Hammonton High School will soon end its more than 60-year affiliation with the Cape-Atlantic League.
Hammonton athletic director Frank Torcasio announced Monday the school will leave the CAL for the Tri-County Conference beginning with the 2014-15 school year. As is the case with all Tri-County schools, the Blue Devils also will compete in the West Jersey Football League.
Torcasio said Hammonton will still try to play neighborhood rival St. Joseph in football. Hammonton is one of the state's best football programs and a perennial CAL and South Jersey contender.
Hammonton was one of the CAL's six founding members in 1949.
"It's hard to leave," Torcasio said. "There's a lot of tradition there. But my most important job is to do what's right for the athletes and the school. I think (the Tri-County) is a good fit."
The Hammonton Board of Education approved the move to the Tri-County last week. Torcasio said the school made the move primarily for academic reasons. He said Hammonton students no longer will have to leave school early to travel to games.
"They're missing valuable instructional time," he said. "Plus they get back so late from games at 10 or 11 o'clock, and that hurts them getting done homework."
Hammonton began to explore leaving the CAL over the winter. There was speculation that the Blue Devils were upset with a draft of new CAL football divisions that would have had them playing all three of the league's non-public schools - St. Augustine Prep, Holy Spirit and St. Joseph.
Torcasio said Monday the decision to leave the CAL was not based on football.
"There's not a team we won't play in football," Torcasio said. "If it was football-driven, we probably would have waited because the Cape-Atlantic League is talking to the West Jersey (about a merger)."
Torcasio said Hammonton re-evaluated its situation because both the CAL and Tri-County Conference were realigning. The leagues, like all others that comprise the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, realign every two years mostly based on enrollment. Hammonton would have needed unanimous approval from the other CAL schools to leave immediately. The CAL constitution allows schools to leave the league with two years' notice
As one of the league's founders, Hammonton always has been closely identified with the CAL. The school's baseball, softball and wrestling teams often competed for league titles.
Mainland athletic director and CAL president Mike Gatley had a mixed reaction to Hammonton's move.
"I'm excited for them," said Gatley, who was Hammonton's athletic director from 2001-11 before leaving for Mainland. "But I'm also disappointed because any time you lose a school it's like losing a family member. We respect their decision and wish them the best."
Hammonton will play in the Tri-County Royal Division in most sports. Other schools in that division include Cumberland Regional, another former CAL member, Delsea Regional and Williamstown. Torcasio said he did not know in which division of the West Jersey Football League that Hammonton would play.
Mike McAleer, president of the Tri-County and the Pitman athletic director, said Hammonton is a good fit for the conference because the league needed a Group III or Group IV school to complement current members in those larger enrollment groups. Tri-County schools Clearview, Kingsway Regional and Williamstown have grown in enrollment in recent years. Tri-County schools unanimously approved Hammonton's application in May.
"When we first heard word (of Hammonton wanting to join the Tri-County), the conference was extremely excited," McAleer said.
"We got a great school with a lot of tradition. It's a big school. It's got a lot of sports and it has three levels (freshmen, junior varsity and varsity) at most of them. We couldn't be happier."
Torcasio said Hammonton coaches supported the move. He said there is symmetry to the decision as Hammonton will become the Tri-County's 21st school and the West Jersey Football League's 66th school.
"It was almost like the perfect storm," Torcasio said. "I'm anxious to see what it's going to be like."
Notes: The CAL's other five founding members: Cape May, Egg Harbor City (both no longer in existence), Middle Township, Ocean City and Wildwood. ... Wildwood left the CAL for the Tri-County several years ago.
Contact Michael McGarry: