC?’

“Right now we’re going in at about school 10 or 11, enrollment wise, so it gives us time to drop. But, at the same point, we’re sitting there going ‘God, we got a great volleyball program … let’s challenge these girls.’ (In the CVC, we will) have the opportunities to push our kids, be competitive and if we’re going to have a couple down years, we can still be competitive.”

Grand Valley's football division includes Cardinal, Berkshire, Beachwood, Wickliffe, Kirtland and Hawken. Cardinal, Berkshire, Kirtland, Fairport and Wickliffe will join the Mustangs in the Valley Division for volleyball.

Grand Valley will share a division with Geneva, Edgewood and Lakeside in boys and girls soccer.

CREAM OF THE CROP

The three Ashtabula County schools had to pitch their way into the CVC. Lewis, whose first meeting as CVC commissioner was with Kray and former Lakeside AD Michael Cochran, said the CVC had to turn away nearly 10 schools.

Lakeside, Edgewood and Grand Valley, meanwhile, fit in with what the CVC was trying to do. A basketball official for more than 25 years, Lewis also had prior experience with the county schools.

“I used to love to go to Lakeside with their facilities,” he said. “Edgewood was kind of a throwback place for me and Grand Valley, their school’s just outstanding. So the facilities are great, the numbers were right and the people were great people. I look forward to working with these guys.”

BONUS POINTS

• The move to the CVC was not just about athletics. Hejduk said the conference offers mental health summits, science fairs and competitions for cheerleading, band and choir.

"There's so much more than just athletics and that was the big move for us," he said. "... There are certain things the CVC offers us that is great for the school district, because athletes are student-athletes and student comes first."

• The closer proximity to conference foes opens the door for more opportunities to host. Baxter said Lakeside will host the CVC tennis championship and the middle school volleyball championship.

This is the first of a series of stories on the CVC's expansion. The second is scheduled to be published in Wednesday's edition of the Star Beacon.