High schools this fall face one of the biggest decisions in the 63-year history of the region’s Cape-Atlantic League.
School administrators are scheduled to vote this month whether to merge with the West Jersey Football League. A merger, which would take effect for the 2014 season, would make it easier for CAL members to have a more competitive football schedule by playing schools with similar enrollments.
Merging, however, would also mean the end of the league’s football independence; there would be no more Cape-Atlantic League football. Schools would have little say in creating their schedules and would not know their schedule or division until it is announced before the 2014 season.
Local rivalries could end as well. Already the future of St. Joseph vs. Hammonton’s 50-year-old rivalry is in doubt, as Hammonton announced in July it would join the West Jersey league and Tri-County Conference for all other sports beginning in 2014.
Merging also could force other local schools — such as Mainland Regional and Ocean City — to play teams from schools with similar enrollments in Gloucester, Camden and Burlington counties. Instead of Mainland vs. Ocean City, it could be Mainland vs. Shawnee or Ocean City vs. Pemberton.
The rivalry between St. Joe and Holy Spirit — one of the region’s most intense — could also end.
“It would be scary not having a Cape-Atlantic League in football,” Holy Spirit Athletic Director Keith Gorman said, “but ultimately we have to do what’s in the best interest of the league.”
CAL officials are also examining formats that would keep the league on its own. Interest is high right now in the CAL’s football future because the 2012 season begins today.
“That’s the biggest challenge to the league right now,” longtime Atlantic City Athletic Director Frank Campo said. “What direction are we going to go in as far as the West Jersey league? There’s going to be a lot of discussion on the issue.”
Teams will compete in the CAL this year and in 2013 in two conferences based not only on enrollment but on how competitive their program has been the past two years. The CAL, like all other state high school sports leagues, realigns every two years.
Realignments are never easy. It took much of the 2011-12 school year to decide to form two conferences in 2012 and 2013.
Like almost every other state high school sports league, the scheduling of competitive football games is the CAL’s biggest concern. Twenty-three high schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Gloucester counties comprise the CAL; eighteen of those schools play football.
“Football — whether people want to admit it or not — is the fuel behind schools looking at leaving the Cape-Atlantic League,” Campo said. “What sets the tone of a school is their football program. Football generates enthusiasm for the school and school spirit.”
The CAL may be the most diverse league in the state, featuring large public schools with enrollments of more than 1,500 students in Millville, Atlantic City and Vineland. It also features smaller public schools in Buena Regional and Pleasantville. The CAL has parochial powers in St. Augustine Prep, Holy Spirit and St. Joseph. There are even “choice” schools in Hammonton and Ocean City and, next school year, Mainland, that can draw students from anywhere.
Making a decision that all members are happy with is nearly impossible. President and Mainland Regional Athletic Director Mike Gatley joked that sometimes league schools can’t agree on what time to have breakfast.
“I would challenge the president of any other league in the state to look at what we deal with,” Gatley said. “Everyone in our league knows how difficult the process is. Have we had unanimous (votes) when it comes to scheduling? Very rarely.”
But while the league has struggled with questions of realignment and scheduling, it has also had unprecedented success on the football field the past few years.
Not only did Holy Spirit and St. Joseph win state football titles last year, but Hammonton and Millville reached South Jersey finals. A CAL team has reached the South Jersey Group IV final — considered one of the state’s top playoff brackets — every year since 2006.
The CAL began in 1949 when six schools — Cape May, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton, Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood — formed the league.
Joining the WJFL would be the biggest change to the CAL since 1982-83, when it merged with the Southern Division of the now defunct South Jersey Conference. That brought in several of the league’s core schools, notably Mainland, Atlantic City, Oakcrest, Vineland, Holy Spirit, Absegami and Millville.
In St. Joe and Holy Spirit, the league is home to two of the state’s top programs. St. Joe is 18-2 vs. CAL public schools the past three seasons. Holy Spirit is 19-2 during the same period, and one of those losses was a forfeit for using an ineligible player.
But many of the CAL public schools do not want to play the parochial powers, which public schools say have an advantage because they can draw players from anywhere.
Public schools with small enrollments also sometimes have to play larger counterparts: This season, Buena Regional, a school with a sophomore-through-senior class enrollment of 606 students, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Association, plays Atlantic City, whose sophomore-through-senior enrollment is 1,496 students.
The WJFL consists of 65 schools. It formed in 2010 when the Burlington County League, the Olympic Conference, Tri-County Conference and the Colonial Valley League in Mercer County decided to merge for football. Large schools in Atlantic County would probably be in their own division, but other CAL schools could find themselves playing teams from the western part of the state.
“There’s a lot of to be said for tradition,” St. Augustine Athletic Director Dennis Foreman said. “But if you’re talking about making things fair based on enrollment, the West Jersey League is the way to go. We’ll never be able to create a schedule that is going to make all (the CAL) schools feel like they’re getting an even shake.”
Many fans understand why the CAL would merge.
Longtime local football fan Ron Jordan, of Atlantic City, said the move would result in more balanced competition for the league’s public schools.
“I hate to see the Cape disappear, but I think it’s for the better,” he said. “We all like to reminisce about years gone by. Time passes, and you have to change your thinking.”
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