Dive in ‘n’ run

SHS should consider switching athletic conferences

It’s my final column: ba da ba bum, ba da ba ba bum. Please tell me that you understood that reference. If not, go listen to “The Final Countdown” right now and do yourself a favor. That song will never fail to bring me back to the regional track meet my freshman year when, I kid you not, they played that song on repeat for what felt like the duration of the entire meet.
Anyway, as I said above, this is my last column of the year, therefore making it my last issue as Sports Editor. And, I decided to leave the best for last, as any Type A planner such as myself would.
Today, I’m going to tackle a huge question among athletes at SHS: Why in the world are we in Conference Indiana?
And, at first glance, it seems like a simple question. But, after I began looking into the issue more, I realized just how muddy the world of athletic conferences is.
I feel like the most logical way to begin untangling this topic is by explaining the purpose of an athletic conference. In short, while schools aren’t required to be in a conference, being in one makes scheduling for sports much easier because it provides guaranteed games as each sport automatically has games against the other conference opponents.
These guarantees are important for all sports, but their impact is especially easy to see in football. Since all schools play varsity games on Friday, scheduling a different team for each week of the season can be extremely complicated. So, having an athletic conference means that schools already have several different teams that they know they will play during the season, giving the athletic department fewer holes that need to be filled.
Now that we’re more familiar with the purpose behind athletic conferences, let’s move onto the specific situation at SHS.
When Conference Indiana formed in 1997, SHS was one of 10 original member schools. And, at the beginning, over half of the schools were in the Indianapolis area. With so many of the member schools nearby, it made sense for SHS to be in the conference.
But, over the years, all of the Indianapolis-area schools formerly in Conference Indiana have slowly left, the most recent being Perry Meridian and Franklin Central, who left after the 2017-2018 school year. Today, these exits mean that the schools left in Conference Indiana are spread haphazardly across the state: two schools in Terre Haute, two in Bloomington, one in Columbus and one in Indianapolis.
For athletes, this translates into long bus rides to away games. I know every athlete can relate to the collective dread of the away game at Terre Haute that comes each year. No one wants to make the over-an-hour trek, yet we continue to do it, year and year again.

Girls soccer coach Corey Sandvold pointed out that even if the furthest conference opponents are scheduled for weekends, they still have a huge impact on athletes and coaches alike. While their weekend positioning allows these games to not interfere with sleep and school, these games take away from the valuable time away from school where athletes are able to spend recovering from the week of practice and relaxing with their families.

“Now our five day week turns into a six day week, which is a big commitment for a lot of the girls,” Sandvold said.

After talking with multiple coaches, I found it clear that a common negative of Conference Indiana was the travel times. However, coaches were split on whether the competition level was appropriate.

Within a conference, schools want to have similar skills levels that allow for exciting competition. For some sports at SHS, such as volleyball, baseball and swimming, this is a reality in Conference Indiana. However, for other sports, the competition seems unfairly matched.

Girls soccer, for example, isn’t a good fit. The other conference schools have players who compete on travel teams all year, while there are few athletes at SHS who do the same. This creates a disparity between playing levels that results in unmatched competition. And, this disparity between levels is hard on players, according to Sandvold.

“We didn’t focus on winning and losing and goals, but it was tough going to play in some of these teams where they’re far away, every player on their team is playing club, (and) we’re traveling,” Sandvold said.

Obviously there’s no way to please everyone and ensure a “perfect” fit for every single sport at SHS, but many coaches believe that there may be a better option than Conference Indiana.

And here’s where it gets tricky. It’s easy to see the problems with Conference Indiana and complain about them, but what’s the solution?

Well, I’m sure you’re all thinking that it would be easy to just switch athletic conferences and keep going about our business as usual.

Except it’s not that simple.

Changing conferences is shady business. Schools don’t want to create any tension in their current conference by talking about their desire to leave, especially since there’s no guarantee that they will even be accepted into their desired conference. As a result, schools looking to change conferences often won’t even mention their plans until they have already secured a spot in their new conference.

For an example of just how hard it is to get into a new conference, let’s look at Perry Meridian. Their journey to get into the Mid-State conference was no cake walk. They had to make a presentation to the other members of the Mid-State Conference on why they would be a good fit. And they weren’t the only school to do so. There were two other schools that were also campaigning for a single open spot in the conference. So, while Perry’s journey ended with their acceptance into the conference, this also meant that the two other schools were rejected.

Going back to what I said before, schools, not wanting to risk being without a conference, may just abstain from trying to make a switch because of the many complications that can arise from doing so.

“If you still have a conference, and you don’t have another one on the outside, why would you leave,” Murphy said.

And, as things are, Murphy doesn’t think that there are any great options on the outside. I have to disagree with him on this specific aspect, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

According to Murphy, although the travel is difficult, that alone doesn’t make Conference Indiana “bad.” He pointed out that long travel is just part of athletics. In college, student athletes have to make much longer trips for competition.

“It’s tiring, it’s tough,” Murphy said. “But … part of being an athlete is challenging yourself and having the discipline to do it.”

Another difficulty in joining a new conference is that they are somewhat motivated to keep a certain number of teams. Many sports compete in tournaments to determine the conference champion, and eight-team conferences lend themselves especially well to this layout. Looking at the conferences around SHS, nearly all of them are already at a happy eight schools, which allows for easy tournament setup.

Well, that is except for the MIC, which includes Ben Davis, Lawrence Central and other Indianapolis-area schools. They are currently sitting at six member schools after the recent exits of Carmel and Center Grove, which you can read more about in the sidebar. While the current MIC schools do have high-level football teams who would be hard to compete with, I do think that many of the other sports would provide solid matchups. For example, boys basketball was able to have competitive games with many of the MIC schools this season, and as a swimmer and runner, I can say that SHS would be competitive in both of those sports as well.

Obviously I’m not an expert on every single sport and how they would match up, but I do think that the level of competition in the MIC would be comparable, or even a better fit, than the current level of competition in Conference Indiana. And furthermore, all of the schools in the MIC are in Marion County, which, from a travel perspective, is ideal.

How likely is it that we could join the MIC? Well, I’m not the one who decides these things. But, I think that if the MIC were to come knocking on our door, it’s time for SHS to move on from Conference Indiana. While I don’t think that we’re in a “horrible” situation as it is, I also think that the MIC would be an overall better fit for SHS.

But, let’s be clear here, I’m not holding my breath for a conference change. I think that right now, the best thing for us athletes to do is to continue putting up with the bus rides and late nights that come with Conference Indiana. Go grab a book, pack some homework or put in your airpods, because our current job is to make the most of where we are.