Chippewas in Lakes 8?: Athletic directors expected to start vote today

Manistee fullback Lane Gancarz (center) tries to shed a tackle from Ludington’s Boyd Meeker during the Chippewas’ 40-39 win on Aug. 26, 2011. Manistee and Ludington will be conference rivals if the Chippewas are accepted by the Lakes 8 Activities Conference. (Matt Wenzel/News Advocate file photo)

MANISTEE — Is this the final school year Manistee competes as a primary independent?

The Chippewas should get a good indication today of where their bid to join the Lakes 8 Activities Conference stands, since the conference’s athletic directors are scheduled to meet in Muskegon and are expected to vote on Manistee’s application, according to Ludington athletic director Steve Brockelbank.

With Newaygo leaving the Lakes 8 for the Central State Activities Association after this school year, the conference has been seeking applications from other schools to join. Manistee would need three-fourths of the remaining schools (Fremont, Fruitport, Grant, Tri-County, Ludington, Orchard View and Spring Lake) — or six of seven — to agree before the vote moves on to principals and superintendents.

As one of the seven athletic directors, Brockelbank knows where he stands on Manistee’s application, but wasn’t ready to speculate about how his fellow conference ADs feel about it.

“I know that we want them in and we support it,” he said. “Six out of seven, I don’t know the answer to that.”

LAST LEAGUE

Manistee was last a member of the Western Waterways Activities Association, which disbanded after the 2007-08 school year when it had been reduced to just four members. The other three — Holton, Hesperia and White Cloud — found a new league (CSAA). Manistee didn’t. Some think that’s a result of how Manistee tried to change the alignment of the WWAC in 2003.

Manistee athletic director Kenn Kott, who was also the AD in 2003, said the WWAC was comprised of 15 teams in three divisions. The Manistee football program was in the midst of a 33-game losing streak and wanted to be part of a different division for football.

“We were hoping to get some relief and go from the tough division we were in because at that point in time, every one of those teams were very good and we simply weren’t at that time,” Kott said. “Being the smallest school in the (division), we were just hoping we could do some shifting around and it would be more competitive for everybody. It was just something that never worked out. Our board decided that we couldn’t take the 60-0 shellackings anymore by some of those schools and they decided we would leave just for football, but of course they said you can’t just do that. … That’s when everything broke down.”

Manistee was kicked out for a year and then brought back as the league shifted to Lakes and Rivers divisions. But, that was only temporary and before long the WWAC was reduced to just four teams as others left to join new leagues. In fact, the remaining seven members of the Lakes 8 are all former WWAC schools.

NEXT LEAGUE

Over the last few years, Manistee has worked on latching on to another league but has been rebuffed by the CSAA and the Northwest Conference. But, that hasn’t deterred the Chippewas from looking further.

“We’ve been working real hard the last three or four months on trying to find Manistee a home in a league somewhere,” Kott said. “We’ve looked at a lot of different possibilities, investigated a league up north, a league down south, we even investigated possibly forming a new league with several teams. Out of all the possibilities, all the things we’ve looked at, as of right now, the Lakes 8 is the best avenue for us to go.”

Manistee meets the Lakes 8 requirements for sports offered, facilities and enrollment, which was between 500 and 1,000 students. Considering Manistee (MHSAA listed enrollment of 511) would be the smallest school in the Lakes 8 by nearly 100 students and Ludington is the only member relatively close in distance, it’s not the ideal situation.

“If I could go out and hand select schools to form a league, it would be different than the Lakes 8 Conference,” said Manistee Area Public Schools superintendent John Chandler. “(But) I can’t do that. Given our available options, this is a very good option for us.”

It also appears to be Manistee’s only option.

“To me, I think it’s the best last chance,” said Manistee football coach Gus Kapolka. “I don’t think it’s a desperation move on anybody’s part, I just think it’s gotten to the point where it kind of fits for everybody.”

BENEFITS

Although regular trips to Muskegon and Fruitport aren’t a part of an ideal situation for Manistee, there would be benefits to becoming a Lakes 8 member.

