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Mike Cardillo: Search for competitiveness could bring change in high school landscape

Updated 5:18 pm, Wednesday, December 26, 2012
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There are few feelings in a high school reporter's life worse than walking into a gym 15 minutes before a game is supposed to start at 7 p.m. only to see a "3" lighted up under the quarter marker on a scoreboard, meaning the varsity tip-off isn't close to starting on time.

In these situations a good way to kill time is to peruse the various championship banners adorning the walls of the gym. It's a good trip down memory lane -- take the small fading felt banner in Harding's Miska Gymnasium denoting the Presidents' 1943 Class L basketball title -- and a reminder some high school sports have been contested for nearly a century.

Often, while passing time in this ultra-exciting fashion you'll run into an acronym alphabet soup of defunct leagues on these banners such as the WCC, MBIAC, ACC, etc., which few people inside the gym have any clue what they mean.

As it stands we're closing in on two decades since the formation of high school "super conferences," which coincided with the creation of the Southern Connecticut Conference in 1994, the establishment of the South-West Conference the same year, along with the FCIAC absorbing the three Bridgeport public schools and St. Joseph in that time frame.

Since that seismic shift from smaller, regional leagues to our current power conferences, things have remained relatively static.

The Hartford-centered Central Connecticut Conference added in some schools from the Northwest Conference, swelling its ranks to a state-high 32. The SCC enticed both Milford public schools to move from the SWC in 2004, but then lost Derby to the NVL in 2009, which in turn added St. Paul Catholic of Bristol to even its membership at 12.

However, in recent weeks there's been growing murmurs about more conference change -- perhaps -- coming soon. Granted, it's not quite nearly as extreme as the realignment sweeping the NCAA -- or what happened in our region in the 1990s -- but there are indeed rumblings.

Most notably Oxford High, which opened in 2007 and is a member of the SWC, recently voted to move to the NVL -- driven by the allure of Friday night Valley football rivalries. When and if that happens is uncertain at this point. The three Bridgeport schools -- Bassick, Central and Harding -- have reached out to the NVL, too, but were turned down by the league.

Is a radically changed high school landscape right around the corner, rendering our current league set-ups to the dusty banners of history? Could one school moving set off a string of dominoes as we've seen in college?

Or is all the talk more in the range of idle speculation and what-ifs?

It probably all depends on who you ask.

"The SCC, or whatever we'd call it, would be great at 30 schools," SCC commissioner Al Carbone said this week when asked about the subject. "Divide it by 15 with comparable school sizes and give the schools the flexibility to who they'd want to be associated with."

Carbone, who is as proactive and forward-thinking as anyone involved in Connecticut high school athletics, doesn't think major change is imminent but believes there's more open-mindedness toward thinking outside the box than there's been in his nine years running the SCC. The two-year crossover series for football between the SCC and the FCIAC starting in 2013 can only be seen as a positive step toward more cooperation among leagues going forward.

In Carbone's view, the modern environment -- with so many athletes and parents focused on college scholarships -- the driving force behind what a high school athletic conference should be is competitiveness, rather than traditional geographic proximity.

"Playing a game 45 minutes away, that doesn't have to be a big deal anymore," he said. "A lot of schools play under the lights at night or play on Saturdays more. The distance thing isn't as big a problem. I'd rather play a competitive game rather than go five minutes and get buried."

But where can we realistically go from here? Aren't the leagues swelled to about their maximum?

The SCC is already at 22 schools. The FCIAC has 19 and ideally would add or lose one school to create an even number to help scheduling. Even the SWC, which doesn't exactly have a well-defined set of geographical borders, is at 16.

Unlike colleges jumping around from conference to conference -- enticed by a bigger slice of television revenue -- what tangible gains would a high school get from uprooting itself into another league? Money, aside from the cost of gas for buses, isn't a huge factor for high schools.

Ideally, yes, everyone wants to play in a like-minded league of similar-sized schools, but that's not as easy as it sounds on paper. It's true more teams in a league would allow for comparable scheduling by school size, particularly in football (which, let's not forget, drives almost everything in high school athletics), but beyond that?

And wouldn't bigger leagues diminish the state tournament? As it is the Class LL boys and girls soccer tournaments feel like an extension of the FCIAC postseason most Novembers.

Are schools willing to throw away, in some cases, a century of Thanksgiving football rivalries on the promise of better competitiveness? Shelton and Derby have managed to maintain their nearly 100-year series even though they are now in different leagues, but would it work on a mass scale?

On more practical terms would it benefit a school like Newtown or Masuk, which have been the top dogs of SWC in football to (hypothetically speaking) move to a different league? Would the trade-off of (potentially) more competitive regular seasons games vs. a tougher road to the state playoffs be beneficial?

Long story short, there probably isn't a perfect way to group high schools into athletic leagues. Geography and or tradition are probably the best options we've got.

Perhaps nothing sums up the odd, imperfect marriages of high school leagues in Connecticut more than the fact that three bordering towns of roughly the same size, Monroe, Shelton and Trumbull, each play in a different league.

mcardillo@ctpost.com; @CTPostCardillo