New athletic conference gets the go-ahead from school boards

Published 2:27 pm Friday, December 17, 2021

DOWAGIAC — When the 2021-22 school year ends, five teams will join forces to create a new conference in southwest Michigan.

This week, the school boards from Dowagiac, Brandywine, Buchanan, Berrien Springs and Benton Harbor approved a motion that would allow their athletic directors the option to look at joining a new athletic league.

That other option is to join together to create a five-team league that will begin play in fall 2022.

“As of Monday, our school board approved us to explore options outside the Wolverine Conference,” said Dowagiac Athletic Director Brent Nate Thursday night. “With that said, we have been looking since last April to find a fit for our school based on competitiveness, enrollment and a fit for our school as to what we believe in athletically as a district.”

Nate said his district reached out to some local schools to gauge what their interest would be.

“We had a positive response,” Nate said. “We realized that this thing might have some legs to it, some life, so then we started exploring it a little bit more.

The Chieftains, Bobcats, Bucks and Shamrocks were all members of the Lakeland Athletic Conference when it disbanded in the 1990s and were members of the Blossomland Conference before that. Benton Harbor has been independent since leaving the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference.

Part of the reason Dowagiac, which joined the Wolverine Conference in 2006, was seeking a new league was the fact that its enrollment has dropped to 518, making it the smallest team in the league by 149 students. From top to bottom, Dowagiac trails Sturgis, which is the biggest school in the conference, by 447 students. Nate does not feel that Dowagiac’s numbers will be rising anytime soon and could continue to drop.

“We wanted to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said about seeking a new athletic home. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have explored this, but we have seen some trends, and we didn’t want to wait too long. The coaches were on board.”

The other new members have enrollments similar to each other. Benton Harbor would be the biggest school with an enrollment of 621, while Berrien Springs would be third at 491, Buchanan fourth at 376 and Brandywine fifth at 369.

Unlike the Wolverine Conference, the difference from top to bottom is 252 students.

While first-year Brandywine Athletic Director David Sidenbender was happy being a member of the BCS Athletic Conference, he realized that a change needed to be made as well.

“I can’t say enough good things about the people and schools in the BCS, but we felt something had to be done because of the depletion of our side of the conference [the Red Division],” he said. “South Haven and Bridgman leaving took us to possibly only three teams next year. Football was a big factor, but all sports and sports levels were just as big a factor in our interest and movement toward making a change for next year.”

Buchanan Athletic Director Mark Frey agrees.

“After seeing South Haven and Bridgman leaving the conference, it became evident that the Red Division of the BCS was only going to have three teams,” Frey said. “This means we have to find seven games in football, 16 games in basketball and 34 games in baseball/softball. This makes scheduling very challenging and the three schools in the Red Division felt that we needed to work toward more consistency.

“By merging with two additional teams we feel that we are creating a foundation that can lead to more growth down the road, especially for those B Class sized schools that maybe are looking for a chance at more success than their current conference offers. We appreciate all of the members of the BCS and have valued our time, but we three Red Division teams feel this is the best move at this time.”

Nate said he was also looking for more flexibility in scheduling, which was much more restrictive in the Wolverine.

“We met several times to discuss the ins and outs of scheduling, the logistics,” he said. “How do we complete certain schedules? With it being only a five-team league, it leaves open dates in sports that we will have to fill. Certain sports love the opportunity to more freedom with their scheduling.”

In Dowagiac’s case, Wrestling Coach Colin Burandt likes that he will be able to schedule more home dual matches. Currently, under the Wolverine Conference format, the Chieftains have just one home match.

Nate said that the new league also gives each sport a change chance to schedule up or down based on their competitiveness in any given season.

The change will not affect most of the sports that each school currently sponsors, with the exception of Dowagiac, which has the only girls golf team. Nate said he will continue to look at ways to aid that program in finding opponents.

“Is this a good fit?” he asked. “Is it a perfect fit? Some sports will be affected more than others. We will have to get creative with our golf scheduling. I know Coach [Bob] Turner would like to have more 18-hole tournaments on his schedule to help prepare for the state tournament. We will be able to do that now.”

Sidenbender said that having five schools is only the beginning.

“This is just a first step, and ultimately, we would like to expand more or combine to make a ‘mega-conference’ in the future,” he said. “To survive, schools need to be proactive, not reactive, which is what we are trying to be at this juncture.”