“The first and most important benefit is the benefit for the kids and the ability to compete for conference championships and to earn all-conference awards,” Chandler said. “Secondly, there’s a huge benefit when it comes down to scheduling. We’re getting everybody’s leftover dates and games.”

Scheduling can be a constant nightmare for an independent such as Manistee and having fixed dates would be a plus when trying to find nine games for football or 20 for basketball. Chandler sees the prospect of joining the Lakes 8 as an incentive for all the school’s programs to improve.

“We’ve been able to have a team record but it’s not really been in relationship to anything, it’s just kind of been out there in a vacuum,” he said. “Now our team records are going to be ranked one through eight in this conference and that’s going to force us to step up our game in some of our sports.”

PROBLEMS

Other than travel and being the smallest of eight fellow schools, there are a couple issues that would have to be cleared up for Manistee to be in the Lakes 8 and it starts with the football schedule for this fall.

“Football scheduling is usually done one to two years in advance,” Kott said. “The league does have their football schedule done and we have our football schedule done. For us to join the league, as far as football goes next year, would require a lot of changes and a lot of maneuvering on our part as well as theirs and I don’t know if that’s something that would be able to happen or not.”

That leaves open the possibilities that if Manistee is accepted to the league, all schools would have to rework their schedules, or the Chippewas could delay being a member for football until the 2013 season.

“Their league made a bunch of commitments … and they don’t want to renege on those games right now,” Kott said. “That creates bad feelings amongst schools.”

Brockelbank said that when reviewing Manistee’s application, the Lakes 8 must also discuss whether or not to include the Chippewas in middle school sports, due to travel.

Manistee is a member of the Lake Michigan Conference for skiing, Mid-Michigan Wrestling Conference, the Northern Michigan Hockey League and the Coastal Swim Conference, but only wrestling would be affected by joining the Lakes 8.

FOOTBALL

Although the Manistee football program was at the center of discontent in the WWAC, Kapolka said he thinks the Lakes 8 would be a good fit for the Chippewas.

“They have a league that has a need, they have an opening,” he said. “Geographically I think it works, size-wise it kind of works.”

Since Kapolka took over as coach of Manistee in 2004, the Chippewas not only snapped a 33-game losing streak but have qualified for the playoffs twice, including last season, while playing a competitive schedule.

Three Lakes 8 teams made the playoffs last season in Fruitport, Ludington and Spring Lake.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Kapolka said of the prospect of being a Lakes 8 member. “I also think our program is a lot stronger now than it was in 2004 when we took it over. I think our feeder program is established, we’ve got a lot of continuity in the middle school, our coaching staff has stayed together for a long time and the philosophy in our program has remained constant.”

WILL IT HAPPEN?

Although Ludington is Manistee’s oldest rival, Brockelbank has been pulling for the Chippewas to join the Lakes 8 and thinks it’s a good fit.

“I’m probably one of their biggest advocates at the league meetings,” he said. “It just makes sense for us and our fans and it makes sense because we play each other in everything. … From our viewpoint, it’s a great fit.”

League president and Orchard View athletic director Ken Overla couldn’t be reached for comment on this story, but Brockelbank said he doesn’t think he’s alone in supporting Manistee.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think they realize that to have a solid league, it helps to have eight. It solidifies everything. It makes scheduling much easier for everybody.”

Manistee’s chance of joining may have been made easier by its competition, which is apparently no one since Brockelbank said the Chippewas were the only school that applied to join by last Friday’s deadline. Belding applied but removed its application when the OK Conference realigned.

Brockelbank said he expects the athletic directors to vote today and if the three-fourths majority is met by the ADs, principals and superintendents, the goal is for each school’s board of education to vote on it next month. Since the MAPS board of education already voted unanimously in favor of applying to the Lakes 8, if the other schools accept Manistee, no further action is required on its part to join.

Whether or not the process will work out in Manistee’s favor is unclear, but its intentions and desires certainly aren’t.

“We’re ready to get into a league and now is the time,” Kott said. “We don’t know how much longer we would have to wait for another opportunity like this.”

Leave a Reply