Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Parochial, Private Schools Add To Oakland's Aura

Last week I umpired a Catholic League doubleheader between visiting Orchard Lake St. Mary's and Birmingham Brother Rice, played behind the Birmingham YMCA Center. Rice took a pair of victories from the Eaglets, who are rich with young talent but not yet blessed with the depth and experience that befitted Coach Bob Riker's Warriors last week. Orchard Lake St. Mary's will be ready when it counts, because they usually always are and are led by good coaches.

In researching my book, Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th of this year, I interviewed hundreds involved on a daily basis within Oakland County's high school sports infrastructure. Naturally, a few good-hearted souls took up the cause to lament the Catholic League's advantage of plucking students from public school boundaries for the betterment of wins and losses in after-school athletics.

I listened and did my job as the dutiful reporter, but a couple of points stuck out to me. First, does anyone else notice that it's never the 0-9 football team that is complained about, just the playoff qualifier from a private school like Rice or Detroit Country Day? Naturally, this is a bit hypocritical, and no public school ever complains about their fate when their team's results are average or worse. Many public districts are openly courting students in today's open-district, open-enrollment, school-of-choice fight for survival. Michigan's economic woes have created a virtual free-for-all within competing districts and private institutions.

But the other point makes me proud to be from Oakland County. Just how lucky are we to be in this county to have so many outstanding public and private schools in one square swath of land called Oakland County? Think about it -- most counties would love to have just one private school the caliber of Novi's Catholic Central, Royal Oak's Shrine High, Madison Heights Bishop Foley or Waterford's Our Lady Of The Lakes, in addition to the aforementioned private schools above. Certainly space prevents me listing all of the worthy candidates on either side.

Then you have tony districts like Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills and Troy. Clarkston, Lake Orion and Oxford are all immaculately maintained with highest standards for achievement and opportunity. The same can be said in Walled Lake, Novi, Northville, Rochester, South Lyon and many other Oakland County public school districts. How many Oakland County schools have played for and won the MHSAA"s football tournament? Last season Farmington and Lake Orion staged perhaps one of the greatest baseball finals in the state's biggest division and it was just the latest example of an Oakland County school shining brightly on the state's big stage.

I could write an entire column on the academic achievements of Oakland County schools in our state and national scope. And yes, Wayne and Macomb counties would argue they have some strong entries into this debate as well.

We get caught up in winning and losing in our hyperactive, American culture -- it's in our blood, I suppose. And yes, I'm doing a bit of cheerleading, but maybe that's what we need in Michigan right now. There hasn't been a lot of good news in the past few years as it relates to the issues that matter most in our region. So it's nice to drive home from a hotly-contested game and realize that competition we stage and officiate produces the opportunity to excel against the best the county has to offer.

As a parent, that's what any parent wants for their children, to be able to offer then the opportunity to get to the highest level of competition and achievement. Oakland County certainly affords a parent or student those opportunities. This alone should make everyone worry less about balls & strikes and safes & outs.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Could MEGA Break-up Be Followed?

UPDATE: Copy was updated with new information courtesy of Dearborn Edsel Ford Athletic Director Bob Picano.

Imagine an Oakland Activities Association (OAA) football season without Clarkston playing Lake Orion. That would be nearly unthinkable today, but from 1957 to 1976 that's exactly what happened. Last year, for the first time since 1966, Detroit Pershing didn't face Detroit Denby's gridders, two historic rivals that dominated the Detroit Public School in the 1950's and 60's, then known as the Metropolitan League. Birmingham Brother Rice and Novi Catholic Central haven't missed a meeting since 1962, the year Rice opened.

When the OAA began in 1994, it was the combination of two small but highly-successful suburban leagues, the Metro Suburban Activities Association (MSAA) and the Southeastern Michigan Association (SMA). While the south Oakland trio of Berkley, Ferndale and Hazel Park hailed from the SMA, both Rochester schools were in the MSAA. The sister schools from Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, Southfield and Troy in each league combined as one. Lake Orion, Clarkston and the Pontiac schools joined. Farmington's trio joined in 2002. Others have come and gone in that time, for better or worse.

Why is this important? In the past few weeks it seems everyone -- coaches, directors, officials and fans -- have a valid opinion about the Mega Conference's possible demise. This is big news as it relates to high school football and specifically, rivalry games. A possible Mega break-up potentially endangers one school to losing a handful of big games. Dearborn Fordson's Tractors could potentially lose their rivalry with Allen Park, Monroe and Edsel Ford if rumors prove true about the three Mega League schools parting ways for different affiliations.

More than a few Oakland County athletic directors have grumbled about increased costs of travel in the OAA. The prep community in metropolitan Detroit is watching with rapt attention while a potential monster-league break-up plays out in real time downriver.

