New U.P. grid conference set for 2018
ESCANABA — The evolution of Michigan eight-player high school football has led to the formation of a new conference in the Upper Peninsula.
Rapid River athletic director Rick Pepin said a new football-only conference will be launched in the 2018 fall season.
The 13-school, yet unnamed league will blanket the U.P. with two divisions — North Central, Carney-Nadeau, Forest Park, North Dickinson, Stephenson and Ontonagon in the West and Superior Central, Rapid River, Engadine, Pickford, Brimley, Cedarville and Rudyard in the East.
Gone is the Western Eight Conference, which was comprised of all the aforementioned schools except the five from the Eastern U.P.
Pepin said the new conference idea was kick-started after a conversation he had with Pickford athletic director Chuck Bennin.
Brimley, Cedarville, Pickford, Engadine and Rudyard all belonged to the Bridge Alliance Conference, but the Lower Michigan Schools in that league had other options for games with new schools starting eight-player football in Northern Michigan.
“The other (Bridge Alliance) schools have schools closer to them going to eight-man in 2018 and they didn’t want to come across the (Mackinac Bridge),” Pepin said. “Pickford, Cedarville, Engadine, Brimley and Rudyard) were losing games in 2018. So they reached out to us.”
Pepin took the lead and arranged a September meeting in St. Ignace with the athletic directors of the Eastern U.P. schools. They put ideas on paper and Pepin sent out a plan Sept. 29 for a new 13-school conference.
“I asked for approval, sent out a schedule from the west end to the east end and it was welcomed with open arms,” Pepin said.
“We are trying to be an advocate for the U.P. schools and an advocate for eight-player football. For all eight-player schools in the U.P., the schedules have been fluid since eight-player football started. There have been a lot of changes we had to tolerate and move through the past several years.”
Pepin said two big issues facing eight-player football have been travel and coming up with a jayvee schedule. “Football seems to be dying on the vine,” he said.
Nine of the 13 schools in the new conference currently have JV programs – North Dickinson, Stephenson, Ontonagon, North Central, Rapid River, Engadine, Pickford, Cedarville and Rudyard.
Pepin said the approach for the varsity schedules was to make Week 1 and Week 3 crossover games between the divisions. He added that Week 1 would be the farthest trip in August so it could be done before school starts.
Pepin said scheduling was a difficult due to officiating contracts already being signed and trying to keep the home and away order intact from last season to next season.
Pepin also was mindful of the distance and made sure Ontonagon wouldn’t have to play Cedarville.
He also tried to match up doubleheaders, where junior varsity games could be played before varsity games.
“This is something that has worked for us in Rapid River,” Pepin said. “We had North Central and Stephenson here and played the JV game at 4 and the varsity at 7. For officials, it makes for a longer night, but they make more money and you don’t have to hire two crews. And it’s great for the concession stands.”
The varsity schedules also included a bye week so schools can work in rivalry-type games. For example, Stephenson and Forest Park can still play Florence, Wis., Pepin said.
Retaining rivalries is becoming a hot topic, especially with five Mid-Peninsula Conference schools joining the West-PAC for football next season. It appears long-standing U.P. rivalries like Kingsford vs. Iron Mountain (93 years) and Negaunee vs. Marquette (123 years, second-oldest in state) will not continue due to the West-PAC merger and its nine-game schedules all being filled within the league.
Pepin said a name has not been chosen yet for the new league. It will be discussed and paperwork will need to be filled out for the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
For now, the new conference is comprised of 13 schools and there may be changes ahead to the U.P. eight-player landscape.
“Come next September, this may change again,” Pepin said. “We don’t know what Lake Linden will do. What is Munising thinking? And what about St. Ignace?”