By Joe Scalzo
In March of 2002, after months of deliberations and an hour’s worth of arguments at their monthly meeting, Boardman’s board of education voted unanimously to join the Federal League.
On Monday night, in the same room, it unanimously chose to leave. But unlike that 2002 meeting, when at least one coach from every sport attended, this decision came quietly at the end of the 90-minute meeting, with no passionate arguments for or against the 5-0 vote.
“It’s obviously a new era for Boardman sports and Boardman schools,” athletic director Dave Smercansky said. “The Federal League is a great league, no doubt about that. And we’re not leaving because we can’t compete. We’re leaving because transportation became an overwhelming problem for us.”
Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, the Spartans will compete in all sports but football in what is expected to be a three-tiered All-American Conference. The Spartans will compete in football beginning in 2015 in what is expected to be a four-tiered conference, with Austintown Fitch, Boardman and Warren Harding in the top tier. Steubenville and Massillon Washington have expressed interest in joining as football-only members in that top tier.
Fitch already left the Federal League two years ago to compete in the AAC in all sports but football.
But for Boardman, football was a deal-breaker.
“I did not want to jeopardize our football program and cost us more money in the long run by being an independent and going around the state trying to find football games,” Boardman superintendent Frank Lazzari said. “I was insistent when we got into this league that it address football.”
Monday’s vote was expected to be a mere formality, since the Spartans already had applied for membership and the AAC extended an invitation to join last month.
The other football tiers are expected to look like this: Tier Two: Niles, Poland, Canfield, Howland, Youngstown East. Tier Three: Niles, Poland, Hubbard, Struthers, Lakeview, Jefferson and Ashtabula Edgewood. Tier Four: Girard, Liberty, Champion, LaBrae, Campbell, Brookfield, Pymatuning Valley, Newton Falls.
Niles and Poland would play each team in both Tier Two and Tier Three.
When Boardman and Fitch joined the Federal League beginning with the 2004 school year, Smercansky and outgoing athletic director Jim Fox were hopeful that the schools would develop new rivalries with the Stark County teams, offsetting increased transportation costs.
But attendance suffered at both home and away games, particularly in revenue sports such as football and basketball, and students began complaining that the travel hurt their grades, Smercansky said.
“The academic part, there was always a concern about that but we just didn’t think it would have a negative effect,” Smercansky said. “But it really hurt our kids academically being on the road all the time.”
Outgoing principal Timothy Saxton, who became principal the same year Boardman joined the Federal League, said the move gives Boardman a chance to expand local rivalries with schools like Canfield, Poland and Howland.
“I lived the Federal League for 11 years,” said Saxton, who will become the school’s director of operations. “I loved the competition. I’ve seen it from the principal point of view, from the parent point of view and now being in charge of operations, I’m starting to see it from a fuel cost point of view.
“I think it’s a good move. I think it’s going to be a good change for Boardman, a good change for our kids and I think it’s going to be a nice, healthy injection of enthusiasm into our athletic program.”