The Monocacy Valley Athletic League (MVAL), one of Maryland's biggest conferences for high school athletics since 2003, will not be functioning this year. Instead, the counties that made up the conference will have their own, smaller leagues.
Carroll County and the eight public high schools that make up the school district will be competing in the newly formed Carroll County Athletic League.
"As administrators, one of our primary missions is trying to look out for what is best for the student-athletes we are responsible for," Manchester Valley athletic director Dave Dolch said. "We realized that eight schools were enough for a league, and that it was beneficial to our athletes."
The MVAL had 23 member schools -- eight from Carroll County, 10 from Frederick County and five from Washington County. For Carroll County, the decision to leave the MVAL was based on there being too many benefits from having a separate league comprised of only schools from its own county.
"[Carroll County Public Schools] gets to establish the details of the league," Carroll County supervisor of athletics Jim Rodriguez said in a written statement. "The new league allows CCPS, to some degree, to control the distance of their contests. It allows CCPS to be the only entity to deal with any issues/concerns with the league, as well as gives CCPS the flexibility to make necessary changes easily."
The amount of travel involved for the student-athletes played a big role. Teams would routinely have to make long treks for league games multiple times a week. For example, a trip from North Carroll to North Hagerstown in Washington County takes roughly one hour and 20 minutes one way.
For a game that started at 4 p.m., student-athletes would have to miss a large chunk of school. Games could also start as late as 7 p.m., meaning students would routinely not get home until close to midnight.
The new league ensures students will have more time to focus on school and spend less time traveling for games. The longest trips any school will have to take for conference games should be about 40 minutes, with most being less.
"When you get into that travel distance, it interfered too much with academics," Dolch said. "We also have the opportunity to embrace some natural rivalries between the schools because of proximity and the athletes knowing each other."
The natural rivalries plays into another theme associated with the new league, having been specifically formed for the benefit of Carroll County. With the schools only having to focus on themselves, it has allowed the league to embrace the county's athletic history more than before and take into account the needs for the different schools.
The league is broken into two divisions, with both being named after previous Carroll County athletic supervisors. The Earl Hersh division will be comprised of the county's four biggest schools -- Westminster, Century, Liberty and Winters Mill. The four smaller schools -- Francis Scott Key, South Carroll, Manchester Valley and North Carroll -- will be in the Bruce Cowan division.
The breakdown of the Carroll County Athletic League into divisions allows some of the county's fiercest rivals, like North Carroll and Manchester Valley, to remain competing against each other for division titles. The alignment ensures teams will be competing in the standings against opponents that have similar student populations.
At the end of the regular season, the champions of each division will meet in a county championship game, the first time any such game has existed in Carroll County.
"I love the idea," Westminster athletic director Terry Molloy said. "A lot of other counties already do it, where they have a county championship game to decide who is champion. It gives us a more clear-cut and defined champion than we've ever had before."
Another way the newly formed league is benefiting Carroll County schools can be seen on the football field. There are no divisions for football; the county is one big conference. Every school plays each other once, with the exception of Westminster, which is the county's largest school and the only one classified as a 3A school, so it will remain as an independent for football only. At the end of the season, the team with the best record will be crowned champion. That gives the schools in the county, besides Westminster, a six-game conference schedule, allowing them to find four other non-conference opponents to play that have the same Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association classification.
Manchester Valley, one of the county's two schools in the MPSSAA's 1A division, has filled up its football schedule with four other 1A schools. That means the Mavericks will play half their season against schools that have a similar enrollment size to them and the other half against schools that are only slightly larger.
Westminster, which won't be able to compete for the county title in football, also benefits, because the Owls can play against teams that help them make the postseason. Football is the only sport in which every school does not qualify for the state playoffs. The MPSSAA uses a points system to determine the teams that make the playoffs, factoring in wins against opponents that are either in the same classification or bigger than their school. Essentially, there are no benefits for a big school to beat a smaller school.
As the only county school bigger than 2A, Westminster used to have its postseason chances lessened in the MVAL, because it was assigned to playing smaller schools in league play.
Last year, Westminster played eight schools that were smaller than it. This year, with the new flexibility given to it by not being in the MVAL or having to play the other Carroll County schools, the Owls will only play one school below their classification.
"You have to get points in order to qualify for the playoffs," Molloy said. "It's really that simple. The schedule we put together gives us a better opportunity to accrue more points. We went shopping for 3A and 4A opponents. In terms of football, it really changes the landscape for Westminster."
While the change is largely beneficial for Carroll County, there are some drawbacks to no longer being in the MVAL. The MVAL was considered a super conference because of its size, in terms of the number of member schools and geographical territory. It also produced a countless number of state champions, so there is a lot of history lost with the league folding.
In addition, it is more difficult for athletic directors to fill out their schedules. Previously, 90-100 percent of schedules were filled out by MVAL league games. With the new league offering less conference games, it means athletic directors must get more creative when it comes to going outside their county borders to have full schedules for every sport.
Looking ahead, those problems are small compared to the expected benefits the Carroll County student-athletes are getting from the new league.
"A lot of state titles are won by schools in Carroll County. You get the excitement of playing a local schedule. Student-athletes won't have to travel as much. You play a lot of local rivals and compete for a county title, too," Dolch said. "It's pretty exciting, because not all students in Maryland have the opportunity to get that kind of competition. Now, our athletes will."