It was the spring of 2016 and the athletic conference carousel was in full whirl. The Northern Ohio League, the gold standard for conference stability for almost 50 years, was ripping itself apart and the ensuing earthquake was shaking the ground from Lake Erie to suburban Columbus.
I asked Ohio Cardinal Conference commissioner Ron Dessecker what he thought of all the movement and he said something that has stuck with me ever since.
“If you throw a stone into the center of a pond, it creates ripples all the way to the shore in all directions,” Dessecker said. “You could have one or two teams move to a different conference in the northwest part of the state and you would see the repercussions all the way to the Ohio River.”
Fast-forward four years and ground is rumbling again.
Highland recently announced its intention to leave the Knox Morrow Athletic Conference for the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference, a league it helped form in 1990 and remained a member of for the next 27 years.
By all accounts, the move is the right one for Highland. The school was always the biggest in the KMAC, which began operation in the fall of 2017, and the discrepancy in student population is predicted to become even more pronounced after a major distribution center recently opened in Marengo — more available jobs in southeastern Morrow County mean more people will move to the area.
The MOAC had an opening after Buckeye Valley left for the Mid-State League in 2019 and, as Ontario athletic director Jeff Fisher told me earlier this week, “Highland checks a lot of boxes.” Principals of the seven current MOAC member schools agreed, voting unanimously last week to accept Highland.
So where does that leave the KMAC?
“The KMAC’s executive committee and I have been aware of the possibility of Highland returning to the MOAC for over a month. We have sent letters to several schools asking if they are interested and have received several back,” KMAC commissioner Barry Wolf said. “We are in the process of reviewing these letters of interest to determine how the schools would fit into the KMAC.”
I’m not privy to the inner workings of the KMAC executive committee, but if I were a member I would take a close look at a couple of Mid-Buckeye Conference members. From the outside looking in, Lucas and Loudonville both seem to fit the KMAC’s profile.
The Ohio Department of Education provides enrollment figures to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which uses the data to determine the tournament divisions for each of its member schools for the following two-year cycle.
The most recent enrollment figures were made available by the OHSAA in February of 2019 and at the time, Lucas had an enrollment of 150 students in grades 9 to 11. Loudonville had 240.
With Highland’s departure, Fredericktown has the biggest student population among the remaining KMAC schools with a combined boys and girls enrollment of 298 according to the OHSAA’s figures. Danville (153) is the smallest.
If Lucas were extended an invitation, it would become the KMAC’s smallest school in terms of combined student enrollment. Loudonville would rank fifth.
Geographically, both would fit nicely, too. In fact, a portion of the Loudonville-Perrysville district extends into northern Knox County. Lucas would be the KMAC’s northern-most school. The distance from Lucas to Centerburg, the conference’s southern-most school, is roughly 41 miles. Considering that the Cubs compete as an independent in football — last year’s schedule included trips to Lancaster Fisher Catholic and Leavittsburg LaBrae (in Trumbull County) — a 50-minute bus ride probably doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Loudonville competes in the Principals Athletic Conference in football and five of the conference’s member schools are in Stark and Summit Counties. Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy is almost 75 miles from Loudonville. What’s more, the Division VI Redbirds have struggled against the Principals Athletic Conference’s Division IV and Division V foes. In its three years of participation in the conference, Loudonville is a combined 4-17.
If the KMAC’s goal is to add more than one school, both Lucas and Loudonville could be in play. Depending on the conference’s ambition, current Mid-Buckeye Conference members Mansfield Christian, St. Peter’s and Crestline might also be good fits both geographically and demographically.
Perhaps the KMAC is looking elsewhere to fill out its roster. All seven of the current members are located within the central district and adding another central district school makes sense. Lucas is a northeast district member, along with MBC members Mansfield Christian, St. Peter's and Crestline. Loudonville is included in the northwest district.
Licking County League affiliates Utica and Northridge could also be contenders as both districts extend into Knox County. Both are Central District schools. Northridge would be the better fit in terms on enrollment, with a student population of 306. Utica's enrollment, according to the OHSAA figures, is 407.
The ball is in the KMAC’s court. What the conference’s officials decide in the coming weeks and months could re-shape the landscape of small-school high school athletics across the region for years to come.