The Mid-Penn Conference is no stranger to change.
Recent history, especially in football, doesn’t hide that fact.
James Buchanan became an independent team two years ago, and Susquenita departed several years earlier for the Tri-Valley League. Big Spring and Northern York also publicly looked at leaving their long-time home before public pressure convinced the districts to stay in the conference. And in the early 2000s, Bermudian Springs, Biglerville and Fairfield left en masse for the York-Adams League.
In one fell swoop that’s about to change in what may be the most dramatic shift in the sprawling Mid-Penn structure since those early 2000s defections.
New additions: Beginning in the 2020 season, the Mid-Penn Conference will welcome six Tri-Valley League teams in as football-only members and an additional team, including two recent former members: Halifax, Juniata, Line Mountain, Newport, Susquenita and Upper Dauphin from the TVL, and JB.
All seven teams will create the rebirth of the Liberty Division, the fifth division in what will be a dramatically different football conference a year from now. Along with the new members, the Colonial and Capital divisions will look notably different after restructuring.
The Liberty and Capital divisions, now the two small-school divisions in the 37-team conference, will play crossover games over the next two years.
“Our biggest thing from a football standpoint right now was we made a commitment to stay together,” said Susquenita head coach/athletic director Scott Acri, who expressed excitement to get back to his MPC roots. “This is something that we wanted to do.”
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride with the Tri-Valley League,” Lower Dauphin AD and Mid-Penn football chairman Dave Bitting said. “But we’re hoping they look at that and see us to be a good fit.”
How does everything line up? The inclusion of seven new schools is one of the most significant changes the Mid-Penn has seen in years.
Already arguably the most powerful District 3 conference especially in the biggest three classifications, the MPC now adds teams in the lowest three classifications, including a defending champ.
The 2020-21 Mid-Penn Conference will include four of the reigning District 3 champions: Harrisburg (6-A), Bishop McDevitt (4-A), Middletown (3-A) and now Halifax (1-A), which made the first round of the PIAA tournament.
The conference, using the current PIAA enrollment numbers — some schools may change classifications when the new two-year enrollment cycle is unveiled for 2020-21 — includes nine 6-A teams, 10 in 5-A, eight in 4-A, three in 3-A, six in 2-A and one 1-A program.
And the Mid-Penn, which is majority District 3 teams but also includes State College, Altoona and Mifflin County from District 6, will now include a District 4 team (Line Mountain) and another D-6 school (Juniata).
Dramatic changes: With the new Liberty Division will be another realignment of the existing four divisions, some of them dramatic:
Susquehanna Township dropping to the Colonial, flipping places with Mifflin County.
Mechanicsburg, which has struggled for years in the Keystone, also following Township.
East Pennsboro leaving the Capital for the Colonial, and Milton Hershey leaving the Capital for the Keystone.
Big Spring joining the Capital, separating from longtime rival Shippensburg.
The Commonwealth, Keystone and Colonial will each be comprised of eight schools, the Capital six and the Liberty seven.
The Capital and Liberty will play crossover games each of the next two years, but the unequal sizes creates “floating byes” that teams will have to fill with other games.
“The one thing we didn’t want to do but [we had no choice] was floating byes,” said Shippensburg AD Michael Montedoro, who was responsible for the conference schedule during the next cycle. “We tried to match up some floating byes. Any time you do that kind of stuff, you always have [teams asking for other teams].
“James Buchanan coming back helped, gave us another team to put in the formula. … I would say the No. 1 driving force in all of it was to give them as many [league] games as we possibly could.”
Among annual match-ups that matter within Cumberland County — the Mechanicsburg-Northern matchup (Week 4 in 2020 and ’21) will now count for division standings, and the Little Brown Jug game, for several years a Week 10 game, now has to move sometime within Weeks 1-3 with Ship and Big Spring separated.
Events that led to merger: The series of events that led to this football merger began in late 2018 and early 2019, when the Colonial League and Schuylkill League formed a scheduling cooperative for the next cycle.
