Structure of Licking County League in need of tweaking
For the first time in 22 years, the Licking County League is part of the sports landscape in central Ohio.
Ten high schools -- Granville, Heath, Johnstown, Lakewood, Licking Heights, Licking Valley, Newark Catholic, Northridge, Utica and Watkins Memorial -- have reunited from a league that began in 1927 before being disbanded in 1991. The only high school in the county not in the LCL is Newark, which was not part of the original LCL and opted to remain in the OCC-Ohio Division.
The new version of the LCL has the spirit of the old one, but three of the schools have distinctly different demographics than they did two decades ago.
Watkins Memorial outgrew the league in the late 1980s and joined the now-defunct Buckeye Athletic Conference before moving to the OCC. With 32 teams, the OCC is the state's largest conference comprised entirely of Ohio schools.
Licking Heights' first playoff appearance in football came in 2001 when it was in Division V. Last season, the Hornets reached the playoffs in Division II, losing to Marion-Franklin 46-14 in the first round.
When Licking Heights reached the postseason a dozen years ago, its designated hometown was Summit Station, a municipality that more or less was swallowed by Pataskala as the result of growth in population.
Granville has grown into a Division III team in football and has moved up to Division I in boys track and field.
These three schools would appear to have an advantage over the smaller schools in the LCL such as Heath, Johnstown, Northridge and Utica -- even Newark Catholic.
That situation has been addressed in football, as the league is split into two five-team divisions. Granville, Lakewood, Licking Heights, Licking Valley and Watkins Memorial form the Big School Division and Heath, Johnstown, Newark Catholic, Northridge and Utica comprise the Small School Division.
The revival of the LCL has been in the works for several years, but the elephant in the room has yet to be addressed: Why is the league being divided into two divisions in football but not other sports?
A round-robin format for a 10-team league means each team will have 18 league games or matches in basketball, baseball, softball and girls volleyball. The OHSAA limits teams to 22 regular-season games in basketball, 22 regular-season matches in volleyball and 27 regular-season games in baseball and softball.
The schools that comprise the LCL come from conferences that had no more than eight teams in a division, which allowed them to have four additional non-league games or matches during the regular season.
While having 18 league games in the LCL might equate to less travel, it could increase the chances of an early postseason exit, particularly in basketball. The more non-league games a basketball team has on its schedule, the more opportunities it has to see different styles of play, which, in turn, could help it prepare to face certain postseason opponents.
It will be interesting to see whether the LCL will stick with its one-division configuration for basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball for more than one season. If the league's coaches express enough displeasure, the format could be changed to two divisions in those four sports as it is for football.
If that happens, the LCL should consider renaming the divisions.
For football, the Small School Division could be the Graham Division after former Newark Catholic coach J.D. Graham, who compiled a 220-30-1 record and guided the Green Wave to seven of its eight state championships in 21 seasons. The Green Wave won four consecutive titles from 1984-87.
Renaming the Big School Division might be a little trickier. At first blush, maybe it could be named after longtime Licking Valley coach Randy Baughman, but Baughman still walks the Panthers' sideline.
Another option would be to rename the division after Gerry Cooke, who coached at Watkins Memorial for 16 seasons, from 1986-2001, and is a past president of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association.
If the LCL goes to two divisions in baseball, the Big School Division could be called the Thorp Division after Don Thorp, who completed his 40th season at Lakewood last spring and has led the Lancers to three state titles. The Small School Division could be named after Heath's Dave Klontz or Newark Catholic's John Cannizzaro, but, as is the case with Baughman, both remain in their respective dugouts.
Having a two-division format in all sports should be in the LCL's future.