Citing the need for competitive balance and scheduling flexibility, officials from Harford and Cecil counties are exploring a merger that would create a 14-team Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference by as early as the 2004-05 academic year.
The plan, which would separate the nine Harford and five Cecil schools into two divisions, will be discussed further in the upcoming months, including at a committee meeting in February with athletic directors, supervisors, coaches and administrators from both counties.
"We are at a point now where neither county has gotten approval from its governing body to go ahead with the league, but we may introduce legislation in an attempt to rectify the league for 2004-2005," Harford County coordinator of athletics Forest Wiest said.
"Things have changed, and because of those changes, there's more of an open mind that we have to do something and this may not be such a bad thing. ... We're not at a point where we established the league, but it's being explored and it has a good probability of going through."
A constitution detailing rules and guidelines for the proposed conference was finished this fall, and a pilot schedule for the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference will be tested in girls and boys basketball next winter and in baseball and softball in spring 2004.
Wiest and Cecil County coordinator of athletics Sue Strobel said the proposed league will be evaluated after the piloting. Some issues that will be examined are transportation costs, scheduling and the level of competition.
"I'd say it's in its infancy stages," Strobel said. "Seeing it on paper is one thing, but seeing it work out is another. We want to see if there are good rivalries, competitive play and how it's received."
If the decision is to move forward with the league after the winter and spring piloting, the process to ratification will include presenting the proposal to each county's superintendent office and the general curriculum. To this point, principals and superintendents have supported the idea.
"The one thing that's going to be a stumbling block is its cost because you have to pay a commissioner," said Bel Air athletic director Phyllis Hemmes, who was a representative of the ad hoc committee that drafted the league's constitution.
A similar plan for the league was proposed about 10 years ago, but it did not materialize after strong opposition from about half the schools in Harford County.
However, at a meeting in March 2000, the Harford County athletic legislative committee chose to reinvestigate the possibility.
Much of the response from athletic directors and principals was positive, and a committee was formed to draft a constitution. The committee eventually worked off of the original constitution that was drawn up years ago.
"When we were 4A and wanted to play teams from our region, I'd say no, we didn't fully want it, but now we have dropped to 3A, and with the difficulty of scheduling games, this makes sense," said C. Milton Wright athletic director Jim McNicholas. "Convenience, lack of getting games and economy is forcing all this."
Said Wiest: "Counties around us have added schools, and a lot of people we used to play in other counties are no longer available because they are bound to league games. It makes sure we'll have a full complement of games."
According to Wiest, Bel Air, C. Milton Wright and Fallston - the only 3A schools in Harford in next year's classifications; all of Cecil's schools are 2A or 1A - have won 18 of the last 21 county championships.
Wiest hopes the league's proposed structure, featuring a separation of the 14 teams into Chesapeake and Susquehanna divisions, will open other opportunities. The seven teams deemed weakest will be in one division and the seven strongest in the other. The divisions will be composed differently for each sport.
After playing each divisional team twice in most sports, athletic directors will have the option of filling their schedule with teams from the conference's other division or going outside the conference to pick up games.