PORTSMOUTH — For fans of the Southern Ohio Conference, cross this milestone moment — or movement — off your Christmas wish list.
That’s because the SOC, the 76-year-old athletic league — and which encompasses counties of Scioto, Lawrence, Pike and Jackson and soon to be Gallia —is realigning itself into three six-team divisions.
Per SOC Secretary/Treasurer Dave Stamm, who confirmed in an interview last week with The Portsmouth Daily Times, the conference has formally approved the alignment of three six-team divisions —given South Gallia’s full-fledged entry into the conference in the 2023-24 academic year.
There are currently 17 schools in the conference, as Ironton Saint Joseph joined —or rather rejoined —beginning with the 2019-20 academic campaign.
The shift officially opens with the basketball season for 2023-24, as Stamm said the SOC’s 2023 volleyball schedules were already set.
The league officially voted nine days ago on the motion for realignment —the third time in which it was voted upon, but the first time at least the necessary 75-percent of schools supported it.
Stamm said last Thursday’s vote of the league’s athletic directors — at their regular monthly meeting — consisted of 15 for it, two against it, and one school which abstained.
The move affects the sports of volleyball for the fall, girls and boys basketball for the winter, and softball and baseball for the spring.
As for football, of which 13 of the soon-to-be 18 SOC schools offer at the varsity level, it will remain a two-division setup —for now.
Stamm discussed the decision-making process of implementing a three-division SOC.
The current setup is the “larger” league schools make up the SOC II, and the “smaller” schools consisting of the SOC I.
“There was concern when South Gallia came in, we would have two nine-team divisions in those sports (volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball), meaning playing double round-robin, and that’s 16 league games out of 22 possible for volleyball and basketball. Doesn’t give you much freedom for non-league games. There was also discussion on competitive balance, too. I think a lot of schools just thought, competition-wise, move a couple of the bigger SOC I schools to a middle division, and drop a couple of the smaller SOC II schools to a middle division,” said Stamm. “It made for three six-team divisions, which we hope it will be better competition-wise and add some flexibility to the schedule. When you have 18 schools, it’s impossible to satisfy everybody, but I think this helps a few schools.”
The first two votes featured a majority supporting the motion, with 11 (61-percent) and 12 schools (67-percent) supporting it, but the conference mandates AT LEAST 75-percent support from its members.
“This was the third vote for us, and this subject has been heavily discussed for a while. A lot of opinions shared with several different formats proposed,” said Stamm. “In fact, this is not the original three divisions we voted on.”
As for those 18 members — and in what divisions they will reside in you ask?
The reshuffled SOC deck revealed these hands of cards.
The “smallest” schools division will include Ironton St. Joseph, Notre Dame, New Boston, Green, East and Clay.
The “middle” schools division will include Eastern AND Western from Pike County, Symmes Valley, South Gallia, Northwest and Oak Hill.
The “largest” schools division will include Waverly, Wheelersburg, West, Minford, Valley and South Webster —with Stamm saying South Webster, the smallest of those six and primarily a Division IV program when it comes to the four sports impacted, wanted to remain with those five.
“South Webster has always had a philosophy of playing as tough a non-league schedule as they can, to better prepare them for the tournament. They basically chose to play in the bigger division,” he said. “And a lot of that has got to do with, being truthful about it, having a financial advantage of playing in the big schools division. Bigger gyms, bigger gates associated with those schools.”
Stamm said some crossover games between the divisions also helped the motion cross the proverbial finish line.
“In the sports of basketball, volleyball, softball and baseball, if you have three divisions of six teams, that’s playing five league teams for 10 games. That meant you had to fill 12 non-league games. So the crossover games might have been something to help schools come to this conclusion,” he said. “Everything is based on trying to make the conference more competitive.”
Other factors, Stamm said, included relationships between schools —which he said impacted Valley, and Eastern and Western wanting to be together in the same division.
The same could be said for Symmes Valley and South Gallia —rival schools along Ohio Routes 141, 775 and 790.
“The first two votes were based strictly on Ohio High School Athletic Association enrollments, and a lot of schools would not pass that. Valley has had much more of a relationship with those SOC II schools for example,” said Stamm. “The schools wanted to be more related to other schools they felt comfortable with.”
This latest realignment will be the SOC’s first since 2019 —when St. Joseph’s Flyers rejoined, Oak Hill moved up to the SOC II in football, and Eastern jumped up to the SOC II in all others except football.
The Oaks were an SOC I program in that sport, while competing in the larger-sized SOC II in all others.
Oak Hill had won at least a share of every league football championship from 2009 thru 2018 — except in 2011 and 2016.
The Oaks initially joined the SOC in the 1992-93 academic year.
The Flyers withdrew from the SOC as a result of declining enrollment — and had been forced to play an independent schedule for three decades.
However, they had scheduled several SOC I schools to fill their slates — as the SOC I consists of the smallest-sized schools in the conference.
The Flyers currently compete in both boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball and soccer.
Now, the Rebels make it 18 members —and for three six-team divisions.
Stamm said simply “we’re going to give this a go”, but doesn’t expect THIS realignment “to be the last change we make”.
“The one good thing about this, and we also had superintendents get involved in these discussions, but nobody was scared to give their opinion about what they thought was best for their schools,” he said. “We’re still going to be working on some things, because the end goal is we want everybody to have a chance to compete well and win. We hope this makes competition better for everybody, and benefits most of the schools in the league.”