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Vermilion: League affiliation a tough decision

Mark Hazelwood • Nov 8, 2012 at 1:00 AM

Emotions at times ran high, but one thing is clear after an open community meeting Wednesday night at Vermilion High School to discuss the future of its athletic league affiliation.

The Sailors' athletics program is caught in no-man's land, facing an extremely difficult decision.

"It's a tough spot, a tough situation," Vermilion superintendent Phil Pempin told roughly 50 people who attended the meeting. "We're in between two counties, and landlocked by Lake Erie. Geographically, we're not an attractive option to some of the nearby leagues."

The meeting lasted more than two hours, with residents expressing both confusion, frustration and some reassurance to stand behind the school when it makes a decision.

Vermilion currently has no league affiliation, and has already filled the football schedule as an independent for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Pempin said the school essentially has three options currently. One is attempting to ride it out as an independent in all sports until something better comes along. Another option that could be decided soon is rejoining the West Shore Conference, if it is approved by WSC members.

A third, while noted a distant option, is possibly approaching the Northern Ohio League again and seeing if it is interested in taking the Sailors back as an eighth member.

How it got in the current situation has been a two-year whirlwind.

The WSC formed 10 years ago, dominated by Lorain and Cuyahoga County schools similar in size. But Fairview and Firelands left after the 2010-11 school year for the Patriot Athletic Conference and were replaced by Elyria Catholic and Lakewood, the latter which has more than 700 boys to choose from for athletic teams.

That domino led to Vermilion seeking better options, which it decided in October of 2011 was the Northern Ohio League, where it would join area teams Bellevue, Norwalk, Sandusky and Willard along with Tiffin Columbian and Shelby.

However, shortly after it agreed to the NOL, the PAC came calling and mentioned to Vermilion the possibility of expanding and taking in the Sailors, which would have been a much better geographical fit, and probably a better fit competitively.

Shortly after the school year ended last year, the PAC athletic directors voted to expand, approving and bringing in Vermilion, Cloverleaf, Cuyahoga Heights and Independence. That would have allowed East and West divisions, putting Vermilion in with nearby schools such as Keystone, Clearview, Brookside, Firelands and Wellington.

Believing it was going to be accepted by the PAC, Vermilion proceeded to withdraw from the NOL before ever playing any games there. The move came just after Ontario agreed to join the NOL, which was also a travel setback for Vermilion.

However, PAC superintendents and principals opted to overrule the expansion idea, postponing the move and again leaving Vermilion without a home entering the current school year.

"We sat down and evaluated all of this, for which conference is the best fit for us," Vermilion school board member David Rice told the audience. "It was unanimous. The PAC is where we wanted to go. We felt based off conversations with league officials, we were going there and it was set."

When reapplying to the WSC, the conference told Vermilion it would need a seven-year commitment. Vermilion countered with a two or three-year commitment, but the WSC has stood firm at seven years. The payout fee to leave the WSC early was also raised from $10,000 to $80,000.

By the end of the month, the WSC will vote on possibly letting Vermilion back in the conference, something Pempin stressed is far from a guarantee. And with coming so close to the PAC, Rice acknowledged some worry about losing out on that possibility a second time, if and when it comes up again.

"My biggest concern is, I feel like there is a real level of interest in that conference," Rice said of the PAC. "After we signed on with NOL, they were like, 'why did you do that?' And so we got out of the NOL, and that's what got us in this situation to begin with.

"At the end of the day, we're not getting any bigger ... we are getting smaller. Lakewood and Avon, they aren't going to be seeing a decrease like we are."

As an independent in football, Vermilion will play Fairvew, Clearview, Firelands, Cleveland Central Catholic, Toledo Start, Youngstown Christian, Norwalk, Spencerville and Lucas. Needing to fill one more game, the school is in talks with Ontario.

On top of no all-league honors for athletes and difficult ability to schedule games, a downside to independent play is travel. The trip to Spencerville alone is 296 miles. The average round trip will be 127 miles next year, and 93 miles in 2014.

After multiple members of the community expressed frustration at the situation Wednesday night, a straw poll was taken by those who remained at the meeting towards the end.

Nine people wanted to go back to the WSC, while six were in favor of an independent slate in all sports. Three voted to reach back out to the NOL. Board members and coaches in attendance were not allowed to vote.

Pempin also acknowledged a disconnect between members of the community and athletic department, after a years of unrest have seen many changes of athletic directors and football coaches.

He also added many opinions have been expressed behind closed doors and with the public Wednesday, and said the decision is going to be a very difficult one.

"There is just a lot of speculation here in many ways ... a lot of things can happen," he said. "We're at a low point right now, and we need to do a better job for you. We have to build it the right way."


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