Practices are set to begin next week for the 2014 IHSAA football season. For two conferences, a shift of three teams from one to the other will see changes that should benefit both conferences and the schools involved.
Last year, the Hoosier Crossroads Conference elected to drop Lafayette Jefferson, Harrison and McCutcheon high schools from their conference. The decision removed the three Lafayette area schools from conference play and consolidated the HCC in to a more Indianapolis area based conference. With the HCC downsized from ten schools to seven, this allows HCC member schools to schedule out of conference games for football whereas in the past, the schedule was locked for the season as all games were “conference” games.
When the IHSAA moved to six classes for football for the 2013 season, six of the then ten Hoosier Crossroads Conference schools made the jump to 6A. Brownsburg, Avon, Hamilton Southeastern, Fishers, Lafayette Jefferson and Noblesville immediately jumped to 6A with Zionsville staying 5A though on the cusp. The remaining HCC schools were all designated as 5A for football.
While Fishers did capture the 2011 Indiana State football championship, it seemed that many of the HCC schools found it difficult to move past the sectional finals when they would play higher level competition. The inability to schedule out of conference teams, especially from the Indianapolis based Metropolitan Conference, caused some to speculate that HCC teams were not playing enough high caliber competition to prepare teams for the tournament.
Almost immediately after the announcement of the HCC downsizing, most of the 6A member schools looked to fill the void by scheduling other 6A schools, sectional opponents or regional rivals. Avon and Brownsburg added potential sectional opponents Ben Davis and Pike respectively with the thought down the line of adding a Hendricks County school such as Plainfield to the schedule. Hamilton Southeastern resumed their longtime rivalry with Carmel while Fishers and Noblesville also scheduled teams from the Metropolitan Conference.
The issue of competitive balance was not just limited to football. While McCutcheon did capture state titles for baseball (2003) and softball (2008) while a member of the HCC, the trio of schools found themselves more often than not on the wrong side of the win/loss column in conference play.
Travelling to Lafayette for most of the HCC schools also played a major factor. With fuel prices rising drastically since the inception of the Hoosier Crossroads Conference in 2000, travel costs had skyrocketed. Schools like Hamilton Southeastern, Fishers and Noblesville found themselves (on a good day) with a road trip lasting almost an hour and twenty minutes. Add traffic and the potential for bad weather during the winter sports season, and a two hour bus ride was not out of the question.
The fact that the HCC remained together at all surprised some. With the announcement of the addition of class 6A for football, many speculated that the five Indianapolis area 6A schools of the HCC might join the Metropolitan Conference or simply begin a new conference with some of the members of the Metropolitan. In the end, the seven current members of the HCC committed to continuing the conference minus the three Tippecanoe County schools.
While some in the Lafayette area were upset with the handling of the situation, it didn’t take long for the three dropped schools to find a new home in the North Central Conference.
The North Central Conference is one of the oldest athletic conferences in the state of Indiana. Originally founded in 1926 with ten schools, the conference continues to have five charter schools participating. Kokomo, Anderson, Logansport, Muncie Central and Richmond. Another charter member, Indianapolis Arsenal Tech which joined the IPS Conference in 1960, will return to the North Central for the 2015-2016 season. While the conference has undergone changes in the past year with the announcement of Huntington North leaving for the Northeast Hoosier Conference next season and the dropping of New Castle beginning this season (they joined the Hoosier Heritage Conference this season), the conference added the three former HCC schools and divided the conference in to two divisions.
The Eastern Division will include Anderson, Huntington North (to be replaced by Arsenal Tech next season), Muncie Central, Richmond and Marion. The Western Division includes Kokomo, Logansport, Lafayette Jefferson, Harrison and McCutcheon.
The divisional alignments should help in containing some of the travel costs as well as offer a better competitive balance for the conference. For Harrison and McCutcheon it will mean being in the same conference and division as sectional rival Kokomo and still able to schedule fellow sectional member Westfield.
Lafayette Jefferson may be the school however that suffers the most from the move to the North Central. As the only 6A football member of the North Central Conference (until Arsenal Tech joins next season), they will not play any potential sectional opponent or same class school this football season before sectionals begin on October 24th. They will likely be the favorite to win the West Division of the North Central this year but time will tell if what could be seen as a downgrade in competition by some in joining the North Central, benefits the Bronchos over the arguably higher level of competition they faced in the HCC.
For followers of high school football, the changes for both conferences should be viewed as a positive one. For Hoosier Crossroads Conference fans, they should expect to see more “high level” opponents than in the past as member schools strive to put the conference more on par with the Metropolitan in the states unofficial “best conference in Indiana” competition. For the North Central, the addition of three schools familiar with preparing for and playing against high level competition, the addition of Arsenal Tech next season and the splitting in to two divisions, should provide fans with games that have a more “rivalry” feel than they have had in the past.
For fans of both conferences, it’s the dawn of a new era.