That move came with an additional move — Williams Valley, Tri-Valley and Pine Grove leaving the TVL for the Schuylkill, turning the 10-team TVL into a seven-team league. (And it will be just six teams when Upper Dauphin and Millersburg complete a football merger after this season; both school districts are also exploring merging entirely, not just for sports.)
“We kind of always knew,” Acri said. “I guess they felt at a point it was better for them, for whatever reason. … I don’t think a lot of people were surprised or shocked.”
Facing a new reality, the remaining schools began exploring options, all of which included staying together: finding new teams to join their league, staying at six schools and finding five non-league opponents to fill the schedule, or joining a new league together.
“This all broke in late November, early December,” Greenwood AD Adam Sheaffer said. “At that time, the superintendents definitely wanted to try to make it go, hold the league together in other sports.”
But that stance softened during a TVL meeting of superintendents and AD’s after Sheaffer proposed joining the Mid-Penn following talks he had before with at least one Mid-Penn member.
“We are pretty adaptive in the Tri-Valley, and we have been for a long time,” Sheaffer said.
“With us going together, I think it’s a good fit,” Acri said. “I would be inclined to say I would be very nervous if we were going full-inclusive to the Mid-Penn ourselves. … There’s no doubt it’s a good fit because we’re staying together.”
Return of James Buchanan: Nearly two hours south on I-81, James Buchanan was also hoping to rejoin the conference. The Rockets left in football two years ago after declining numbers in football and multiple 0-10 seasons threatened the health of the program. They have operated as an independent for two years.
Having JB join at the same time as the TVL worked out fairly well, Bitting said.
“JB saw it as an opportunity to come back,” he said. “We knew they were not going to be out — we figured one cycle, possibly two. … I think they kind of felt [now was the right time].”
Sheaffer said the Tri-Valley League had some other options on the table if the Mid-Penn had been unwilling to accept them.
“There were some [out-of-the-box] conversations,” said Sheaffer, who added he didn’t originally think the MPC would be an option, and that the TVL programs weren’t keen to joining another league when talks of the future first began in early 2019. “Was there a way that you could have a, not necessarily a playoff week, but you take the two best teams and play them in Week 9, and then three and four would play, and then five and six would play?”
What does the future hold? The merger will last for at least two years.
Indications from Bitting and Sheaffer suggest the teams will reevaluate the marriage around 2021 before the next cycle. Although both parties are pretty happy with the arrangement at present, that could change depending on how competitive the TVL programs are in their new home during crossover games. If enough teams are unhappy, there’s a chance for a breakup.
“There’s no hiding the fact that people don’t look at the Tri-Valley as competitive as the Mid-Penn,” Acri said. “When you’re playing nine league games, you don’t have time to worry about other leagues.”
But it’s also an opportunity “to show what we’re made of,” the Blackhawks coach said.
Multiple other factors are in play, though. Could the other sports join in the future? Will there be increased media exposure, and how will TVL schools take to that?
"Mid-Penn aura:" On the latter, specifically mentioning media coverage unsolicited, Acri said: “What I’m excited about is the kids’ experiences with the Mid-Penn aura. … People want to be a part of the Mid-Penn.”
And could that affect the former? Perhaps. But Sheaffer is unwilling to think too far ahead. He said those in charge of the TVL schools aren’t “inclined” to a full merger at this time.
Bitting, though, is hoping for that.
“I would say stay tuned in the future,” he said. “I personally, and I’m not speaking any more than just personally, I think they would be a perfect fit. … And it helps our [smaller] schools. … To be able to find contests for them [in sports like baseball and softball].”
That’s also three or more years away. The Mid-Penn is about to enter division play in two weeks full time. The Tri-Valley is already in league play, the final season the league will be together. And that means the TVL championship means that much more.
“Everyone wants to say they were the last ones,” Acri said.