Youngstown, OH (WKBN) – Back in late 2004, the Inter-County League and Tri-County League were seeing a greater disparity in enrollment and athletic competition with their member schools. That is when representatives from the two leagues had a meeting of the minds and came up with a new 16-school, two tiered league featuring the eight bigger schools in one, and eight smaller school in a second.
“The reason the league was formed was because of football. The lack of competition between the top and bottom schools was so vast it was hurting all schools. When your teams are consistently being humiliated, very few boys want to play football,” former Southern Local principal Dennis Spisak remarked.
Spisak was one of the leading figures in the merger between the ICL and TCL back in 2004. In 2004, Southern Local failed to have enough boys in their final game of the season against Crestview, forcing the Indians to forfeit the contest.
That formula seemed to work well for the first ten years of the leagues existence. There was an adjustment about five years ago when the enrollment numbers were changed from the total enrollment of a school to new separate numbers for boys and girls.
“I believed the new format was a huge success especially for the smaller schools. Within the past 10 years almost all the schools tasted some success in football. Western Reserve, Southern, Jackson-Milton, and Wellsville all made playoff appearances. Sebring started having close to .500 seasons for the first time in decades,” Spisak added.
“When we had a problem with division of the total enrollment only, I don’t know, the fifth or six year we had four teams that were all bunched in the middle and no one wanted to play up. Then we started to tinker with the system with separate boys and girls,” ITCL commissioner Paul Andraso said of the first signs of trouble.
However, due to travel issues and fluctuations in enrollment, the league made a much more drastic change by switching to a 3-tiered format beginning in the spring of 2015. That only seemed to pacify the member schools for a very short period of time as they continued to look for improvements.
“Travel was a problem when it came to weeknight contests due to the fact that athletes were getting home past 10PM on school nights. One solution would have been to play more contests on Saturdays, but this idea was nixed because school officials didn’t want to pay non-certified workers time and a half for working weekend events,” Spisak explained.
He added, “With the weeknight events many schools did experience a decline in ticket sales and concession sales. When profits fall, management panics.”
Spisak concluded, “I believe there were bruised egos from some of the bigger schools. When both leagues became competitive, I believe some of the bigger schools who were used to mopping up on the Sebring’s and Southern’s became upset when they could no longer dominate in the new format.”
With the three tier formula, schools were required to play cross-over games to complete an eight game league schedule, although only the schools in their tier counted toward league championships. This seemed to raise animosity for the set-up and forced the league to start looking at expansion to close the cross-over gap.
“When you go to mandatory cross-over games is where you really run into problems,” Andraso remarked. “If you go with mandatory cross-over games then you get your biggest schools against perhaps your smallest, and that is basically what began to happen.”
But the crack that seemed to really break the dam open came when the league tried to set up the football schedule for the 2017 season. A fatal flaw ascended to the top with the cross-over games.
“When the switch came for the 2017-18 season, Leetonia by the luck of the draw got South Range, Crestview and United. If you know anything about their football, that was a little tough for them to handle. Of course Leetonia was upset and asked what can we do? So we looked to expand,” Andraso explained.
When the superintendents voted down the expansion of two new schools to make the league an 18-team league set up with three divisions of six teams, that decision basically left the league in limbo. The 18-team league would have still included two mandatory cross-over games. To pass, the league needed a three quarter majority, or 12 of 16 schools as set up in the league’s by-laws.
“We really didn’t have anything in place for the 2017 school year. So basically the league still exist, but we don’t have any schedules for 2017 and 18, and we are just sort of in limbo to see what schools are going to want to do. There are all kinds of rumors floating around about what’s going to happen, but I don’t know if they are anything more than rumors,” Andraso explained.
He also explained that no new meetings are scheduled. He will meet with athletic directors soon just for daily scheduling issues, but not for any league governing issues.
“When you try to expand and some people turn you down that’s hurtful. And then when you get acceptance from people, but then you decide you’re not going to expand, than that becomes unprofessional is probably the best word to use. If schools would have been a little more forthcoming as to what they wanted to do it probably would have made this process a little bit easier and less messy,” he admitted.
Andraso, who has been the league commissioner since the ICL-TCL merger would go on to say, “A surprise no, regretful, yes. I think it was one of the best small school conferences in the state of Ohio. I really do. Divisions 5, 6 and 7 in football, and very competitive. Some of the schools that didn’t do well in the ICL and TCL when we formed the league, some of those schools did much better than they did before. A good example of that is Western Reserve. I think it served its purpose and it’s just a shame to see it go.”
“Yes, I am disappointed that the ITCL may be dismantled. What saddens me is the current new crop of superintendents, principals, and athletic directors are clueless about the history that led up to the creation of the league and how bruised egos are helping bring about the demise in my opinion,” Spisak remarked.
“There are a number new superintendents, some of those superintendents are from outside of the immediate area so they are not familiar with the problems that faced the ICL and TCL when this whole thing merged. I don’t know how you overcome that. There is a changing of the guard. There has been a great turnover in personnel. Out of the 16 schools we only have two of the original principals, and there are not many of the superintendents when this thing was formed. I don’t think any of the original AD’s remain,” Andraso commented on the administrative turnover.
Spisak added, “We formed this league based upon student enrollment modeled after the state tournament idea, play schools your size. I find it funny that the current crop of administrators have a problem with this, but have no problems with the state tournaments based on the same concept.”