St. Francis’ future in LMC in question as superintendents meet to discuss league membership, competitive imbalance | Sports

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CHARLEVOIX — The shape and makeup of the Lake Michigan Conference could soon be changing.

Superintendents from the eight school districts that make up the LMC met Friday in Charlevoix regarding the future of Traverse City St. Francis in the conference, and some expressed the possibility of leaving for other conferences in northern Michigan. However, those involved said any movement is in the early stages and nothing is decided or imminent.

Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools Superintendent Mike Buell requested the meeting to discuss “league membership and competitive imbalance.” GTACS oversees St. Francis, and Buell was made aware of concerns about St. Francis’ athletic prowess and conversations questioning if the other seven LMC schools would be better served not having to compete against the Gladiators.

Buell said the meeting was “professional” and “civil.”

“It was a little more anemic than I expected,” he said. “I thought there might be some people declaring, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I was pretty concerned about everyone voting without having the input of data and facts versus sentiments. But there was no vote. So I was relieved to tell you the truth.”

St. Francis has been a member of the Lake Michigan Conference from its inception in 1998 after the Great Northern Conference dissolved in 1997. Schools from the GNC’s Lake Michigan Division — St. Francis, Boyne City, Charlevoix, East Jordan, Elk Rapids, Harbor Springs and Kalkaska — reformed after the dissolution as the Lake Michigan Conference and eventually included Grayling in 2003.

Word going into the meeting was that officials from several LMC schools were in favor of realigning the LMC without St. Francis as a partner school and that a vote might be taken to direct the high school principals and athletic directors to begin work on such a change .

Although the superintendents can provide direction, the action of removing a school from the conference is approved by the principals.

The reasoning behind the move is that some LMC officials feel their student-athletes can no longer compete with the gladiators on the field of play.

The Gladiators won 45 more conference championships than their closest rival, Harbor Springs, over the league’s 25-year history in all sports.

The Gladiators claimed titles 137 times — about 5.5 a year — to Harbor’s 92. Other schools’ league title levels are Charlevoix with 74, Elk Rapids 61, Kalkaska 26, Boyne City 22, East Jordan 21 and Grayling 17. Grayling joined the LMC in 2003, with the rest of the school in the league ever since it started.

St. Francis won five of the last six boys basketball championships, nine of the last 11 in volleyball and four of the last five in boys cross country. Other sports are even more of a stranglehold for the Glads, with the girls cross country team winning eight consecutive titles, boys golfs taking nine straight, boys tennis eight in a row, girls track and field five years running, and girls tennis four consecutively.

“I know it’s not easy when you have one school that’s won’t be a lot,” Buell said. “We’ve had such a great stretch of athletes over the last few years. It’s sure not the norm, but it’s the reality.”

Kalkaska Public School Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer said he and other officials in his district are in favor of moving on without St. Francis in the league.

“Over the last 25 years, a lot of the schools have changed shape and size; and what it comes down to is that we’ve got a lot of schools who feel like there’s a big competitive disadvantage,” Heitmeyer said. “That’s not fair because they (St. Francis) are very competitive and they win year in and year out. While we see both sides, there are a lot of schools that are struggling to compete.”

Buell said he is aware of that point of view but isn’t sure all of the LMC partners feel the same.

“I think that is Rick’s opinion for his district, but I don’t believe it is accurate for the sentiment in the room,” Buell said. “But me knowing that sentiment existed, … it’s awkward. I don’t understand it, but I know it’s there and it’s real.”

If forced out, St. Francis could become a school without a conference — leaving the Gladiators in a position to have to travel farther to find willing opponents. Buell said that is likely to affect the student-athletes’ academic performance and reduce actual time in the classroom

“You don’t want to have to remove kids from school to travel to games,” Buell said. “That’s why geography is so critical.”

Elk Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Julie Brown said Wednesday that she had not heard about any issues with St. Francis from her principal or athletic director.

“We have a healthy rivalry with St. Francis,” Brown said before the meeting. “I don’t know of any reason why Elk Rapids would want schools removed. We compete pretty well with everyone.”

The current enrollment numbers that the MHSAA used this school year to determine playoff divisions have Kalkaska at 447 students followed by Grayling (440), Boyne City (432), Elk Rapids (392), St. Francis (356), Charlevoix (281) , Harbor Springs (246) and finally East Jordan (239).

“Where does the future of the league go?” Heitmeyer said. “A couple of schools are thinking of leaving the league. What happens if they do? Is that also going to create a domino effect?”

Heitmeyer declined to specify which schools are considering leaving, but he said they would likely be the smaller schools in the conference that would be a “good fit for the Ski Valley (Conference).” Heitmeyer said KPS officials have had discussions with the Highland Conference, but those are “on the back burner” as they work through the LMC issue.

“That is a possibility for us down the road if something were to happen to the (LMC),” he said.

If the current effort to oust St. Francis from the LMC is successful, it would not be the first time.

In July 2010, superintendents from the Lake Michigan Conference approved a plan that forced the Gladiators out in football but allowed them to remain in the LMC in all other sports. That change took effect in 2012.

Some felt that move in 2010 was necessary to keep the LMC together as the Gladiators’ dominance on the gridiron had athletic directors within the LMC exploring the option of leaving the conference to find fairer competition. St Francis had won the league’s football title in 12 of 17 years since its inception starting with the 1998 season.

The LMC football league didn’t last much longer anyhow, combining with the Northwest Conference following the 2013 season to create the Northern Michigan Football League. The NMFL is now split into three divisions with St. Francis and Grayling in the Legends Division and the remaining LMC schools split between the Leaders (Elk Rapids, Charlevoix, Boyne City and Kalkaska) and the Legacy (East Jordan) divisions.

Conversations about removing St. Francis from all remaining sports began months ago at a meeting of the LMC principals, Heitmeyer said. The conversation then progressed to the athletic directors before reaching the superintendents.

“There’s no decision at this point. There’s not even necessarily a timeline,” Heitmeyer said. “But we were all able to put some things on the table and have a pretty good discussion about where we are.”

Heitmeyer said there are a lot of variables to consider.

“What’s going to happen if St. Francis does leave? What’s their next step? But the other piece is if the league crumbles, where would we go?” Heitmeyer said. “We don’t think going into the Northwest Conference makes a lot of sense; and if a few of us decided to stay together, who becomes a part of the rest of the league?”

The one question that remains simple for Buell to answer is this: Does St. Francis want to leave the Lake Michigan Conference?

“No. No, for sure we don’t,” Buell said. “We are a charter member and have been there from the beginning, so we want to stay.”

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