Realignment Reaction

New conference assignments will have huge impact on local rivalries

by Andrew Stark

In the past, football games between South Mecklenburg (left) and Charlotte Catholic high schools were non-conference meetings. Starting in 2013, they will be conference matchups with potential state playoff implications. C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo

Every four years, the N.C. High School Athletic Association realigns conferences based largely on the enrollment and location of its 417 member schools.

Last month, the NCHSAA Board of Directors approved a realignment that resulted in some drastic changes for south Charlotte’s five NCHSAA schools – changes that have created a range of emotions for coaches and school administrators.

For starters, Myers Park High School, despite its south Charlotte proximity, no longer will be a part of the same league as Ardrey Kell, Providence and South Mecklenburg. The latter three schools – currently members of the Southwestern 4A conference – ultimately will be in a league that will include nearby Charlotte Catholic, which will be making its debut in the Class 4A ranks. Finally, Ardrey Kell, Charlotte Catholic, Providence and South Meck will join Berry Academy, Harding, Olympic and West Mecklenburg in a league, tentatively called Conference 4C.

Myers Park will be a member of a new league – tentatively called Conference 6C – with Butler, East Mecklenburg, Independence, Rocky River, Garinger and Indian Trail Porter Ridge.

The changes will go into effect during the 2013-14 school year, so Myers Park will have another year in the Southwestern 4A and Charlotte Catholic will maintain its position in the ME-GA 7 3A/4A conference during that time. But among area schools, discussion about the realigned conferences centers heavily around rivalries: some longstanding rivalries will be strengthened, some new ones will be established and some rivalries that have existed for generations likely will be hampered.

But representatives from each school largely share the sentiment of Providence football coach Randy Long: “The NCHSAA did what they felt was best, and now we need to make the best of it.”

Initial reaction

“I know why (NCHSAA officials have) come up with their plan, and I understand why it is necessary,” said newly hired South Mecklenburg football coach Rocky White. “I think we were going to be fine athletically, no matter who we play or which league we are in, so I think it won’t affect us much, if at all.

“I am happy overall with the realignment. We are in a strong league with eight good teams, but if you look at the three Charlotte-area conferences, they are all really good. You can flip a coin as to who the best conference is, so I think the (NCHSAA) did a really good job, and we are excited to get going.”

Charlotte Catholic will move up from Class 3A to 4A in 2013, and athletics director Kevin Christmas is excited to compete in the new conference.

“I think some of the new rivalries will be great,” Christmas said. “South Meck is a mile or so down the street, and we have always been big rivals with them. You go five miles the other way, and there is Providence. East Meck is not too far, Ardrey Kell also. So it makes a lot of sense for us to be in there with them. It is going to create some strong rivalries.”

Ardrey Kell athletics director Cheryl Feeney said she is excited about the new rivalries the Knights will gain and some of their existing ones they get to keep.

“We certainly understand the NCHSAA’s philosophy to realign the schools in North Carolina,” Feeney said. “School demographics change, sizes change, and it is something that is necessary, and we are in full support of their decisions.

“It doesn’t matter to us. We will play whoever is on our schedule and in our conference, so the changes suit us fine.”

Old rivalries renewed

Two of south Charlotte’s biggest rivalries will be housed under one conference roof: Ardrey Kell against Providence and Charlotte Catholic versus South Mecklenburg.

Coaches and administrators are happy that these rivalries will be renewed and, in the case of the Catholic and South Meck, intensified.

“With South Meck, we play them the first game of the year typically in football,” Christmas said. “It has always been a huge game for us but has been non-conference. Now, with them in our league, every time we play them in football or whatever sport, it could be the difference in conference and state championships, so it only adds to the rivalry.”

John Fitch played basketball at South Meck in the 1970s under legendary coach Dave Price and now is the Sabres’ boys coach. Having grown up playing in south Charlotte, and especially now as a coach, he knows first-hand how important renewing these rivalries are and is also excited to be in a league with Charlotte Catholic.

“It will just make the rivalry even larger now that (Catholic is) in our conference,” Fitch said. “We have always enjoyed playing Catholic. It will just help us in the long run playing good teams like Catholic for the state playoffs, if we are fortunate to qualify that year.”