Allen Park Athletic Director Ken Stephens says this isn't about rivalries and hurt feelings but rather, dollars and sense. Allen Park is one of eight schools trying to put together the Downriver League, along with Woodhaven, Wyandotte, Trenton, Southgate, Gibralter Carlson and Taylor's Kennedy and Truman high schools.

"Our budgets are getting hit at every turn with increases on an annual basis. It makes no sense not to play schools we border with," Stephens explained this afternoon. "While nothing official has been submitted, on May 6th, we'll either be moving or not. That's the day the Mega Conference asked these eight schools to submit their plans, in writing, about leaving or returning for the 2009-10 calender year.

"It's amazing all the things that are being said about the possibility of schools leaving the Mega. It's not about Fordson, it's not about leaving other schools behind," Stephens said. "There will still be a Mega Conference, but currently we're playing schools we have no rivalry with and don't take in enough to pay the workers at our games on a Friday night. Plus, our students miss so much class, and that's all we hear, that this is all for the students. Well, it's time to put the money where the mouth is," Stephens said. "This is what makes the most sense for the downriver schools."

Dearborn Edsel Ford Athletic Director Bob Picano wouldn't add to the heavy amount of conjecture when I spoke to him this morning of who's leaving and staying, instead offering, "I can tell you I've been granted permission by our district to attend some purely informational meetings about other possible affiliations -- I can say that much -- but I'm bound by the fact we (Dearborn Public Schools) have three high schools and a school board that ultimately represents us all."

It's no secret there's no money to burn in Michigan, and even Dearborn, the biggest district in the Mega Conference, had moved to school of choice enrollment within the district to try to survive but recently closed district borders after pushing Fordson to 2,300 students while dropping Edsel to just over 1,400. Picano says he encounters kids having to work when a parent has lost a job and admits his frustration about travel times and cost. "I'd feel better if my kids were back at school 15 minutes after a game rather than 45 minutes after a game. With snow storms, 45 minutes can turn into an hour and a half. The cost of travel and what you take in at the gate is very important these days."

Picano isn't yet sold on the idea of the Downriver League's ultimate formation but admits all schools are looking to cut cost while not being orphaned without a league to compete in.

"The word is this is about proximity and average travel time, and I think the schools rumored to be moving could do what they want to do, based on geographics, from within the Mega League. No one wants to do something that costs money, and I think the threat of lawsuit could kill the Downriver League from forming," Picano said. "We're not the only ones looking. If you look at the south Oakland County schools, they're a good fit, geographically speaking, for some of the Mega schools. There's a possibility of schools expanding to the Mega as much as there's the possibility of schools leaving the Mega."

Ensuring long-standing rivalries don't die in the wake of the Mega's rumored demise is what's most important to most coaches and fans. Picano hinted that an annual Fordson game would be easier if Edsel was in a smaller league. "Having a chance at six wins makes it tough to schedule Fordson when we already have a tough, nine-game schedule."

Stephens agreed rivalries are important while hinting at a rivalry week in all sports if Allen Park were domiciled in a smaller league.

"Imagine if we had a 'Gibralter Carlson Week', where Gibralter Carlson and Allen Park could face each other in cross country, soccer, football and volleyball in the same week -- that would really capture the essence of a rivalry, and it's something you can do when the league is manageable, " Stephens said. "You know this as an official, T.C., that working a rivalry game is always better than working a game no one cares about."

Currently Edsel Ford doesn't have a single Dearborn rival on the football schedule in '08, while Fordson plays Divine Child, Allen Park, Monroe and Dearborn in the upcoming fall.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th , 2008 from Arcadia Publishing.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Butler Says Ferndale High School Isn't Leaving OAA

For as long as anyone can remember in Oakland County, there's been few communities that represented the county's bedrock better than Ferndale. Its' small but distinctive footprint from Eight Mile to I-696 (formerly known as Ten Mile Road) has been witness to tremendous change, both good and bad and good again in the past 60 years, but the one constant has been Ferndale High School.

Could it be that is about to change? Will the 2008-2009 school year be remembered as the final season Ferndale High competes in Oakland County? Today the Detroit Free Press reported that Ferndale High School is considering leaving the Oakland Activities Association (OAA) for a possible reformation of the defunct Northwest Suburban League, which folded in 1992 in the shadows of the Mega League's inception in 1993.

Ferndale Athletic Director Shaun Butler told me today nothing could be further from the truth.

"While it's true we're always looking for options to serve our student-athletes, we're very happy with the OAA right now and have no plans on leaving," Bulter said.

So how did Ferndale become one of the schools mentioned as possible deserters?

"In today's economic conditions, especially with the cost and time as it relates to travel in educational athletics, everyone's considering options. What really changed for us was Waterford's schools leaving the OAA," Bulter explained. "While I hated to see them go from a competition standpoint, because they were very competitive with us, it means I don't have to travel out to Waterford Kettering on a Tuesday afternoon. Going that far was a hard sell in educational athletics from a resource standpoint."

