From boiler room to school board
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Pick up a paper on April 1, 1949. Look past the declarations by Winston Churchill praising the atom bomb, past the McKelvey's advertisement for "covert spring toppers" (those are coats), past the standings for the Youngstown church basketball league.
What do you see?
Sandwiched between a brief on a Boardman High wrestling show and a picture of the "Bounding Basque" (Jean Borotra) is a five-paragraph story about a new league called the "Steel Valley Conference."
The league, born in a Hubbard High boiler room, was just a minor blip on that day's sports scene. No one could have realized what it would become.
On March 31, 1949, Struthers principal Paul Lisse met with Campbell football coach John Knapick and Hubbard coach Mose Hall at Hubbard High School to form the Steel Valley Conference along with Girard, Austintown-Fitch and Niles McKinley.
Boardman also was invited, but was still committed to the Tri-County League and did not join until 1951.
"We wanted a league because it was hard to schedule games," said Howard "Howdy" Heldman, the only one still alive from that 1949 meeting. "We wanted something to compete with the City Series."
The City Series was king in 1949. The league had seven schools -- Ursuline, Youngstown South, North (known as Scienceville High School before 1945), East, Rayen, Woodrow Wilson and Chaney.
But World War II had just ended and newlyweds were turning to the suburbs to start their new lives.
The time was ripe for change.
"You have to remember that in 1949, there might as well have not been a Cardinal Mooney or a Canfield or a Poland," Campbell resident Steve VanSuch, who was friends with Knapick, said. "They were just farm towns with 2,000 people.
"Cities like Campbell and Struthers were like leftovers. We had nothing to play for."
Heldman led the Struthers boys track team to the first SVC title on May 14, 1949. Knapick led Campbell to the first SVC football title in 1950.
The next year, Lisse and City Series president Al Beach organized a Mahoning County championship football game between the two conferences.
Struthers beat South 14-7 on Thanksgiving Day, 1951.
"We got a trophy from a guy who owned a Chevy dealership who was a big South fan and he had already engraved on the plaque that South had defeated Struthers," Heldman said with a laugh.
It was the first, and last, title game between the conferences.
"I think they were embarrassed that some upstart league had beaten the City Series champs," Heldman said. "It's a shame we only played once. That would have been a good rivalry."
Campbell either won or shared the SVC football title in seven of the first 15 years. After winning the football title in 1964, the Red Devils did not win another before leaving the conference in 1979.
Stable early on
The SVC was relatively stable over the first 20 years, losing Niles in 1957, gaining Brookfield in 1959 and then losing the Warriors in 1969. In 1970, things started to shake up as Girard left and Cardinal Mooney and Ursuline joined.
"We were glad to bring in Ursuline and Mooney," Heldman said. "People in this area are so football minded and people around the state started saying that this was a really good football conference."
Mooney won its first SVC title in 1971 -- the second year it was eligible for the title -- starting a string of nine titles in 11 years, including eight outright.
The Cardinals won their first state championship in 1973, beating Warren Western Reserve 14-3 for the Class AAA title.
Reserve had won the state title in 1972 -- the first year for state playoffs in Ohio -- but Mooney coach Don Bucci said it was the Cardinals' 34-7 win over Cincinnati Moeller in the state semifinal that brought the SVC to prominence.
"Moeller was thought of as one of the top high school programs in the country and here we are, just a Steel Valley school, traveling to their place and beating them," Bucci said. "From that point on, I think the Steel Valley started to get recognized around the state for having great football."
The SVC changed drastically beginning in 1975 when Warren Howland joined. Struthers left in 1978. Warren Western Reserve then joined in 1979, the same year Campbell and Hubbard left.
Of the six charter members, only Fitch remained.
"Boardman and Austintown got so big and schools like Campbell and Struthers just couldn't compete anymore," Heldman said. "We felt pretty bad that we had to leave, but we felt good that we had stayed so long."
In 1982, Niles and Hubbard withdrew and Warren Harding and Niles McKinley joined. Niles left two years later and Howland and the two Warren schools left in 1985.
The Warren schools consolidated in 1990 and rejoined the SVC.
"When the Warren schools got in, that's when the trials and tribulations started," VanSuch said. "Harding and Boardman and Fitch started to get too big for their own good and, consequently, nobody wanted to play them."
Meanwhile, Fitch and Boardman were dominating the "minor sports," combining to win every Al Meyer all-sports trophy since the league started the award in 1981.
SVC commissioners Cecil Duffett and Mike Butch made repeated attempts at expansion in the 1990s -- Canton McKinley came closest to joining -- but the Valley's declining population and the SVC's prestigious reputation made it difficult.
Boardman and Fitch began looking elsewhere, eventually expressing interest in joining the Canton-based Federal League. The league invited the schools to join last March.
On March 12-13, the school boards at Boardman and Fitch voted on whether to leave the SVC and join the Federal League.
Although not the schools' intention, a yes vote would likely mean the end of the SVC.
No board member voted no.