Ardrey Kell’s Feeney said she felt that continuing to play major rival Providence, along with fellow Southwestern 4A foe South Meck, was extremely important.

“We really expressed to the (NCHSAA) committee that we wanted to keep Providence and South Meck,” Feeney said. “We have been getting a lot of community participation, and those are our feeder schools, so it was very important that we stayed together.”

Rivalries lost

When the Southwestern 4A and ME-GA 7 3A/4A disband after the next school year, it will break up obvious rivalries. While the schools hope to continue to play each other on a regular basis, it’s difficult to schedule non-conference opponents because of concerns such as common open dates.

“Between myself, (athletics director) Kevin (Hinson) and (Principal Maureen) Furr, we are going to have to sit down and figure out a schedule and who we are going to play,” South Meck’s White said. “The reality is we are going to have to miss out on playing one of those schools, whether it be Butler, Rocky River or Independence. Unfortunately we are going to have to stop playing one or a couple of them regularly.”

Christmas, though, said Charlotte Catholic will do everything within its power to continue playing games against south Charlotte private schools, such as annual Cook Cup opponent Charlotte Country Day, as well as teams from its soon-to-be former conference.

“If some of the old ME-GA 7 teams who aren’t in our conference anymore want to play against us, we will try to schedule them,” Christmas said. “We have never shied away from anyone and are fine with playing them if they want to.”

Feeney said she would love to schedule the former SW4A schools regularly and will do so whenever possible.

Losing Myers Park a concern

Myers Park was founded in 1951 and has been a constant rival for South Meck and, to a lesser extent, Ardrey Kell, which opened its doors six years ago. The fact that the realignment means Myers Park will become a non-conference opponent has perturbed some.

The original draft proposed by the NCHSAA last fall initially had the Mustangs in a league with South Mecklenburg, Providence, Ardrey Kell, Butler, Charlotte Catholic, Olympic and Porter Ridge. By the second NCHSAA realignment draft in February, however, that had changed.

“I did prefer the original state plan, yes,” said Myers Park athletics director Rick Lewis. “I am disappointed we will not have our ‘Big Three’ natural rivals in conference anymore, but we will still play them annually in the non-conference schedule.”

Fitch said eliminating Myers Park is his “biggest question as to why this was done.”

“Myers Park and South have been such a rivalry for the last 40 years,” Fitch said. “I remember watching them play each other back when I was 10 years old. I think it will be a big loss for the conference and (could) potentially hurt in the long run.”

Feeney said she, too, will miss Myers Park and old conference foe Butler.

“I have given my coaches the freedom to schedule who they would like to,” she said. “We have a strong relationship with Myers Park and with Butler, so we want to continue to play those schools in as many sports as possible and continue that strong bond.”

Charlotte Catholic’s jump to 4A

When Christmas took over as Charlotte Catholic’s athletics director 12 years ago, the Cougars were competing as a Class 2A program. Now, they are moving up to 4A, where they’ll have one of the smallest student populations in the classification. According to the Average Daily Membership numbers the NCHSAA uses to assign classifications, Catholic has an enrollment of 1,430, with only three 4A schools having fewer students. But Christmas said the Cougars are up to the challenge.

“With our student body being the size that is currently is, it will be an adjustment playing against some of the bigger schools,” Christmas said. “Just the number of students some of the other schools have to pull from will be a challenge, but we are very much looking forward to it.

“The thing is, no matter who you are playing or what conference we are in, we are going to get out there and compete.”

Final reactions

Despite the numerous changes, there is optimism as area schools look toward the new conference setups in 2013.

“Overall, we are content with the new schools we are playing,” Long, the veteran Providence football coach, said. “We know that the Southwestern 4A will continue to be one of the best conferences in the state, and there will continue to be fierce competition. We know that we will eventually have the opportunity to play some of the teams we lost from our conference in the playoffs, (and) we look forward to that.”

Feeney echoed the sentiment of many of the coaches and athletics directors.

“We will be in this (new) conference until at least 2017, and we are very excited to begin the rivalries we will have with those new schools and keep the ones we have developed with Providence and South Meck,” she said.

“It’s going to be a new challenge, and we are ready to compete for conference championships, and we hope to continue to do what we have been doing and continue to have a top-notch sports program, no matter who we are playing against.”

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