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Commentary: Reported New Castle addition will be great for HHC

May 10, 2013
By Andrew Smith of Hancock County Sports

Ever since Rushville informed the Hoosier Heritage Conference a year ago that it was leaving the league, there has always been one perfect replacement.

That perfect replacement is finally upon us -- the New Castle Trojans.

New Castle is reportedly joining the HHC, according to a tweet by RadioTroy's Troy Derengowski, who notes that New Castle notified the North Central Conference Thursday of its decision, and will officially join the HHC in June. It comes just two days after the HHC athletic directors held their monthly conference meeting.

UPDATE: Derengowski tweeted Friday morning that New Castle AD Brandon Ecker said he has NOT notified the NCC of a decision. The next HHC ADs meeting is June 10.

For a year, it was believed that the pull of the NCC -- its tradition, and New Castle's place as one of the staunchest keepers of that tradition -- would keep the Trojans in the grand old league. But a bunch of dominoes began falling over the past six months, and suddenly, the perfect marriage was fixed.

It all really started when the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference announced that it intended to expand to 16 teams, putting the 10-team Hoosier Crossroads Conference in the crosshairs. All the MIC did was swap the two Terre Haute schools for Pike and Lawrence Central, but the seven Indianapolis-area HCC schools severed ties with the three Lafayette-area schools -- Lafayette Jeff, McCutcheon and Harrison. In turn, those schools were conference-less. Jeff had a long tradition of being in the NCC, and all three were a geographic fit. All three were accepted into the NCC, which had designs of becoming a 12-team conference by adding one more member. Instead, New Castle balked at the increased travel in a Courier-Times article published last month, and began making overtures toward leaving.

Before all of those dominoes fell, the HHC looked -- Hamilton Heights and Greenwood had interested factions within their athletic departments, but their upper-level administrations didn't want the increaed travel or to sever traditional rivalries. Roncalli made a presentation to the conference, but was not accepted for membership and remains independent. But none were perfect fits -- the first two are perfect demographically but are geographic outliers and the third is a parochial school with a significantly different student body makeup than the HHC schools.

All the while, the one school that was a perfect fit was New Castle.

And here they are.

New Castle is centrally-located within the HHC -- Henry County borders every other HHC county except Shelby. It sits at the confluence of four state roads that lead directly to five of the other seven HHC schools. Five schools are between 20 and 30 miles one-way from New Castle, with outliers New Palestine and Shelbyville being less than 45 miles one-way. By comparison, in the NCC, NC was making one-way trips of 110 miles to Logansport, 75 to Huntington North, 70 to Kokomo and 60 to Marion. The addition of the three Lafayette-area schools would've added three more 100-plus mile one-way trips.

Enrollment-wise, New Castle fits perfectly in the middle of the HHC. Its enrollment of 1,108 is almost exactly the same as Mt. Vernon, Shelbyville and New Palestine and puts it squarely in the middle of the league. Greenfield-Central (1,446) is the largest school in the league, followed by Pendleton Heights (1,316). Delta (803) and Yorktown (785) are the two smallest -- a fairly compact spread, creating a league where all eight schools are competitive with each other and therefore have built up some great rivalries over the years. By comparison, with its new members, the NCC will have six schools with at least 1,700 students -- starting with Lafayette Jeff's 1,935. Only one school -- Muncie Central, enrollment 915 -- is smaller than New Castle, and rumors have been flying around Muncie that it will likely merge with cross-town rival South and create another school with 1,800+ students.

With high gas prices and a tremendous enrollment disparity, a league like the NCC becomes unwieldy, especially for a school like New Castle. Throw in declining school budgets, and it becomes nearly-impossible to justify making multiple 150-to-200-mile round trips each year -- and asking fans and parents to do the same -- in 19 varsity sports.

New Castle brings to the HHC a solid athletic program -- one that already plays a number of conference members in several sports. The Trojans have a state-caliber volleyball program, a legendary basketball program that has turned out players like Vern Huffman, Kent Benson, Steve Alford, Darnell Archey, and a very competitive baseball program. New Castle has struggled of late in football, but is a sleeping giant there, too. It has top-notch facilities -- the 9,314-seat New Castle Fieldhouse obviously being the crown jewel, but it also has a very nice football stadium.

One must shed a tear for tradition. As a traditionalist and a high school basketball junkie, I long for the days when Steve Alford and James Blackmon were playing each other in front of standing-room-only crowds in a high school gym that seats nearly 10,000 people. I loved watching 9,000 people pack the Wigwam at sectional time, and seeing Anderson, Marion, Muncie Central, Richmond and Lafayette Jeff make deep tourney runs seemingly every year. All of the state's blue-blood programs are there.

But reality is, those days are long gone. The economy that has pummeled the North Central Conference towns, many of which are built on heavy industry, and many of which have seen significant population declines and factory closures. Anderson has gone from three schools to one, Muncie will likely do the same soon, Kokomo went from two to one, and both Richmond and Marion have seen significant enrollment declines in recent years. Suburban flight has changed the makeup of many county-seat schools in industrial towns, and the NCC towns are not immune. Pendleton Heights and Yorktown have grown from former Anderson and Muncie residents, for example. Since the advent of class basketball, there have been two basketball titlists from the NCC in 16 years -- Zach Randolph's Marion team in 4A and a New Castle squad in 3A -- a far cry from an era when NCC teams were annual visitors to the State Finals and often made up half of three-fourths of the teams.

That NCC went away when it accepted three schools from Lafayette -- including its first two non-county-seat schools in Harrison and McCutcheon -- significantly changing its direction. It was spurned by Jay County a month ago, and Huntington North has been reportedly looking to join a conference that's a better geographic fit. The NCC isn't what it once was. It will never be.

And that's OK. Times change, and we need to be willing to change with it. The old South Central Conference was, at one time, a grand league, but Shelbyville and Rushville found a better fit for them by the mid-1990s than making annual trips to Jeffersonville, Seymour and New Albany. That league broke apart, and new, natural rivalries began. The Hoosier Hills Conference and Conference Indiana that absorbed many SCC teams have both thrived, and the Hoosier Hills especially is a tremendous league with a lot of natural cross-league rivalries.

The HHC will be the same -- New Castle will be a very perfect, natural fit and will make new rivals very quickly. There will be some who miss the annual battles with Anderson, Marion and Lafayette Jeff, but Greenfield-Central, Pendleton Heights and Shelbyville will more than fill that void. Besides, Norm Held, Bill Green and Marion Crawley are long-retired. The balance of power in the state has shifted. This is an acknowledgement of that.

Welcome, Trojans.

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