By John Montgomery
The latest league domino fell Friday, and its fall reverberated through what will soon remain of the Midland Athletic League.
Current MAL members Calvert, Lakota, New Riegel, Old Fort and Fremont St. Joe joined soon-to-be-former Sandusky Bay Conference member Sandusky St. Mary in announcing the formation of the Sandusky River League, which begins play in 2014-15.
"We're excited. We feel that the Sandusky River League is going to be a very viable league that will have some very loyal members," said Lakota Superintendent Dave Danhoff, spokesman for the SRL. "We're looking to expand. We think within two to three years we'll have a very, very solid league. We're just going to have to realize for the first couple of years, we're going to have some growing pains and we're going to have to deal with that and make the best of it.
"But we're excited. Everybody's excited and we're united and we're ready to move forward," he said.
Calvert Athletic Director Scott Brickner said the SRL will allow for some long-time rivalries to remain, while others will be rekindled.
"They're teams we have a long history of competition with. There's a tradition there. They're similar size, similar enrollment numbers. There's a built-in relationship, really, and that's the key thing with these other schools in the SRL, is a familiarity," he said. "Our fans know each other, we've competed against each other for a long time and we're very happy to be back affiliated again with Sandusky St. Mary, which for us was an old SBC (Sandusky Bay Conference) rival for a long time; huge tradition of us playing them for a long time so we're excited to have them back as part of the family.
"It's important. Kids love games like that," Brickner said. "They want a traditional rival to play against. ... In terms of the schools in the MAL, we were in the league for 27 years. ... We have a long history in that league. That's something we'll look at."
Friday's announcement came at the end of a six- to eight-week discussion between the SRL founders, Danhoff said, and followed a series other MAL schools announcing their departure from the league in 2014-15 - Carey, Mohawk and Seneca East to the Northern 10 Athletic Conference; and Hopewell-Loudon and North Baltimore to the Blanchard Valley Conference.
Left out of the SLR discussion were MAL members St. Wendelin and Bettsville, who both helped found the MAL with Hopewell-Loudon, New Riegel, Old Fort, Seneca East and North Baltimore at the start of the 1985-86 basketball season.
Danhoff said questions about student numbers at St. Wendelin and Bettsville are a concern, but added they are welcome to apply for membership and have been extended invitations.
The league's goal is to have six to eight football-playing schools and two or three non-football-playing schools.
Calvert, Lakota, St. Joe and St. Mary field football teams, while New Riegel and Old Fort do not.
St. Wendelin fielded a football team in the MAL until low numbers led to it joining the Northwest Central Conference in that sport only for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The NWCC then voted St. Wendelin out as a football member and the Mohawks played as an independent team in 2011 and 2012.
Bettsville does not field a football team.
"Our main concern right now is to try to find football playing schools. Currently we have four, and ultimately we'd like to start [the league] with six if we could; it'd be a good number, but right now we have four," Danhoff said.
"We certainly haven't shut the door on anybody, it's just one of those things where we've got to start somewhere," he said.
Danhoff said the MAL tried twice recently to expand, but neither attempt succeeded, leaving the formation of a new league as the only option.
"(Expansion) was our first choice. We attempted to do that on two different occasions, extended invitations to a lot of schools and we were declined, and so we felt at that time we had to go in a different direction," he said.
Danhoff said invitations went to several other schools, including Hopewell-Loudon and North Baltimore. He said both of those current MAL schools chose to honor their commitment to the BVC, and added he was not at liberty to name the others who received invitations.
Brian Shaver, director of parish for St. Wendelin, said rumors of the MAL's demise picked up speed when Carey, Mohawk, Seneca East, Hopewell-Loudon and North Baltimore each announced they would leave. He said he and other leaders of MAL schools hoped the league would remain, but they also kept an eye out for change.
"We certainly were looking at what was going on and we were keeping ourselves abreast of what was happening in all other leagues and potentially growing, but we were ... cautiously optimistic, hoping the MAL would stay together, which I think that the other schools which had helped form the SRL were hoping the MAL would possibly stay together as well," he said. "That option apparently seems to be fairly exhausted, so at this point, we will begin looking at our fit in other leagues.
Shaver said St. Wendelin is weighing its options of applying to both the SRL and other leagues and, despite its size, has plenty to offer.
"We think we have ... a lot of positive things to bring to the table when joining a new league," he said. "We have a pretty strong fan following, a fan base. Our gates are relatively decent, and in all leagues that we would even look at for consideration, we would bring an above average gate. We would be competitive in a league we would be looking at."
Tony Maluso also contributed to this story