After posting a 17-3-2 record, the Martha's Vineyard high school boys' soccer celebrated its first conference title this past fall - a feat even more impressive considering it was the team's first year as a member of the South Coast Conference.
Nobody could have guessed at the time the title might have been the first and last for the Vineyard - both for the soccer team and the seven other teams from the high school allowed into the conference on an interim basis in 2005.
In a decision that has left many Island officials baffled, the nine principals of the South Coast Conference voted Jan. 11 against keeping the Vineyard in the conference during a closed-door meeting at Greater New Bedford Technical Vocational high school, once again leaving a number of teams without a conference, and by extension, without a home.
"It looks like we're high and dry with this vote," Vineyard soccer coach Bob Hammond said after hearing the news his team might not have chance to defend its title. "We're a fish out of water again."
When the conference association voted in 2005 to include the Vineyard on a two-year trial basis as an associate member, the move was widely viewed as a formality before the conference voted to include the Island on a permanent basis. Associate member status allowed the Vineyard boys' and girls' soccer, field hockey, boys' and girls' basketball, boys' ice hockey, baseball and softball teams to play in a league for the first time in several years.
For the past several years, these teams have been independents, meaning school officials had to scramble each year to find teams from a variety of conferences willing to accept an at-large bid to play the Vineyard.
As independents, the Vineyard teams could not win regular-season conference titles and were forced to play a different mix of teams each season. The teams also had to face predominantly tougher and more talented teams willing to take a chance on an independent team like the Vineyard.
Several other Vineyard teams belong to other conferences. The football team, for example, is a member of the Mayflower League.
The South Coast Conference is led by the principals and the athletic directors of its nine schools: Seekonk, Apponequet, Dighton-Rehoboth Regional, Wareham, Bourne, Joseph Case, Fairhaven, Old Rochester and Greater New Bedford Technical.
After previously negotiating with the principals of the association - who have final say over whether a team is allowed into the conference - the Vineyard agreed to pay for all transportation costs incurred by the nine South Coast teams that travel to the Island by boat.
The principals were first slated to vote on whether to accept the Vineyard on a permanent basis in March of 2006, although the vote was pushed back to the spring and then to December before finally taking place last week.
The circumstances surrounding last week's vote has confused Vineyard officials, especially since the nine athletic directors met before the principals did and unanimously voted to allow the Vineyard in as full members.
A full membership would mean that all the Island teams - including football, track, cross country and golf - would be allowed to play in the South Coast Conference. The athletic directors recommended that the Vineyard be approved as an associate member if the principals did not support a full membership.
When the principals met later that day, they asked that both the athletic directors and Vineyard school officials - including Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Peg Regan - to leave the room.
When the principals emerged from the session 30 minutes later, they announced the Vineyard would not be allowed to remain in the conference. At the time, Mrs. Regan pressed the principals for answers, but was told the vote was taken by secret ballot and the Vineyard failed to secure the two-thirds majority vote required by the conference bylaws.
Mrs. Regan said later she was caught off-guard because she polled several principals by phone before the vote who supported allowing the Vineyard into the conference. She said she assumed acceptance was a foregone conclusion after the athletic directors supported the plan unanimously.
"To me this whole thing seems arbitrary or capricious at best," Mrs. Regan said. "It doesn't have anything to do with athletics, academics or costs. Whatever the reasons behind this are a mystery to me."
Earlier this week, Mrs. Regan sent a letter to the principals' association asking them to consider a re-vote immediately.
"I'm not finished with this. I'm not ready to accept an answer that doesn't have a rational explanation," the principal said.
Linda Enos, principal of Greater New Bedford Technical Vocational School and the president of the South Coast Conference principals' association, said Wednesday that she was unsure why the principals voted against allowing the Vineyard to remain an associate member of the conference.
After speaking with several of the principals, Ms. Enos provided a press release to the Gazette stating that the vote was "not a negative reflection on Martha's Vineyard High School, its students, coaches or personnel."
"This most recent vote may be a reflection of the South Coast Conference principals to keep the conference in its nine-member format," Ms. Enos stated in the release. "Each principal voted on what he or she believed was in the best interest of his or her school community. It appears likely that many schools will continue to schedule and compete with Martha's Vineyard on an at-large basis."
Ms. Enos said she had received the request for a re-vote, and the principals' association would consider the request at a future meeting.
Vineyard athletic director Michael Joyce said news the Vineyard may have lost its chance to play in the South Coast conference has been a blow to both coaches and students. In just two years' time, he said, the Vineyard has forged rivalries with conference foes, and school spirit has skyrocketed.
"It's just natural to want to play in a conference - to face the same teams year-in and year-out, to look at the standings every week and see how many games you are up or behind. It just provides extra motivation for both the players and the coaches," Mr. Joyce said, adding: "This just sets us back. This is bad news for everyone."
Glen Field, the former athletic director for the Vineyard who was pivotal in convincing the South Coast Conference to agree to the interim membership, said he was equally befuddled by the vote.
"These kids work way too hard to be told they can't play in a conference just because they live on an Island and somebody doesn't want to come over on the boat," Mr. Field said.