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After 10 years, teams struggle with independence



Published: Sun, April 28, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Warren JFK and Campbell have spent 10 years trying to find a league that will let them join.

By JOE SCALZO

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

Paul Lepro has sat on a bus for three hours to travel to a football game in Delphos.

He's gone to baseball practice on beautiful spring days after an opponent canceled to make up a rained-out league game.

He's played with -- and against -- his good friends in summer leagues and camps, without playing them in high school.

Such is life for athletes at Warren JFK, an independent and a Catholic school in an area where it's not fun to be either.

"We want to play against our friends and our rivals," Lepro, a senior baseball player at JFK, said. "That's what being in a league is about. That's what's fun."

Since the Mahoning Valley Conference broke up more than 10 years ago to form the Metro Athletic Conference, Kennedy and Campbell have tried, and failed, to find a league.

"For some reason this area has something against Catholic schools," JFK baseball coach Don Lee said.

"It seems like some of the Catholic schools have something against us," added senior baseball player Elliott Musick.

Seeking, but not finding

In the past six months, JFK has sent feelers to both the Tri-County League and the Trumbull Athletic Conference.

Both said thanks, but no thanks.

"It's just that the whole baseball season seems kind of like spring training or an exhibition," senior Mike Ambeliotis said. "To us it means something, but we don't have any awards or league trophies to show for it. You don't have anything but the tournaments to show for your hard work."

When the weather got nice last week, JFK had teams cancel to make up league games.

"It's 80-85 degrees outside and we're practicing," senior Kevin Costello said. "You can't pass up a day like that."

The TAC-8 is the best fit, Lee said. The schools are close. There are natural rivalries. The games would draw large crowds, which would increase revenue and make the games more exciting for fans and athletes.

Bad feelings

Niles and Howland have traditionally had a rift with JFK, but schools such as LaBrae and Champion have also avoided scheduling the Eagles in recent years, Lee said.

"If someone like LaBrae schedules Kennedy, they're going to have huge crowds," Lee said. "You're taking away from the kids' experience. It's not about winning and losing; it's about playing with your friends."

Some TAC-8 schools argue that JFK recruits players from their school districts -- especially in Howland and Niles -- and allowing JFK to join would make the problem worse.

JFK counters that students approach the school, not vice-versa.

"When a parent tells me they're interested in bringing their kid to Kennedy for baseball, I tell them don't do it," Lee said. "But if they're bringing them for an education, then do it."

Struggling with independence

Campbell has similar problems. The Red Devils don't offer non-revenue sports such as tennis or golf. Enrollment is dwindling. Many of the best athletes now attend Ursuline.

Many still remember that Campbell recruited players from the Bahamas to play basketball.

"There's still a lot of ill feelings," baseball coach Wayne Zetts said. "We took those student-athletes from the Bahamas and they all ended up getting master's degrees.

"But if another school brings in, say, a German player to play soccer, then he's a foreign exchange student."

Zetts thinks that Campbell players have come to accept not having league awards or titles.

"They don't mention it too much," he said. "But it's tough. Real tough. Especially in revenue sports like football and basketball. And we'll get baseball games canceled and you spend the rest of your night on the telephone trying to get games.

"I would like to see us get in the TAC. We don't have all the sports that Boardman or Canfield have, but we can be competitive in football, basketball and baseball," Zetts said. "Ten years is a long time. But I don't see it happening. I don't think people will let it happen."

scalzo@vindy.com




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