By Joe Scalzo
Austintown school board member Lou Chine considers himself a guy stuck on an island after everyone else has sailed away.
Eight years after voting 5-0 to join the Stark County-based Federal League, the Fitch board of education will likely vote on Monday night to join the All-American Conference in all sports except football.
But, barring a change of Chine’s heart, it won’t be a 5-0 vote.
“I’ve traveled all over the country watching football and I would consider the Federal League probably the best league on this side of the Mississippi,” Chine said. “I think for kids to get better, you’ve got to continue to play the best.”
Last month, the AAC accepted applications by Fitch and Jefferson Area, paving the way for the Falcons to begin competition in 2011-12.
If approved, Fitch will join the big-school tier with Canfield, Howland, Niles, Poland, Beaver Local, Hubbard and Struthers. Each tier will then separate into two divisions.
“We have to look at the whole district and look at the whole picture,” Austintown superintendent Vincent Colaluca said. “Right now, financially and definitely academically, this is the best move Austintown can make.”
The move is expected to save the district $30,000 per year, Colaluca said, due to a combination of decreased travel and increased gate receipts from playing Mahoning Valley teams.
The decreased travel also will help students academically and allow parents to attend more events, said Dr. David Ritchie, Austintown’s board president.
“It’s pretty tough on these kids on weeknights when they’re getting home at 11 or 11:30,” Ritchie said. “And it’s pretty tough for parents to get home at 5 o’clock from work and make some of the away games.”
Colaluca has notified the Federal League of Fitch’s intentions, both by phone and e-mail, but is hoping the Falcons can remain in the league for football and avoid the scheduling hassles that come with being independent.
The Federal League currently requires teams to compete in all sports and it seems unlikely it would waive that requirement but league commissioner Joe Eaton said it’s something the superintendents can discuss.
Eaton said the league won’t make any decisions until it gets an official letter requesting release, which can’t happen until Fitch gets board approval. Although the league’s bylaws require a two-year notice, Fitch could apply for an emergency release after one year.
“Honestly, we’re hoping the board votes to stay in the league,” Eaton said. “Fitch has been a tremendous member of the league and we’ve developed a lot of nice relationships.
“I’d hate to see them go but they have to do what’s best for their community.”
Football usually drives league decisions, both because of the revenue it generates through fan interest and because, unlike other sports, schools aren’t guaranteed a postseason berth. The AAC rejected Boardman’s application this spring in part because the Spartans wanted to compete in all sports and the league schools believe the enrollment difference is too large for them to compete.
“I know the biggest concern is football and how we’re going to schedule there,” Ritchie said. “But the Federal League so far has been rather favorable and if we can continue that, at least it’s a Friday night.
“I think we’ll keep playing Federal League schools even if we’re independent.”
The all-but-football setup isn’t uncommon at the college level — Youngstown State, for instance, competes in the Missouri Valley Football Conference for football and the Horizon League in everything else — and it was utilized by the Steel Valley Conference for a few years after Fitch and Boardman left.
But that setup — which featured Chaney, Rayen, Wilson, Warren JFK and Beaver Local playing all sports but football — fell apart and is usually seen as a stop-gap measure.
Fitch and Boardman are the only Division I football schools in Mahoning County, which is one of the reasons they decided to join the Federal League in 2002. Of the eight Federal League schools, only Uniontown Lake competes in Division II and that’s only in football.
If Fitch leaves, the Federal League could look to add Massillon, which has wanted to join the league for years. But that’s not a sure thing, Eaton said.
“There’s a lot of questions to answer in the next few months,” he said.
Although a yes vote seems likely at Monday’s board meeting, Chine thinks the league’s size and competition level make it too attractive to leave.
In the past year alone, the league produced Ohio’s Mr. Football (Hoover’s Erick Howard, who won it in 2008 and 2009) and both Division I basketball champions (Massillon Jackson boys and Canton McKinley girls).
Fitch, however, has won few Federal League titles. The Falcons have been generally competitive in sports such as football, girls soccer, baseball, wrestling and bowling but have struggled mightily in basketball and several other sports.
“We are in a slump right now,” said Chine, a 1969 Fitch High graduate. “But all schools go through their ups and downs. What happens if we come back in a year or two and we’re at the top of our game and we’re in the other league?
“Instead, to me, it sounds like instead of improving and getting better, we’re saying, ‘Let’s go somewhere easier.’ It’s hard for me to get into that realm.”
Chine isn’t convinced the $30,000 figure is accurate, or that the traveling will be significantly decreased, because the school hasn’t scheduled any games for 2011-12. He said he does sympathize with parents who have to travel but said their kids will get more college exposure in the Federal League than the AAC.
“I’m not so bull-headed that I wouldn’t change, but right now nobody has changed my mind to make me think this is for the betterment of the kids,” Chine said. “It’s just that this is such a great league and to run from it because we’re struggling, that’s really hard for me.
“All we need is one sport to start winning and I think it will swing it around.”