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MOWERY: Adding Traverse City Central and West to Saginaw Valley League for football is a no-brainer

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 20, 2021, 7:03 pm

When I saw the news last week that Traverse City’s two public high schools — Central and West — were both joining the Saginaw Valley League for football, it made me giggle internally, and think of Steve Majerle. 

And, no, not just because the BCAM Hall of Fame coach went to Traverse City High School (now Central) alongside his brother, “Thunder” Dan Majerle, of Central Michigan and NBA fame.

No, it’s more because I remember sitting next to Steve — who, back in 1997-ish, was then the Mt. Pleasant boys basketball coach — at a town-hall style meeting at Mt. Pleasant’s West Intermediate, listening as folks from THAT district argued for and against a similar move to the venerable old SVL. 

For Majerle, who was the BCAM coach of the year in 1996, moving Mt. Pleasant from the Mid-Michigan ‘A’ Conference to the SVL was a no-brainer, despite the fact that this was in the midst of the prime ‘Flintstones’ years for the Valley. 

Yes, Flint Central and Southwestern and Northern were all pumping out Division I prospects, as were Saginaw and Saginaw Arthur Hill, and Majerle was coaching guys like Matt LaFleur, who didn’t have a stellar basketball career, but certainly has done OK with football, now employed as the coach of the Green Bay Packers. 

But ‘iron sharpens iron,’ and Majerle was ready for the challenge. And the MMA didn’t really give them that. 

Most of the other folks in Mt. Pleasant were most assuredly not ready — especially given there was apparently no invitation from the SVL on the table at the time, I found, in discussions with the league’s athletic directors. 

Steve just shook his head, as speaker after speaker listed off travel times to Flint schools — 86 miles to Northern, 91 to Southwestern, 90 to Central — despite the fact that most of the Oilers programs routinely played against programs from Cadillac (67 miles), Ludington (110 miles), TC West (108 miles) and Central (112 miles), and occasionally even Alpena (160 miles), around their schedule of schools in the MMA. 

It was just as much of a no-brainer for the successful Oiler baseball and softball programs, which routinely played the powerful programs from Midland and Bay City, anyway.

But it was not to be … at least not for another eight years.

Mt. Pleasant joined the SVL officially in 2005, long after Majerle had moved on to a long and prosperous career at Rockford and later Grand Rapids Christian. 

In retrospect, the move has certainly not hurt the Oilers. 

The son of Ted McIntyre, the Oilers’ longtime, Hall of Fame softball coach, Jason McIntyre took over the Mt. Pleasant football program shortly after the move to the Valley. Since then, the Oilers have had one losing season (2012), and missed the playoffs just three times, going 90-32 in the decade of the 2010s, making a trip to the D3 semifinals in 2010 and the finals in 2011, with four more trips to the regional finals interspersed.

Same sort of thing with the boys basketball program under another alumnus, Dan Schell. The Oilers have been one of the top teams in the Valley’s northern division, winning a pair of league titles in recent years, and making a run to the 2014 Class A semifinals, the first time they’d been that deep in the postseason since 1982. 

It wasn’t really about size — in 2002, Mt. Pleasant’s final year in the MMA, it was the fourth-largest of the five schools at 1,155 students, behind Owosso (1,231), Greenville (1,166) and St. Johns (1,157) and ahead of Ionia (1,005).

In Mt. Pleasant’s first year in the Valley, it was the smallest of the 10 schools at 1,134, 26 students behind Saginaw (1,160), the next smallest, and 624 below the biggest, Bay City Central (1,758).

It was about getting a good fit.

And not being afraid of taking on the competition. 

Flash forward 17 years from that addition, and it’s a far different landscape.

Most of the comings and goings in the SVL in the interim have been on the Southern end, with the remnants of the Big Nine — Davison, Flint Powers, Carman-Ainsworth and the consolidated Lapeer High — coming in for the 2012 season, followed by Grand Blanc in 2018, after the KLAA pushed the Bobcats out. 

Several of the longtime SVL members around in 2005 — including Flint Southwestern, Flint Northwestern and 1904 charter member Flint Central — are mere memories, while Saginaw and Arthur Hill — down to a combined 1,189 students this school year — are in the process of merging. 

Mt. Pleasant is still the smallest of the schools in the league’s Red (or North) Division, but within 326 of the biggest, Saginaw Heritage (1,398). All of the northern programs are currently dwarfed by the behemoths in the south in Grand Blanc (2,812), Davison (1,787) and Lapeer (1,732).

TC West (1,629) and Central (1,417) will become the biggest two schools in the northern division for football — but that’s not new: Both were the biggest in the Big North by far, with Central weighing in at 237 students more than the closest, Alpena (1,180). The other three — Petoskey (943), Gaylord (901) and Cadillac (811) — are more than 500 students smaller, at minimum. 

Then there’s the issue of competitiveness.

Traverse City West hasn’t lost a Big North football game to a program other than Central since losing to Petoskey in September of 2015, going 27-4 in conference play in that span. Central’s last BNC loss to a team other than West was in Week 9 of the 2014 season, a 15-14 setback against Cadillac, going 30-2 in-conference since. 

That isn’t exactly a recipe for doing a great deal of sharpening.

The biggest drawback, frankly, is the travel, and that’s not — or shouldn’t be — a deal-breaker. 

The way the system is currently set up, you’ve got teams routinely traveling across the state for inter-sectional battles, anyway. 

And when you’re as far away from other Class A schools as the two in TC are (same would apply to Alpena), you don’t have a lot of choices in the matter. 

It’s 142 miles from TC West to either Bay City Central or Saginaw Heritage (the Hawks are going to flip into the southern division to accommodate the TC schools, anyway), and 132 miles from West to Bay City Western — the same as a TCW-to-Alpena trip — 124 from West to the shared Midland Community Stadium, and 109 miles to Mt. Pleasant. 

And none of those trips — for the TC schools, at least — have anything on the 179-mile West-to-Sault-Ste.-Marie trip of old, when the Blue Devils were in the BNC prior to 2003. 

It will increase the load on the bus barns for the other SVL schools, but it’s not without precedent. 

Before leaving for the White Pine Conference — which also contained Cadillac, Bridgeport, Bay City John Glenn and Saginaw McArthur — in 1965, Mt. Pleasant was part of the North Central Conference with Big Rapids, Cadillac, Ludington, Manistee and Alma. 

Four years after winning a ‘mythical state title’ in 1957, Midland left the old Arrowhead Conference — which included Alpena, Traverse City and the now-defunct Bay City Handy — for a berth in the SVL in 1961. 

And it’s not like the SVL hasn’t had some weird geographic choices for members, anyway. 

Owosso was once in the Valley in the 1950s, while Pontiac Central — yes, THAT Pontiac Central, 45 miles south of the closest league brethren at the time — was a member of the SVL as late as 1994. 

For me, at least, the move of Traverse City Central and West moving to the Saginaw Valley League in football is what Steve Majerle — and I — thought of Mt. Pleasant joining the Valley way back then. 

Seems like a no-brainer.