West PAC faces challenges with realignment
Conference meeting Wednesday decides West PAC, MPC future
HOUGHTON — The recent influx of eight-person football teams across the Upper Peninsula has created a dilemma for the 24 UP schools still playing the traditional 11-player game.
With the lack of 11-player teams across the UP, athletic directors are left scrambling to find enough opponents to fill a nine-game schedule. One solution has been conference realignment.
This past summer, Lake Linden-Hubbell, Norway and Bark River-Harris were admitted to the West PAC for football, while the Munising Mustangs were a later addition, making for a 12-team conference.
Now, more additions could be coming to the West PAC in all sports.
Iron Mountain, Negaunee, Westwood, Ishpeming and Gwinn all submitted applications to leave the Mid-Peninsula conference for full-conference membership to the West PAC. Interested schools had until Monday to apply. West PAC athletic directors have a meeting Wednesday to discuss the applications. No date for a vote on admittance has been set yet.
“Mainly, I think they’re looking for a solution to fix football. That’s the driving force for sure,” said Sean Jacques, the West PAC commissioner, and Calumet athletic director. “I think the sentiment is that if we can help UP schools fix their football schedule, and we, in turn, can be partners in some other sports, I think that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for schools to be full-conference members. I don’t know that there’s a lot of interest in allowing schools just to solve their football-scheduling problems.”
If accepted, only Gladstone and Manistique would remain in the MPC. Gladstone joined this year from the Great Northern Conference.
Deciding on who to admit and if they would accept is just the first step in a complicated process. The athletic directors could decide to admit just one or all five schools. But the accepted schools could still reject. If Ishpeming and Negaunee were accepted but not Gwinn and Westwood, Ishpeming and Negaunee could feel it makes more sense to continue playing Gwinn and Westwood instead of traveling to Hancock and Calumet.
“I think to a certain extent, that for many of the Mid-Pen schools, it only works for them if everyone that applies gets in,” Jacques said. “That would be my guess. I think their intention is to stick together as much as they can.”
If as many as all five were allowed to join the West PAC, the challenge then becomes figuring out how to manage a 17-team football conference. Deciding on the number of divisions and a schedule would be the next hurdle.
“That’s up in the air,” Houghton athletic director Bruce Horsch said. “I don’t feel that we can eliminate the four schools we just brought in. If we brought in the five that applied, we’d have to work something out where everyone can have at least an eight-to-nine game schedule.”
Excluding football, the West PAC has five schools: Calumet, Houghton, Hancock, L’Anse and West Iron County. The addition of five more presents a scheduling issue in volleyball, too.
Calumet traditionally plays in out-of-area tournaments in Cadillac, Suttons Bay and Ashwaubenon, while Houghton also plays in Suttons Bay, Gladstone and Oshkosh. Both schools take part in the Houghton Invite. The tournaments provide two of the traditional UP powers an opportunity to play stiffer competition across the state and Wisconsin. But volleyball is an 18-date schedule, meaning a 10-team conference could potentially not allow Calumet and Houghton to play in those out-of-area tournaments.
“Personally, from a Houghton standpoint, we’ve worked hard to build up a real good schedule in volleyball and basketball,” Horsch said. “I’d hate to see us lose those contests we have like some of the tournaments we go to in volleyball, and the games with Escanaba, Kingsford and Gladstone that we’ve been playing on a regular basis.”
Basketball scheduling appears to be the most seamless transition for the current West PAC schools, who play just an eight-game conference schedule, forcing the athletic directors to find 12 nonconference games. Recently, the Hancock and Calumet boys have been forced to play each other three times during the regular season to fill a 20-game schedule.
“Even though it’s football-driven for the most part, I think the West PAC schools see some merit in basketball scheduling as well,” Jacques said.
Whatever the current West-PAC athletic directors decide, any change will be felt across the UP. The Copper Mountain Conference and GNC schools who have nonconference West PAC matchups will be left to fill their own schedules.
“It’s the intention of the West PAC schools to try to minimize that as much as we can,” Jacques said of the potential impact of realignment. “We don’t want to fix scheduling problems for one group and create scheduling problems for another group. I don’t think that’s anybody’s intention.
“There’s certainly no easy answers in this. I’m not sure if this will ever be perfect for anybody. Everyone will have to give and take or it won’t work.”