Once upon a time in the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River region, there existed a somewhat utopian atmosphere among the populous. While the village inhabitants of each individual area were fervently pleased and protective of their own, they shared a competitive bond with an overriding uniqueness that made their athletic encounters something they looked forward to and cherished. The commonality was real, and the distance required to travel from village to village was minimal.
Indeed, it seemed like the connection they shared would endure the sands of time permitting generation after generation to replicate the experiences of their forefathers as tales of accomplishments were passed down from father to son. But alas, frustrations from the inside, coupled with outside enticements, brought too much pressure to bear and the beloved entity known in its day as the West Branch Conference broke into pieces that not even Humpty Dumpty could put back together again.
For today’s high school athletes, and even their parents, the West Branch Conference is nothing more than a fairy tale that existed ‘back in the day.’ But it was both real and beloved. In the middle of the 20th-century, football, Friday nights, and wintertime gymnasium drama existed among its membership. Comprised of Muncy, Montgomery, Montoursville, Jersey Shore, Bald-Eagle Nittany, South Williamsport, Hughesville High Schools — and in its waning years Loyalsock — the league gave its fans plenty to cheer about and look forward to.
But like a decaying floodwall, erosion began to wash away its base and its participants scattered for ‘greener pastures.’ First, it was Muncy and Montgomery that tired of the numbers imbalance between them and the competition. As the years passed, the PIAA playoffs placed a greater divide between ‘the haves and the have nots.’ New athletic alliances sprung up, such as the Mid-Penn and the Central Susquehanna Conference. The old West Branch schools scrambled to find a comfort level.
Perhaps adhering to the marketing strategy of some products declaring ‘one size fits all’ the Pennsylvania Heartland Athletic Conference was born in 2008. At its birth, with the nickname PHAC, the coalition was formed among central Pennsylvania high schools that at one time participated in the Schuykill Valley League, the Tri-Valley League, the Susquehanna Valley League, the Mid-Penn and the West Branch Conference. Similar to the infatuation experienced with a new lover, the PHAC enjoyed an early ‘honeymoon’ with its 26 dating partners.
But as the relationship aged, some members found attractiveness existed outside of its current union, and the temptations proved too attractive to resist. Internal arguments sprung up, seeds of envy were planted, and the sizing of its product was no longer one that fit all.
Some of the smaller schools embarked upon a course to keep the Mid-Penn Conference alive no matter what the size. At one point, a Mid-Penn Conference school official was believed to have told a departing school official, ‘we are going to keep this conference alive, and you’ll be back.’
Bingo! That unnamed official surely qualifies as a 21st century Nostradamus as indeed, the Mid-Penn Conference is back and growing.
At this writing, the PHAC will be down to 18 member schools for the 2020-2021 season with announced plans to operate with two nine-team divisions. Conversely, the smaller school-sized Mid-Penn is growing and will be comprised of 10 members with South Williamsport, and Northwest added as new teams. The league will be grouped into two five-team divisions for both boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.
As constituted, the Mid-Penn West Division will include Bucktail, Montgomery, Muncy. St. John Neumann and South Williamsport. Included in the Mid-Penn East will be Benton, Millville, CMVT, Northwest, and Sullivan County. In basketball, the teams will play each team in their division twice and will face teams in the other division once. A total of 13 league games will be played, permitting each school to schedule nine games of their choice to fill out their 22-game schedule.
In wrestling, the Mid-Penn Conference makeup will include Benton, CMVT, Montgomery, Muncy, South Williamsport, Sugar Valley, and Sullivan County.
For South Williamsport, the smallest enrollment school in this year’s PHAC, the move is aimed at providing competitive flexibility for its entire athletic program. The school’s football team will compete in the Northern Tier Small School Division, allowing continuing rivalries with neighboring Muncy and Montgomery.
With its baseball (Casey Waller) and softball (Tom O’Malley) teams now guided by new coaches, the Mountaineer squads will be embarking upon the upcoming season playing independent schedules.
Once upon a time, all fairytales featured a happy ending. Only time will tell if the newly constructed Mid-Penn Conference will enjoy the fan-acceptance and competitiveness of the old West Branch Conference. No doubt, some of the new-found attractiveness could fade with age, but, like the 1950s’ women discovered when struggling with their girdles, ‘one size doesn’t fit all.’