The Elyria Board of Education made it official by voting Wednesday to join Brunswick, Medina, Mentor, Shaker Heights, Solon and Strongsville in the new league beginning in the fall of 2015.
“It’s just a relief to know where we’re going,” Elyria’s athletic director Heather Beck said. “We already play most of these teams in all of our sports and we have great relationships with them. I like the competitiveness of this league. I think it will be good for all of our teams.”
Elyria football coach Kevin Fell said the move was inevitable given the recent instability within the league. The Northeast Ohio Conference has been pillaged by defections over the last three months.
Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, North Royalton, Stow and Twinsburg left for the Suburban League. Brush and Mayfield applied to join the Western Reserve Conference.
Normandy, Parma and Valley Forge are forming a yet-to-be-named conference with Elyria Catholic, Bay, Holy Name and Rocky River.
Garfield Heights is the only school left without a home for 2015.
The Greater Cleveland Conference is shaping up to be strong in football, at least on paper. Five of the seven teams — Elyria, Brunswick, Shaker Heights, Mentor and Solon — made the Division I, Region 1, playoffs in 2013. Mentor lost to Cincinnati Moeller 55-52 in the state final.
“As far as football is concerned, it’s going to be one of the better football conferences in Ohio,” Fell said. “That’s a two-fold thing. Unfortunately for Elyria, I don’t think we’re prepared facility wise to play in that league. Out facilities are so outdated in football that we’re going to be the stepchild in that league unless we do something about it.”
Filling a six-game conference schedule will not be easy for football since it requires each school to schedule a nonconference game during a time most schools are playing league games. Beck, however, said the GCC is seeking applications for an eighth team which would alleviate the problem. But any further expansion would likely stop at eight.
“If we get an eighth, that’s great for scheduling purposes,” Beck said. “But we like the thought of a small conference. We liked the concept of the big conference and the competitive-balance realignment. But it gets confusing to our fans.”
Another option the league is exploring is a partnership with the Federal League, which will also have seven teams in 2015. Beck said the Federal League has been receptive to the idea.
But that route has its obstacles, too. The Federal League consists of Canton McKinley, GlenOak, Jackson, Lake, North Canton Hoover and Perry with Green joining in 2015. McKinley traditionally plays independent Massillon Washington in Week 10, one of the nation’s premier high school football rivalries.
“Football is the hardest schedule to try to fill, especially when you’re looking at a Week 7 or a Week 8 game,” Beck said. “We want to get that solidified as soon as possible.”
The conference will also have a strong boys basketball presence with Mentor, the defending state champion. Shaker Heights has won back-to-back district titles and lost to Mentor in the regional final last season. Elyria and Medina have also had strong teams the last two seasons.
But for boys coach Brett Larrick, the lack of a local rival is a big drawback.
“To me, we’re getting into another league where we don’t have a local rivalry,” Larrick said. “Our first game this season was Midview and the gym was packed. That’s high school basketball, when you play those rival teams that you develop over the years, and that takes time.”
His other concern, one shared by Fell and likely many other coaches throughout the conference, is travel. The league stretches from Elyria to Mentor — which is about a 53-mile trip. The closest school for Elyria is Strongsville, about 17 miles away. Every other school in the conference is at least 20 miles away, with Shaker Heights and Solon more than 30.
“I don’t know how they alleviate the travel situation with the schedule,” Larrick said. “I don’t know if there is an easy answer for us.”