CHARLOTTESVILLE — After Eastern Hancock voluntarily left the Mid-Hoosier Conference last school year, Royals athletics director Aaron Spaulding had two key requirements on his wish list for the future.
One, the school’s next conference had to have more than four teams. Two, the member school’s needed to be in closer proximity to Eastern Hancock than those in the MHC.
By joining the Mid-Eastern Conference beginning in 2017-18, the Royals far exceeded their first prerequisite while compromising on the other in their search for stability after one year of independence.
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The MEC, which has an eight-school membership currently, will expand to 10 overall next fall with the additions of Eastern Hancock and Shenandoah.
While three schools are approximately an hour away — Monroe Central, Wapahani and Randolph Southern — most are 45 minutes or less. The closest is one of Eastern Hancock’s top rivals in Shenandoah, which is a short 25-minute bus trip away.
“It was big that Shenandoah was joining it as well because they’re a big rival for us, right next to Knightstown,” said Spaulding, who is in his seventh year at athletics director.
Wes-Del, Blue River Valley, Daleville, Union (Modoc), and Cowan complete the MEC, which hopes to potentially add more schools in upcoming school years to fill out it’s football participation.
As of 2017-18, Monroe Central, Wes-Del, Shenandoah, and Eastern Hancock are the only schools with football programs.
Prior to 2016-17, Eastern Hancock was part of the Mid-Indiana Football Conference and the MHC, for all other sports. They were affiliated with the former for six seasons and the latter for four.
In 2009, the football program was independent for one year after the White River Athletic Conference disbanded at the conclusion of the 2008 season.
The Royals carried independent status from 2010 through 2012 in all other sports. The first program to find a conference was football in 2010 before basketball and others joined the MHC in 2012-13.
The girls track team won four straight MHC team titles, and the girls cross country team matched them, while the softball team captured the championship in 2015. The football team seized the MIFC title two of the past three years.
Spaulding believes the Royals could have the same success in the MEC.
Recently, the Daily Reporter spoke with Spaulding to discuss their MEC membership, the MEC’s competitive balance, scheduling and the school’s long-term plan.
Q: What was the thought process behind Eastern Hancock joining the Mid-Eastern Conference?
A: We felt it was important for our kids to be in a conference, and there are a lot of small schools, like us, in the MEC. We’ve also played a lot of those schools, like Blue River, Wapahani, Cowan and Wes-Del before in something or another, and we thought it was a great opportunity for our kids. We’re excited about it and looking forward to it.
Q: What’s your take on the MEC’s overall strength across the sports spectrum?
A: Just like every small-town conference, they have some sports where people are really good. For example, the volleyball is a juggernaut. I know they’re really known for baseball. There are a lot of good basketball teams, too. With Shenandoah, Monroe Central and Wes-Del, that gives us football. The one addition we didn’t have in the MHC is they have wrestling, so that’s a big thing for us. Our wrestlers now, who have not been able to compete for a conference championship, will now be able to do so.
Q: When you left the MHC, you stated one of the goals was to join a conference that didn’t entail long distances for road games. Do you feel this addresses that issue?
A: I think so, slightly. I don’t know if there’s a big improvement. We have three schools that are about an hour and 15 minute drives. I don’t think we have many longer than that. It could change, though, you never know.
There’s a possibility of Southern Wells and Blackford, but they will not join next year. They’d like a six-team football conference. And obviously, (Blackford and Southern Wells are) weighing their options because they’re already in a conference.
There has been talk of divisions within the conference based on location, and one day events where you go to larger facilities, like a college campus, and you don’t have to travel as much. We’re in the infancy stages, but we’ll work everything out.
Q: Has it been a mild headache trying to prepare next year’s athletic schedules?
A: It hasn’t been a headache yet, but it will be (laugh). We have a meeting scheduled in March where every AD is going to come and we’re just going to try to hammer it out. That’s going to be a big challenge.
Q: What has been the response from the coaches so far on joining the MEC next year?
A: We all want what’s best for the kids. I think the coaches and the kids are looking forward to it. It’s another thing for them to shoot for to achieve. In our individual sports that don’t have class sectionals, we just don’t have a realistic chance of winning a team sectional. This is at least an opportunity where we have a fighting chance to win a conference championship.
Q: Do you see this as a long-term membership?
A: Absolutely, we’d really like to get settled in somewhere and to the point where we feel we’re a part of a something long-term. Hopefully, this will be my last conference switch, then it can be someone else’s way down the road.