By TOM WILLIAMS
When Struthers and Poland play volleyball or soccer over the next few weeks, those results are now part of the Northeast 8 Athletic Conference standings.
But when Struthers and Poland play football on Sept. 28, that’s still an All-American Conference White Tier game.
Confused? You’re not alone. It’s a tricky season for sports rivalries and sportswriters.
Conference shake-ups in the Mahoning Valley were triggered in 2016 when 14 members of the 16-school Inter-Tri-County League decided that South Range and Crestview were too big to play in football. The ITCL disbanded in spring 2017.
The seven ITCL schools from Columbiana County (Columbiana, East Palestine, Leetonia, Lisbon, Southern, United and Wellsville) formed the Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference in 2017, inviting Toronto from Jefferson County to make it eight. The EOAC launched a year ago.
The seven ITCL schools from Mahoning and Trumbull counties (Jackson-Milton, Lowellville, McDonald, Mineral Ridge, Sebring, Springfield and Western Reserve) created the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference in 2017 along with Waterloo from Portage County.
At first, the AAC was immune to change. Then in 2017, seven of the mid-sized AAC schools (Girard, Hubbard, Jefferson, Lakeview, Niles, Poland and Struthers) announced they would leave the AAC to create, with South Range, the Northeast 8 Athletic Conference.
Last month, the Northeast 8 launched in all fall high school sports except football. Rob Conklin, former Struthers head football coach and Fitch athletic director, is the Northeast 8 commissioner.
As a result, the AAC has a different look. AAC football still has the four divisions it’s been using since Boardman, Austintown Fitch and Warren Harding joined a few years ago.
The AAC’s other sports have revamped divisions. The White Tier has disappeared. All that remains are the AAC Red Tier for the bigger schools and the AAC Blue Tier for the smallest.
Crestview has joined the AAC, but not for football until 2019.
More changes are lurking. Rick King, AAC commissioner, said East is leaving the conference after next spring to become an independent and Lakeside will depart for the Chagrin Falls Conference.
The AAC’s solid division is the Blue Tier: Newton Falls, LaBrae, Girard, Campbell, Champion, Brookfield, Liberty and Crestview.
“The Blue Division is pretty secure,” King said.
The fate of the AAC’s biggest tiers remains uncertain.
Boardman, Fitch and Warren Harding, the holdovers from football’s Gold Tier, will continue to play each other.
King says Canfield and Howland, schools not nearly as big from the Red Tier, are willing to play two games against the big three, but haven’t committed to playing all three to create a five-team conference.
“This is an obstacle,” King said. “We’re trying to get more teams, but there aren’t not a whole lot of options [geographically].”