A plan to allow the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High school to join the Eastern Athletic Conference — a sports league predominantly made up of parochial schools from the South Shore — has been greeted enthusiastically by many coaches, school officials, students and parents.
Earlier this year, officials from the Eastern Athletic conference — which includes Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth, Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton, and Somerset High School — unexpectedly approached officials at the regional high school and asked if they would like to join its ranks.
Several Vineyard teams have been without a conference since the principals of the South Coast Conference voted in December of 2006 not to allow the regional high school to remain in the league. Currently the high school is a member of the Mayflower League for football, track and cross country; all other teams are essentially without a home.
Although the offer from the Eastern Athletic Conference was welcomed by many, it does have its detractors — chief among them Vineyard varsity football coach Donald Herman.
Coach Herman has coached the football team since 1988 and has won numerous Mayflower League Large division titles, several MIAA Super Bowl titles, and a bevy of Island Cup wins over inter-Island rival Nantucket.
Coach Herman said last week he was openly opposed to the football program joining the Eastern Athletic Conference. He said the schools in that conference are much bigger and draw from a larger pool of student athletes, and the level of competition would be much higher than the Mayflower league.
He said the Bishop Feehan football team won the 2007 division II Eastern Massachusetts Super Bowl by defeating Walpole in the final. And while the Vineyarders have won titles of their own, they play in a relatively lesser division in terms of school size and talent; they most recently played in the Division 6 Super Bowl in 2003.
Mr. Herman said the radical change in the level of play would not only make it harder to win games, but also could discourage athletes from joining the team and hurt the program.
“Some of these teams [in the Eastern Athletic Conference] are off the charts; they have more resources and more students to choose from. It would be the wrong move for [football] . . . it would hurt the kids,” he said.
He also said changing leagues could jeopardize the annual Island Cup game against Nantucket. Although the Whalers now play in the Mayflower league small and the Vineyarders play in the Mayflower league large, there is still a conference connection. If that connection is severed, Coach Herman speculated, Nantucket may be less inclined to schedule the nonleague game.
“At least now we are still in the Mayflower league; if we join another league altogether it’s hard to say what might happen.”
Athletic director Mike Joyce, however, said there was nothing to indicate the Island Cup game was in trouble if the Vineyard moves to the Eastern Athletic Conference. He said the move would likely include all the school’s athletic teams except the few without counterparts in the Eastern Athletic Conference, including boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, girls’ ice hockey, and sailing.
Mr. Joyce said he doubts the conference would allow school officials to pick and choose which teams were allowed entry into the new league.
“Their desire is to have all of our teams became part of the league, not just some of the teams,” he said.
Mr. Joyce said he understands the apprehension.
“Anytime you join a new league there is a shift in the competition. Some teams find the competition gets better, for others it gets weaker. You don’t want to move into a league where you get beat by all the other teams, but you also don’t want to be in a league where you beat all the other teams every game,” he said, adding:
“The best you can do is find a balance that is best for as many teams as possible.”
Superintendent of schools Dr. James Weiss agreed entering a new league can be a balancing act, but said he supports the move. He said among other things it will allow student athletes to earn all-star status.
“I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” he said.
Mr. Joyce said he has polled the athletic coaches, and most support the move to the new conference.
Boys’ soccer coach Bob Hammond, whose team won the South Coast Conference regular season title two years ago before the league voted to drop the Vineyard, said he supports a move to any athletic conference, but feels the Eastern Athletic Conference is a good fit.
“We have to think about what is good for the kids. Being a part of a league with an opportunity to win a title and be named an all-star is so important,” he said.
Girls’ soccer coach Russell MacDonald agreed. “Currently, most of our athletic teams play schools that have very little in common with our community. We are left to schedule those teams that have openings after their league obligations and local rivalries are scheduled. Some schools just do not have openings or are very limited in available dates,” he said, adding:
“On many occasions our schedules are burdened with an imbalance of home and away events, back-to-back contests, huge gaps between contests and the scheduling of much larger schools.”
Baseball coach Gary Simmons is still undecided. “One element of these private schools is there seems to be some unofficial recruiting going on. They put on these open houses to attract new students and the coaches are there to answer questions and talk about the team, and it seems to create an unfair advantage. The other question I have is why, exactly, do they want us? Are they just trying to fill that league out?”
But he also said there are elements of the plan he likes.
“We would be playing teams we are familiar with; so if you went out and played Bishop Feehan early in the season you know what to expect when you play them later in the season. And if they beat you one year, you know you have to work that much harder to beat them the next year,” he said.
As a contingency, school officials may ask the Mayflower League to extend a temporary probationary period for reentering the league, in case the new arrangement does not work out. Mr. Joyce said he plans to meet with officials from the Mayflower league later this month to discuss that and other options.
The final decision on whether to join the league will be made by Mr. Joyce and high school principal Stephen Nixon. The Eastern Athletic Conference has asked for a reply by Dec. 1.