TRAVERSE CITY — Northwest Conference expansion plans appear dead in the water.
At least for now.
The eight-school league had hoped to add four additional schools — three large and one small — to its lineup, and then split into two six-school divisions.
But of the schools that received invitations only Manistee has expressed interest. The league was still waiting to hear from Kalkaska and Forest Area. It had hoped to hear from all the schools by Thursday, but the matter is still in the discussion stage at Forest Area, according to Ron Stremlow, the athletic director.
“Where do we go from here?” asked Dave Jackson, the Northwest Conference secretary-treasurer. “That’s the million dollar question. I don’t know.”
St. Francis, Elk Rapids and Onekama officially declined invitations, Jackson said.
Jackson said the Northwest Conference’s principals and athletic directors will discuss the matter at a winter meeting Monday.
“We’ll talk through what happened,” Jackson said.
“Our original plan was that we were going to try to go big (12 schools) or not go at all,” he added. “Now we’ve got to take a look at things and see where we go. The attitude of our league members was that if we could get the three (larger schools) and one (smaller) our league would be in a better situation than it is right now. It wasn’t that we were upset about where we are. Our schools are happy with the eight as it is, but we thought if we could make things better for our big schools and for our small schools let’s pursue it.”
At present, enrollments in the Northwest range from 508 at Benzie to 124 at Leland. Two of the smaller schools, Buckley (127 students) and Mesick (205), have been “up front” with the league about competitive balance and are in “the exploring process,” Jackson said.
Karen Leinaar, athletic director at Bear Lake, said the West Michigan D League has not extended offers to Buckley or Mesick.
“We did not offer anything,” Leinaar said. “We just sat down and had a conversation. We were just talking.
“The West Michigan D is pretty happy with what we’ve got. Now, if someone comes to us and might want to do something, we’ll talk.”
The West Michigan D is comprised of nine schools with enrollments ranging from 195 at Brethren to 68 at Manistee Catholic.
Coming from the Lake Michigan Conference, Elk Rapids would have been one of the bigger schools in the proposed expansion. The Elks had a team research the Northwest Conference’s invitation and what a possible new league could look like.
“We looked at every angle of it,” Elks athletic director Jim Standerfer said. “We wanted to do what’s best for our kids and our school. We really appreciated the offer from the Northwest, but at this time, it made more sense for us to stay put. One of the reasons was the increase of travel and travel costs. In this day and age, money’s pretty short.”
Elk Rapids sent a letter to Jackson on Tuesday with the district’s decision. St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy contacted the Northwest Conference on Thursday.
“We looked at the Northwest Conference because we value their reputation and who they are,” Hardy said. “For every school, it’s your obligation to do what’s best for your kids. You look at your options and evaluate things that make the best sense. For now, we’re going to stay in the Lake Michigan Conference. We’ve got a great conference, we’ve got good people there. We’ll continue to evaluate and look at options to make it even better.”
Standerfer agreed that now is a good time for the Lake Michigan Conference to see where it’s at. One change he would like to see — bringing St. Francis back into the fold in football.
“Hopefully, this will drive them back in,” Standerfer said. “It would make what’s already a good conference even better.”
Jackson said trying to appease the needs of the existing Northwest Conference schools was a major reason for the expansion effort.
“That was part of the issue we were trying to deal with,” Jackson said. “You’ve got Benzie and Kingsley that would like to see more competition in the league so they can better prepare for tournaments. Then you’ve got Mesick and Buckley that are saying we’d like a little less competition so that our athletes are encouraged as well. We were trying to meet the needs of both levels in our league.”
Glen Lake would have benefited from the expansion.
“It would have been nice to see it expand — with the larger schools especially for us,” Lakers athletic director Mark Mattson said. “We’re a school that has girls tennis and boys and girls soccer. We need to try to look for competition from some of the other schools in our area. For example, it could have turned boys tennis into a legitimate sport, because we just don’t have that right now.”
Schools will now watch to see what movement happens with other leagues.
“Ideally, we want to keep the integrity of the Northwest Conference,” Mattson said. “But if the smaller schools leave, or if one or two of the bigger schools go, we’d have to look at our options. Not to say we’re looking to leave — our goal was to expand the conference so nobody left. But we would have to take a look at considering options if things shake out. If nobody leaves, we’re full speed ahead and we remain where we’re at.”