Most of the teams that make up the Austintown Fitch athletic program are now officially members of the All American Conference.
The Austintown school board voted 4-1 on May 10 to move those teams from the Federal League to the more locally situated AAC starting in 2011. The only member of the school board who voted against the monumental change was Louis Chine. Chine later said that since the vote was in and the switch in conferences was happening he would be on board with the move and do all he can to make the move work.
Austintown Superintendent Vince Colaluca has mentioned in recent conversations that a move out of the Stark County-based Federal League into the closer AAC will save the school district tons of money in travel costs. The shift would also create an easier chance for parents to get to their sons/daughters games on time after work.
One sport parents will still need to hustle to get to will be football. The Falcons football team was not invited to join the ranks of the AAC, which means they will have to most likely play an independent schedule starting in 2012. Although Colaluca would appreciate the Federal League keeping Fitch in the fold, that scenario is very unlikely. The loss of conference affiliation has head coach Phil Annarella annoyed.
“This will be very difficult on the football program,” said Annarella a day after the school board meeting. “It is a very tough pill to swallow. Selfishly speaking, I would prefer to stay in the Federal League.”
Annarella is not the only Fitch coach who is not thrilled with leaving the Federal. Baseball headman Wally Ford did not totally condemn the move, but it was easy to tell that his tone was not enthusiastic.
“We’ll see what happens,” muttered Ford when the initial invite was extended to Fitch by the AAC. “We already play a Division I schedule so I hope that won’t change that much. There is nothing you can do about (the switch in conferences).”
Scheduling games as an independent is the one area where coach Annarella sees the greatest hardship.
“This is going to create a scheduling nightmare,” said the coach. “We are going to have games scheduled in weeks one through three then have to scramble to fill in weeks four through 10. Plus, we have no conference championship to play for and the kids can’t make all star teams (without a conference affiliation).”
Not every coach at Fitch was as outspoken against the move as Annarella was. Boys basketball head coach Jason Baker understands why some of the other coaches are hesitant to make the conference change, but is excited for the new opportunity his team now will have.
“This is a good move for our program and especially for our community,” Baker mentioned. “We always want to be in a position to play the best competition. I think the Federal League is the best basketball league in Ohio, but we are still going to play good basketball programs with the likes of Poland, Canfield and Howland. We won’t walk in (to the AAC) and dominate.”
Baker’s peer on the girls side, Stacie Cepin, shares in his positive sentiments.
“It’s a great opportunity for our student athletes,” said the Fitch girls basketball head coach. “I’m fine (with the change). It will be nice for our kids to build rivalries with local schools. Growing up playing here (at Campbell) I know how nice it is to have those rivalries. I also totally understand the cost (of playing in the Federal League) and travel burdens.”
Don Sherwood is a resident of Austintown, a Fitch booster and a member of its Touchdown Club. Sherwood does not have any children currently in high school, but his loyalty towards the school where he once played football is worn on his sleeve. He spoke out vehemently in a three-minute speech at the May 10 school board meeting opposing the fleeing of the Federal.
“Fitch is a Division I school and should play other Division I schools,” said Sherwood. “We should be playing schools with the same enrollment size that we have. I hope this move is not being made to play smaller schools.”
Sherwood also echoed the concerns of Coach Annarella about the unfairness to the 2012 senior football class that won’t have a conference title to aspire to nor a conference all star team to be selected to. The Austintown booster did commiserate with the economic and travel side of the argument, however, and wanted it to be known, like school board member Chine, that he will have to live with the decision.
“What’s done is done and I will support (the decision to move) 100 percent,” Sherwood said emphatically. “I will still be a booster and give as much as needed to Fitch.”
When the Falcons finally play in the AAC they will be in the “big school” tier with Canfield, Poland, Howland, Niles, Beaver Local, Struthers and Hubbard.