Lorain County will have its first-ever Division VII high school football team in the fall as Open Door was officially listed among the eligible schools in an Ohio High School Athletic Association release Thursday afternoon.
The OHSAA has split the state’s massive football pool into seven divisions for the next two years, with Elyria and Lorain the only two county schools to land in Division I, which consists of schools with 608 boys or more enrolled in the freshman through junior classes.
Amherst, North Ridgeville, Midview, Avon and Avon Lake are in Division II (403-607); there are no schools in Division III (281-402); Vermilion, Keystone, Firelands, Clearview and Brookside are in Division IV (213-280); Wellington, Elyria Catholic, Black River and Columbia are in Division V (156-212); Oberlin is the lone school in Division VI (112-155); and the Patriots will be making their varsity debut in Division VII (111 and fewer).
“That was our goal all along, to become a full-fledged varsity program,” Open Door athletic director Matt Blandin said. “When our program was being started, plans for a seven-division alignment were being discussed. They approved the seventh division after we were already up and running.
“We’ll be doing a lot of traveling — we’re playing mostly Division V, VI and VII schools this year. Our ultimate goal is to build the program so we can play more local schools each season.”
Divisions II-VII will continue with four regions and eight playoff spots per region as has been the format for all divisions in the past. Division I, which consists of 72 schools, will be broken into two regions (Northern and Southern) and there will be 16 playoff spots in each region.
The Northern region — which will include the Pioneers and Titans — will consist of 35 schools, and the Southern region will have 37.
“I would think it has to increase our chances as far as getting into the playoffs,” Elyria coach Kevin Fell said. “If we go 8-2 and don’t make the top 16 … I’m not sure what we do about that. But it seems to balance up pretty good.”
Fell said he was among the proponents of the new alignment, especially after some tough finishes while coaching at Amherst a few years ago.
“Three of the four years I was there we would have made the playoffs if we hadn’t been a Division I school,” he said. “In an effort of fairness, I think this was the best way to go. It helps a lot of these schools that aren’t stuck in Division I next year, although Division II is a lot tougher now.”
It’s a double-edged sword for Fell and his Pioneers.
While the pool in Division I has been reduced dramatically, several of Elyria’s non-conference opponents — including the Comets — have dropped a division and will bring the Pioneers fewer computer points with a victory.
“I’ve always said that you’re better off playing winning schools,” Fell said. “There’s not much difference if you play a I or a II as long as they win. We can’t play 10 Division I schools … we’d be driving all over Northeast Ohio to do that.”
Giving the 72 largest programs in the state their own division and playoff bracket should increase the postseason possibilities for the remainder of the schools.
Elyria Catholic, which was eliminated from a playoff berth in Week 10 of the regular season last year, expects to be a perennial Division V postseason competitor.
“I’ve been here six years and in the four years we haven’t made the playoffs, we’ve finished at 10 or 11,” Panthers coach Mike Polevacik said. “We’ve always been right there. So, honestly, I think this really benefits us.”
The Panthers are the smallest school in the West Shore Conference, so if they finish with a winning record they will have beaten several teams between Divisions II-IV. They also boast a tough non-conference schedule — including Elyria — so there are plenty of chances to earn valuable computer points.
That will be a benefit for years to come, but Polevacik is more excited about the upcoming season because of the personnel returning to the field.
“If you ask most coaches, they’d start their teams with a great left tackle, quarterback and tailback,” he said. “We have Dakota Tallman, who already has four Division I offers, at left tackle, Jeremy Holley, who I think is definitely a Division I quarterback, and (running back) Justin Rankin, who just picked up his first Division I offer this week.”
Holley might have already received some Division I offers, but college scouts were unable to see much of him due to a season-ending injury early in his junior year. Rankin, who went by the name Justin Taylor last year, was an All-Ohio first-team selection last season as a sophomore.
“In fantasy draft terms, I’m pretty happy about (our lineup),” Polevacik said. “I think hopes are pretty high on Gulf Road.”