Majority of M-PC files to join West PAC

Negaunee and Calumet get ready to snap in a game against each other at Negaunee High School Thursday, August 31, 2017 (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

HOUGHTON — The recent influx of eight-player football teams across the Upper Peninsula has created a dilemma for the 24 U.P. schools still playing the traditional 11-player game. 

Athletic directors have been left scrambling to find enough opponents to fill a nine-game schedule. One solution has been conference realignment.

Last summer, Lake Linden-Hubbell, Norway and Bark River-Harris of the Mid-Eastern Football Conference were admitted to the West PAC for football, while Munising was a later addition, making for a 12-team conference.

Now, more additions could be coming to the West PAC in all sports. 

Iron Mountain, Negaunee, Westwood, Ishpeming and Gwinn all submitted applications to leave the Mid-Pen for full conference membership to the West PAC. Interested schools had until Monday to apply. 

Current West PAC athletic directors have a meeting set for Wednesday to discuss the applications. No date for a vote on admittance has been set. 

“Mainly, I think they’re looking for a solution to fix football. That’s the driving force for sure,” said Sean Jacques, West PAC commissioner and Calumet athletic director. “I think the sentiment is that if we can help U.P. schools fix their football schedule, and we, in turn, can be partners in some other sports, I think that’s what we’re looking for.

“We’re looking for schools to be full conference members. I don’t know that there’s a lot of interest in allowing schools just to solve their football-scheduling problems.”

Deciding on who to admit and if they would accept is just the first step in a complicated process. The athletic directors could decide to admit just one or all five schools. But the accepted schools could still reject the invitations.

For instance, if Ishpeming and Negaunee were accepted but not Gwinn and Westwood, Ishpeming and Negaunee might feel it makes more sense to continue playing Gwinn and Westwood instead of traveling to Hancock and Calumet. 

“I think to a certain extent, that for many of the Mid-Pen schools, it only works for them if everyone that applies gets in,” Jacques said. “That would be my guess. I think their intention is to stick together as much as they can.”

If all five were admitted to the West PAC, the challenge then becomes figuring out how to manage a 17-team football conference. Deciding on the number of divisions and a schedule would be the next hurdle.

“That’s up in the air,” Houghton athletic director Bruce Horsch said. “I don’t feel that we can eliminate the four schools we just brought in. If we brought in the five that applied, we’d have to work something out where everyone can have at least an eight- to nine-game schedule.”

In sports other than football, the West PAC has five schools — Calumet, Houghton, Hancock, L’Anse and West Iron County. The addition of five more presents a scheduling issue in volleyball, too. 

Calumet and Houghton traditionally play in out-of-the-area tournaments, but with a 10-team conference, that could be affected. 

Basketball scheduling appears to be the most seamless transition for the current West PAC schools, who play just an eight-game conference schedule, forcing the athletic directors to find 12 nonconference games. Recently, the Hancock and Calumet boys have had to play each other three times during the regular season to fill a 20-game schedule. 

Whatever the current West-PAC athletic directors decide, any change will be felt across the U.P. The Copper Mountain Conference and Great Northern Conference schools that have nonconference with current or new West PAC teams may be left trying to fill holes in their schedules. 

“It’s the intention of the West PAC schools to try to minimize that as much as we can,” Jacques said of the potential impact of realignment. “We don’t want to fix scheduling problems for one group and create scheduling problems for another group. I don’t think that’s anybody’s intention.

“There’s certainly no easy answers in this.”