What does the perfect north central Ohio high school athletic conference look like?

It’s something I’ve been asking myself a lot lately now that Mount Vernon has announced its intention to leave the Ohio Cardinal Conference in the fall of 2024.

Actually, I’ve been kicking it around much longer than that.

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I started covering high school sports in the region in the fall of 1996. The 2022-23 school year is my 27th as a reporter in the area.

I’ve seen conferences come (Ohio Cardinal Conference, Northern 10 Athletic Conference, Knox Morrow Athletic Conference) and go (Ohio Heartland Conference, Mohican Area Conference, North Central Conference, Northern Ohio League). I’ve seen conferences expand (Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference, Mid-Buckeye Conference) and contract (Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference, Mid-Buckeye Conference). And on exceedingly rare occasions, I’ve seen conferences maintain stability (Firelands Conference, Wayne County Athletic League).

While there has always been some conference fluctuation, the dominoes really started to fall locally when Bucyrus left the Northern Ohio League for the now-defunct North Central Conference after the 2001-02 school year. The NOL was formed in 1944 and had the same eight members for almost a half-century after Tiffin Columbian replaced Crestline in 1954.

NOL charter members Galion and Upper Sandusky followed Bucyrus to the NCC in 2011 and just like that, one of the oldest and most stable conferences in the state found itself skating on increasingly thin ice. The ice shattered in 2016 when the remaining NOL schools (minus Ontario, which had been left out in the cold when the NCC disbanded and sought refuge in the NOL) were absorbed by the Sandusky Bay Conference.

Ontario found a home in the new-look Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference, which has undergone several facelifts since its inception as a 10-team, two-division league in 1990.

At one time, the MOAC boasted a membership roster that included Jonathan Alder and Fairbanks. Only three of the MOAC’s charter members, River Valley, Pleasant and Highland, are current members and Highland only returned this year after spending five years in the Knox Morrow Athletic Conference.

The other KMAC schools (minus Danville and football-only member Loudonville) all were at one time MOAC affiliates, too.

Loudonville’s primary home is the Mid-Buckeye Conference, which, like the MOAC, boasts a lengthy roster of former members. The current membership stretches from Crawford County (Crestline) to eastern Wayne County (Kidron Central Christian) and includes Mansfield Christian, St. Peter’s and Lucas. Only three of the six MBC affiliates field football teams. Lucas plays as an independent, while Crestline competes in the Northwest Central Conference and Loudonville is in the aforementioned KMAC.

The area’s four biggest high schools, Mansfield Senior, Madison, Lexington and Ashland, have been joined at the hip since the Ohio Heartland Conference’s formation in 1987. The OHC disbanded following the 2002-03 school year and the Ohio Cardinal Conference was born.

Meanwhile, the Firelands Conference and Wayne County Athletic League have been the models of consistency through it all. The FC’s current eight-member lineup has remained the same since 1993, when Black River left for the now-defunct Mohican Area Conference. The WCAL’s eight-school roster last changed in 1970 when Hillsdale replaced Triway.

While it’s not perfect, the area’s small-school landscape has achieved a degree of equilibrium. We will leave that alone.

That leaves us with the area’s biggest high schools in terms of enrollment. There are eight of them and they are divided evenly between the Ohio Cardinal Conference (Mansfield Senior, Madison, Lexington, Ashland) and Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference (Ontario, Shelby, Clear Fork, Galion).

So could a league with north central Ohio’s eight biggest high schools work?

When conferences fall apart, one of the most common reasons given is travel time. My proposed eight-team league (we’ll call it the Mohican Valley Conference, or MVC) would have geography on its side. The MVC’s eastern-most member (Ashland) would be about 30 miles from the western-most affiliate (Galion) and most of the travel would be done on US 30, which will be remarkably efficient once all the upgrades in and around Mansfield are complete.

The MVC’s north pole (Shelby) and south pole (Clear Fork) are roughly 26 miles apart.

As it stands now, the area’s four OCC members are making road trips to New Philadelphia, Millersburg and, for the time being, Mount Vernon. The local MOAC quartet takes regular trips to greater Marion (home of Marion Harding, Pleasant and River Valley).

Another reason frequently cited when a conference disbands is enrollment disparity. Schools with bigger student populations have a deeper pool of athletes from which to draw.

Schools in both the OCC and MOAC already are dealing with enrollment discrepancies. According to the most recent statistics provided by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the OCC’s biggest member, Mount Vernon, had a combined enrollment of 912 freshmen, sophomores and juniors as of Oct. 31, 2021. The OCC’s smallest member, West Holmes, had 466.

The gap is even greater in the MOAC. The conference’s biggest fish, Marion Harding, had a combined male and female enrollment of 841 during the 2021 count. Pleasant had a combined 271.

The MVC’s biggest member would be Ashland, with a combined 762. The smallest member would be Galion, with 390.

The MVC would build on natural rivalries that have been in place, in some instances, for decades. Madison and Shelby have met in the season-opener in football every year since 2003 (and for a number of years before that intermittently) with the exception of the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

Galion and Ashland opened the football season from 1979 to 2004. The rivalry between the Madison and Ontario girls soccer teams has developed into one of the best in north central Ohio. When Lexington won the the second of its Division II boys basketball state championships in 1991, Jamie Feick and Co. played every team in the proposed MVC in the regular season or postseason.

Of course there would be obstacles in putting together a Richland County-based, big-school athletic conference like the MVC. But for athletes and fans (and longtime sports writers), it sure would be a lot of fun.

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