The Cape-Atlantic League will not join the West Jersey Football League - yet.
CAL president Mike Gatley was informed Thursday that the WJFL voted 51-14, with one abstention, to deny entry for the CAL. A two-thirds majority vote was needed.
"I'm disappointed for our kids because I think it would have been a tremendous opportunity on so many levels to balance the playing field for so many schools in the Cape-Atlantic League," Gatley, the athletic director at Mainland Regional High School, said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "And (WJFL president) Bud Kowal was disappointed, too. … But the door isn't closed."
The CAL had voted in September to apply. The WJFL was formed in 2010 with teams from the Olympic Conference, the Tri-County Conference, and Burlington and Mercer counties. Hammonton will leave the CAL to become the WJFL's 66th member in 2014.
The superconference allows for teams to play more games against other schools with similar enrollments. Balanced scheduling has been an issue for the CAL.
"I was really hoping we got in," Absegami coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. said in a phone interview. "To be able to play other public Group V teams would have been great for us."
Gatley said the CAL will continue to examine other opportunities, including possibly reapplying to join the WJFL in two years. He said the process was "completely fair and professional."
"Realignment is a constant and ongoing process," Gatley said.
West Jersey teams had two main concerns about the move, Kowal said in a phone
First was the increased travel that would come with expanding the league geographically. Second was the timing, since the WJFL's addition of Hammonton will give it an even amount of teams and absorbing the CAL's 17 teams right now would throw its scheduling off again.
"Because we were so satisfied with the way that we were going, to go into the unknown … I think there's a great desire to play out that two-year cycle at least with 66 (teams) and see how it goes," said Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing.
Gatley said he also heard some concern from West Jersey schools about some of the CAL's smaller schools with strong football teams. The WJFL puts together schedules based on enrollment groups, which could be a problem for some CAL schools - most notably St. Joseph, which is in South Jersey Non-Public I but is among the top programs in the state in any enrollment group.
"I would gather the sticking point was the three Catholic schools," St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said in a phone interview, referring also to St. Augustine Prep and Holy Spirit.
Teams that are more than one enrollment group apart are not supposed to play each other under the WJFL's bylaws, though Kowal said that rule can be overridden if both schools agree to the matchup.
Still, that could present a problem for a school such as St. Joseph, as teams in Group III and up could refuse to play the Wildcats.
Sacco said the WJFL would have to change its bylaws if the CAL joins. The Wildcats have won the past two state Non-Public I championship games by a combined 87-0.
"We're a Group I school and according to their bylaws we'd play all Group I's (and Group II's), and that's not going to fly," Sacco said. "I think we were kind of hoping they'd allow us to bump up and play, like, a Group III schedule."
Some of the Group V football schools from Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties also have expressed reservations in the past about adding St. Augustine Prep, which recently has drawn many students from the Burlington County and Washington Township areas.
The Prep applied in 2009 to join the Olympic Conference for all sports but eventually withdrew its application.
Thursday's news was not entirely bad for the CAL.
The league had one of its best seasons ever in 2012 with a format in which it grouped its best teams in one conference. With many of the top teams benefiting from strength of schedule and some of the smaller schools getting to play more games against each other, the CAL American Conference sent six of its nine teams to the playoffs and the CAL National sent four of its nine.
Joining the WJFL also would have endangered some of the CAL's rivalries. They all should remain intact now, with the exception of St. Joseph vs. Hammonton. Sacco said he does not anticipate that continuing past this season.
"You're not going to lose that tradition," Gatley said.
But the CAL now has a scheduling problem. With Hammonton's departure, the league will have an uneven amount of teams for the next two-year cycle, starting with the 2014 schedule. Gatley said it will be "almost impossible" to provide full schedules with 17 teams.
Teams could be left scrambling for out-of-conference games to fill their schedules. On the other hand, that could make for some interesting matchups.
"I would be open to maybe picking up a game outside of the Cape," Scuderi said.
While things didn't work out this year, the WJFL still could end up being a solution for the CAL in the future.
"The philosophy of the West Jersey league was really founded on the same concerns that we have right now (in the CAL)," Gatley said. "It's just that now's not the time."
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