SPARTA – The Knox Morrow Athletic Conference will soon lose its biggest member school district.
Highland announced Thursday it will rejoin the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference in the coming years. The Scots will continue all sports with the KMAC through the 2020-21 season, and football will stay through 2021-22 for scheduling purposes. By the 2022-23 school year, all Highland teams will be competing in the MOAC.
Highland was a charter member of the MOAC when it began in 1990. The Scots competed in the conference for 27 years before leaving, along with six other schools, to form the KMAC in 2017 (Danville came from the Mid-Buckeye Conference).
The decision to leave the KMAC was not an easy one, Highland athletic director Mike Delaney said. Morrow County’s other three school districts – Cardington, Mount Gilead and Northmor – will remain in the conference. Highland will leave behind longtime local rivals, such as Centerburg and Fredericktown, and will join a conference that has changed significantly since the Scots left in 2017.
But the move made sense for Highland, for a variety of reasons.
First, Delaney noted Highland’s size. Highland is far-and-away the biggest school district in the KMAC – it is a Div. IV football school, for example, while the rest of the conference is Div. VI or Div. VII – and it is expected to grow.
Marengo landed a Dollar Tree/Family Dollar distribution center, located near the Route 61/I-71 interchange, in 2018. The sprawling 200-acre facility opened in 2019 and currently employs 400 people, making it Morrow County’s second-largest employer.
Local officials view Dollar Tree’s investment in Morrow County as a sign of things to come. The county is expecting to see growth from Columbus, the fastest-growing city in the Midwest, in the coming years. Morrow County is located less than an hour north of Columbus, and it neighbors Delaware County, the fastest-growing county in the state.
“The growth really hasn’t hit yet, but it’s coming,” Delaney said.
Joining the MOAC will allow Highland to grow, but not need to change conferences as a result. Highland currently ranks fifth in the MOAC in high school enrollment, according to figures provided by Delaney; Marion Harding, Ontario, River Valley and Shelby are all bigger school districts, while Clear Fork, Galion and Pleasant are smaller.
“Competition-wise, we’re right in the middle (of the MOAC) and it will allow us to grow some without us having to look for another league for another 15 years…” Delaney said. “We’re right in that sweet spot.”
Moving to the MOAC will also allow Highland to expand its athletic offerings.
Highland is currently the only school in the KMAC that offers boys and girls soccer, and it's one of the few that offers girls golf. This makes scheduling difficult, Delaney said, as fewer games are guaranteed. The MOAC, meanwhile, offers varsity competition in all three sports.
“In order for our programs to grow, we not only need to be challenged, but we also have to have opponents readily available,” Delaney said.
The MOAC offers similar opportunities for growth at the sub-varsity levels. Highland is looking to form freshman teams in sports like football and basketball. While the KMAC traditionally has not offered competition at that level, the MOAC will.
“I think the attitude of the athletic programs and our parents, the expectation is we need to have those kids playing one more year together,” Delaney said.
The same goes for middle school athletics. By joining the MOAC, Highland’s middle school programs will have local opponents readily available, which will provide a better experience for players, coaches and parents.
“It’s difficult long-term if our youngest competitors are traveling the farthest distances in order for me to find games…” Delaney said. “For the growth of our programs and to challenge our programs, we need more opportunities for our kids to play.”
Delaney, who coached basketball at Fredericktown and is closely connected with other KMAC athletic directors, said the decision to leave the conference was not at all personal. There have been “no issues within the KMAC” through nearly three years of competition, Delaney said, and “our relationships with all the schools are really good.”
The decision to switch conferences was not financially motivated, either, Delaney added.
“I just think when we looked at the big picture and the direction our school district is growing, it just seemed to make more sense now, moving forward, than it did when we left the MOAC,” Delaney said.
Highland first received an invitation from the MOAC to rejoin the conference in early January, Delaney said. Highland officials immediately notified the other KMAC school districts.
“There were no secrets,” Delaney said. “We’ve always wanted to be transparent about this because if any school was going to leave the KMAC sooner rather than later, it would be us.”
MOAC commissioner Bill Clauss and several member school district representatives came to Highland on Jan. 30 to meet with Delaney and other school officials. They discussed the invitation and what the transition would mean for everyone involved, Delaney said.
Highland officials met internally afterwards to mull over the decision. Coaches and school board members were consulted during this time.
Highland ultimately decided the move made sense, and on Wednesday, the school board passed a resolution approving it. The principals of the MOAC voted unanimously Thursday morning to allow Highland to rejoin the conference.
Clauss said the MOAC is thrilled to have Highland back. The conference has seven schools this year, as opposed to an even eight, because Buckeye Valley left to join the Mid-State League.
“The MOAC views Highland as an outstanding addition and a school similar in size to the other MOAC schools,” Clauss said in an email. “With their addition, the MOAC is balanced with four Central District schools and four Northwest District schools.
“The principals voted unanimously to accept Highland, which reflects the positive attitude all seven schools have regarding this addition.”
Delaney said KMAC officials seemed to understand and accept Highland’s decision.
“I would say they weren’t surprised. Some of them kind of expected that to eventually happen. They might have been a little taken aback that it was happening right away, but nobody was mad,” Delaney said. “Nobody was shocked by the fact that this was something we were looking at.”
Given Highland’s history with many of the KMAC’s members, Delaney said the school district emphasized transparency and communication throughout the decision-making process.
Highland plans to keep all varsity sports in the KMAC through 2020-21, so the conference has time to select its replacement. Highland will keep its football program in the KMAC through 2021-22, given the challenges that come with finding a new opponent on a 10-game schedule (the OHSAA also enforces a two-year buffer period for conference departures in football).
“We want to continue to have good relationships on and off the field with KMAC schools. We are looking to schedule a majority of the schools in non-league action, and that’s something our school board has prioritized,” Delaney said. “They don’t want to lose that connection with the county schools, as well as Fredericktown, Centerburg and others.”
Clauss said the MOAC is “happy to be back to an eight-member conference and has no plans of further expansion.” The KMAC, meanwhile, is now tasked with finding its next member school district.
While several area schools have been discussed internally, KMAC commissioner Barry Wolf said he would not disclose names at this time.
“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,” Wolf said in an email. “We are in the process of reviewing these letters of interest to determine how the schools would fit into the KMAC.
“Due to current league affiliations, I am not going to disclose what schools have shown interest. The decision to add or not will be made by the executive committee.”
Wolf said the executive committee will ultimately meet to decide which school will be accepted into the KMAC. But the timing of that meeting “is in a state of flux because of the coronavirus.”
“Each of the other seven KMAC schools will vote on who to add,” Wolf said. “Athletic directors, principals and superintendents are all being consulted.”