By Steve Gunn

First the answer to the obvious question:

Yes, the Lakes 8 Conference will retain its name, even though it will remain a six school league into the immediate future.LSJ Logo incert

That’s because the conference still hopes to expand someday and return to its original configuration of eight schools.

But a lot of other things are going to change for the Lakes 8, beginning a year from now.

That’s when Fruitport will leave to join the O-K Black division, Spring Lake will join the O-K Gold, and Fremont will join the Central States Activities Association.

Last week the remaining Lakes 8 league members – Muskegon Catholic, Orchard View and Ludington – voted to replace the departing schools with Western Michigan Christian, Muskegon Heights Academy and Manistee, beginning in the 2016-17 academic year.

WMC has been looking for a league since the spring, when the River Valley Conference announced that it was disbanding at the end of the 2014-15 school year. Muskegon Heights has been independent for years.

The new membership will leave the Lakes 8 with six teams in most of the “major” sports, but only five in football, since WMC has never offered the sport, and only five in baseball and softball in the spring, because Muskegon Heights does not currently offer those sports.

The quality of football competition may also suffer, at least temporarily, since Muskegon Heights and Manistee have had relatively weak teams in recent years.

On the other hand, the reconfigured league should be very competitive in boys basketball. MCC won the Lakes 8 last year by beating a very good Spring Lake team, WMC and Muskegon Heights are traditional powers with lots of state championships between them, and Ludington is always very competitive.

At least one league athletic director likes the idea of adding new members and saving the Lakes 8, despite the loss of traditional rivals like Fruitport and Spring Lake.

“I’m in favor of maintaining the Lakes 8 moving forward and trying to make the league stronger,” said Jason Stariha, the new AD at Muskegon Catholic.

“It’s good for scheduling, it’s good to have coaches and ADs working together to promote academics and athletics. It’s good to have that cohesion and common goals among league members. In football it’s helpful to have a set of league games every year so you don’t have to travel so far.

“We see the success of so many leagues, and the excitement that comes out of league play, and we want that, too.”

The athletic directors from two of the new member schools are very happy with the new arrangement.

“We’re incredibly excited to be part of a league again,” said WMC Athletic Director Josh Glerum, whose school had been competing in the River Valley Conference since the late 1980s.

“We wanted this for our student athletes and teams. We have a natural history with Muskegon Catholic (a former River Valley member), and we’re looking forward to building a history with the other schools.

“We were looking at it and we had nothing for this year. Our kids aren’t playing for anything (in terms of league championships). Scheduling becomes a lot more challenging, and you lose some of those natural rivalries that make high school sports fun.”

While the league will be limited to five teams in some sports, Glerum notes that in the end, the River Valley Conference only had four teams.

“We look at five and that’s better than what we had,” he said.

Muskegon Heights Academy Athletic Director Glen Metcalf, who has been associated with the school district in various roles for decades, said the Lakes 8 affiliation is more than welcome.

Muskegon Heights already plays Muskegon Catholic, Orchard View and Manistee in football, so the new arrangement will seem pretty natural.

“We do some things with all of those schools already, and when I was told there were openings in the Lakes 8, I thought it could really help us and be more close to home,” said Metcalf, who said the school has been without a league since the old Seaway Conference folded years ago.

“We think it’s a good move for us. I’m pretty sure (the school board) is happy with it. There were a lot of times over the years we missed all those things – athletes being All-Conference, other league coaches supporting our athletes for All-Area or All-State, being able to go to a conference track meet or volleyball meet. Those were the kinds of things we didn’t have.”

Metcalf said scheduling as an independent was difficult for Muskegon Heights over the years, and travel costs to games in Detroit, Saginaw, Suttons Bay and other distant destinations could get very high.

“It was pretty bad,” said Metcalf. “It gets to the point where you are looking for help with transportation costs, from the booster club and alumni association and groups like that.”

Metcalf said the school will work toward offering sports that were cut during financially leaner years, like baseball, softball and cross country. He said the school may allow athletes interested in those sports to play on co-op teams at other schools at first, while Muskegon Heights builds up interest and numbers.