Northeast Michigan is getting a taste of conference realignment.
After years of participating in the North Star League, Hillman High School has decided to leave the North Star League and will join the Ski Valley Conference beginning in 2014 after the Ski Valley Board of Governors accepted the Tigers on Wednesday.
The move comes after several weeks of uncertainty over whether or not the Tigers would stay in the North Star League. With Hale, Hillman, Atlanta, Posen, Arenac Eastern, Au Gres, Fairview and Mio, the league is one of the longest continuous conferences in the state, having kept the same eight schools since 1967.
Ultimately declining enrollment among the league's schools and questions over the long-term viability of the league caused Hillman to seek other conference options.
"I have mixed feelings. With us being a charter member of the North Star League, there's a lot of history, a lot of tradition that's been a part of Hillman for so long," Hillman athletic director Barry Jones said. "If we're going to have varsity sports, JV and middle school sports, we have to be part of a league that's healthy."
Hillman had been voted into the Ski Valley Conference several weeks ago, but held off from joining officially because of some last-minute attempts to expand the North Star League. In late October, athletic directors from North Star League and Huron Shores Conference schools approved a plan to merge together and include Rogers City. Not long after, the plan was nixed by superintendents from those schools, and Hillman returned to its original plan.
"I have mixed feelings. With us being a charter member of the North Star League, there's a lot of history, a lot of tradition that's been a part of Hillman for so long. If we're going to have varsity sports, JV and middle school sports, we have to be part of a league that's healthy."
- Barry Jones, Hillman Athletic Director
Declining enrollment has put quite a strain on the North Star League in recent years and some schools have turned to co-op agreements with other schools just to field teams in certain sports. Atlanta and Fairview currently have an agreement for football and track and Au Gres and Arenac combined for football this fall. Next fall brings even more questions since Au Gres and Arenac don't plan to co-op and Hale might join the ranks of 8-man football.
"If things were as they were 20 years ago, we would have never made the move," Jones said.
It's also caused issues this winter as Jones said 10 JV girls and boys basketball games have already been lost due to several schools only fielding a varsity squad.
"We've got to face reality. Because of declining enrollment, when you're part of a conference, other schools problems become your problems," Jones said. "When you're in Class A, you can absorb that a little bit (and still field teams), but when you're in Class D, you can't."
Jones noticed Hillman's issues when he took over as athletic director this year. When he attended a monthly meeting of the league's athletic directors in August, he was shocked to hear that nearly all of them talked about how declining numbers had left their schools with barely enough kids to field teams. In September, Jones talked to North Star League President Doug Graham about expansion and then idea was rejected. The possibility of turning the league into an 8-man league for football was also discussed, but not followed up on.
Posen is currently the only North Star League school playing 8-man football.
With enrollment numbers continuing in a downward trend and the plan for a merger dismissed by the superintendents, Hillman went back to the drawing board early last month and inquired again about expansion into the Ski Valley Conference. The Tigers have received invitations from the conference several times over the years and accepted the offer this time because of the stability it offers.
The Ski Valley Conference currently has nine teams for boys and girls basketball and split into two divisions this fall for football after several schools joined for football only. In addition, several Ski Valley schools also have JV football, offering an opportunity for Hillman to restart its JV football program after only fielding a varsity team this year.
With Hillman's move now official, Jones said the goal of all Hillman's teams will be to build up JV programs in all sports and get all of Hillman's teams to commit to a weight training program to stay competitive.
Jones is aware the Tigers could see their share of struggles in a new league at the outset, but believes it ultimately will help Hillman's teams strive for a higher level of success beyond just winning conference titles.
"We need to step it up across the board - parents, administrators, parents, coaches," Jones said. "It won't come without growing pains and the move will challenge the status quo."