News Sports Editor
The North Star League is proud of the fact it is the oldest league in the state of Michigan.
But the league is facing a critical time in its long existence if it wants to remain a viable conference in the years to come.
Each school within the league, like many schools throughout the state of Michigan, has seen a sharp decline in enrollment numbers in recent years and it's beginning to have an adverse affect on the NSL, mostly in football.
Posen's unexpected drop to 8-man football a year early brought the league down to six members this season, while more might have no choice but to go that route in the future if numbers continue to shrink and teams struggle to field 11-man teams. The conference also could lose members if discussion continues to heat up regarding consolidation. In the past Au Gres and Arenac Eastern, Hillman and Atlanta, Fairview and Mio, and Posen and Rogers City have all been linked as possible schools to consolidate.
Representatives in the league are hoping to take a proactive approach to these issues when it meets again on Nov. 9.
"Obviously, we're quite concerned, with football especially, because of the nature of the sport," said former Mio Athletic Director Doug Graham, the executive secretary of the North Star League. "It would not be good to have less than five teams, that's just my opinion. We could get by with five or six. Right now we'll continue as a six-team league. We feel comfortable doing that. It's just a matter of making sure everyone has a full schedule."
With Posen dropping its original schedule on short notice, NSL teams had trouble filling open dates right before the season. In fact, Mio was the only team that was able to replace Posen, picking up Kinde-North Huron for the Oct. 2 game that the Thunderbolts won 34-12.
Teams around the league know they will have an extra non-league date to fill again for the 2010 season, but that doesn't mean it will be any easier.
"The more open dates you have the more difficult it gets," said Atlanta AD Ron Blewett. "Scheduling is always a problem simply because there are not as many Class D schools playing football anymore.
"When we look at possible teams to play we have to ask, are they competitive, and are we competitive?"
Graham, who says the league saw these problems coming, believes the NSL may have a solution if it can work out some kind of deal that packages games between teams in the North Star League against teams in another conference. The Ski Valley and the North Central Thumb League are two leagues that could match up well with the North Star League relative to school size and travel distance. Bellaire and Pellston are two Ski Valley teams that have struggled to field 11-man teams this year and might be forced to go the 8-man route, leaving the league in a situation somewhat similar to what the North Star League is experiencing.
"There are options around," said Au Gres AD Kevin Loga. "We have a few different cards on the table. The core of the league doesn't want to make a hasty rush. We're being cautious, but we're being optimistic the league will stay intact."
Alcona thinks it can provide help to the North Star League. It has repeatedly applied for admission to the league since it became an independent in 2005, but has been turned down in each case.
"We've been trying consistently for eight years," said Alcona football coach Terry Franklin. "We proposed a two-tier system (Class C teams in one division and Class D teams in another division) and coming in just for football. We think we'd be a good fit."
While he wouldn't rule out ever bringing Alcona into the NSL, Graham said Alcona's size is the biggest obstacle that has prevented the Tigers from being admitted in the past. Alcona has 333 students according to the 2008-09 MHSAA School Directory. Hale, the largest North Star League school, has 244. Posen is the smallest school in the league with an enrollment of 85 students in 2008-09. Oscoda, Whittemore-Prescott and Rogers City are other schools in the northeastern Michigan area that have played as independents in the last few years and have been rumored as candidates to join the league if it expanded.
Rogers City is back in the Straits Area Conference this year along with Newberry, St. Ignace and Rudyard.
"Independents, like Alcona and Oscoda, the size of their schools are a lot bigger, compared to our schools, like Fairview or Atlanta," said Graham. "The other thing is travel time. Even if a school like Rogers City wanted to come into the league, and I haven't talked to (Rogers City AD) Pat Lamb in a while, from Au Gres or Arenac to Rogers City is a tremendous distance to travel."
Blewett said he would support a two-tiered North Star League and also would be in favor of bringing aboard Alcona, which had games against four NSL teams this season.
"Alcona I wouldn't have a problem with. We've been playing them," said Blewett. "Oscoda's numbers are down now, but they're too big for us to try and compete with them."
While Blewett doesn't think the North Star League's membership issues are urgent, he does think the league needs to come up with a plan before it's too late.
"It's a problem that's going to grow," he said. "Schools our size need to sit down together and discuss options. We need to look at a wider area and get schools that are compatible to our level of football."