How long has Ferndale been part of the Oakland County landscape? Consider the school's football team, which regularly opened with Royal Oak High (later Royal Oak Dondero) for nearly 40 years. The Eagles played a huge league game with Royal Oak Kimball (now Royal Oak High) for nearly as long, and how many SMA championships were decided between the Southfield Blue Jays and Ferndale's Eagles? Finally, the school's grudge match with the neighboring Vikings of Hazel Park High is entering a 8th decade, with the Vikings holding a 37-33 margin in 70 games.

The Eagles were part of the old Eastern Michigan League (EML) until 1964 and are charter members of both the Southeastern Michigan Association (1964-1993) and the OAA (1994-present). The Eagles also played an annual home-and-home game with Pontiac High (now Pontiac Central) that alternated between Wisner Stadium and Ferndale's stadium, now called Gus Hanson Field, pictured above.

"A lot of scuttlebutt was discussed when the northern Oakland County schools started coming into the OAA, but rest assured, we're not leaving the OAA," said Butler.

Today the Detroit Free Press reported that the Mega League, a 28-member high school league domiciled in Wayne County, is about to crumble. The paper reported eight schools will leave the Mega and form a new league, tentatively called the Downriver League, in early May, and another six schools seem poised to leave the Mega just as quickly to reform the Northwest Suburban League.

The charter Northwest Suburban League existed from 1963-1984 and included Oakland County schools Birmingham Groves, North Farmington High and Oak Park High. It also housed the first Class A football champion, 1975's Livonia Franklin Patriots. After a dormant 1985, the NSL reformed in 1986 until it folded in the shadows of the Mega.

The eight schools rumored to form the yet-to-confirmed Downriver League? Allen Park, Southgate, Woodhaven, Trenton, Gibraltar Carlson, Wyandotte and Taylor rivals Truman and Kennedy. The six schools contemplating leaving for the reformed NSL are Garden City, Dearborn Edsel Ford and competing rivals Crestwood and Annapolis from Dearborn Heights and Redford's Thurston and Union high schools.

That doesn't seem to include Ferndale. While not toney like the Bloomfields and Birmingham, Ferndale is distinct and unique without glitzy clubs and posh restaurants. It's got a little bit of grit and some strong flair of it's own. It's an Oakland County renaissance story. On the preps scene, Ferndale is still a long-standing competitor in many sports. Their football, basketball and baseball tradition remains strong and the school annually hosts one of the more well-attended boys' basketball quarterfinals.

Thankfully, we're not talking about another Michigan institution pulling up stakes. Ferndale's Eagles are staying put right where they belong.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit’s High School Football Rivalries, due August 25, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing.

(Photo of Gus Hanson courtesy of The Daily Tribune, Royal Oak, Michigan)

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Linking the Media World Together

The modern blog, as it relates to real professional journalism, is about sharing ideas, spreading the wealth of information and creating opportunities to read many opinions as possible about an array of different issues. That doesn't mean a blog has to be destructive, mean-spirited or irreverent to standout from the more established mediums in daily, weekly or monthly journalism we've grown comfortable with.

This blog has been linked more than a few times in the past weeks and I'm grateful and appreciative of the favorable response it's received. Adding to the links I've already mentioned in previous posts, this page was propped at The Writing Life, Thumb Sports and Michigan HS Football. Terry Whalin, a literary agent, author and expert on the genre of writing authors The Writing Life, while both Thumb Sports and Michigan HS Football are primary destinations for prep sports, with The Thumb being an all-sports site and Searn's being an all-football source as well as a forum for fans offering differing opinions.

I've blogged twice about the judgment handed down to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) for $7.4 million in legal fees stemming from a gender-equity case. I'm both referee and writer, thus the title of my blog, TheWriteReferee. The most commonly-posed question from the past three weeks remains, "T.C., aren't you worried the MHSAA will blackball you for writing about the trouble they're in?" I haven't written a particularly scathing editorial of the MHSAA; I've tried to present both sides of the story in a digestible format. Does the MHSAA have a reputation for blackballing those who don't toe the company's line that I'm unaware of? Further, am I a public dissenter for offering fact and opinion without making it personal?

The truth is the MHSAA's Mark Uyl called and asked me to indulge him about the purpose and intent of my blog when I started it in August of 2006, then called TCCameron.com, now my static site. I was under no obligation to oblige Uyl; I had thoroughly cased the MHSAA Guidebook For Officials to ensure I didn't endanger my good standing as an independent contractor through registration with the MHSAA. Rather than be adversarial, I told Mark I had began a journey to rediscover my writing passion and I needed an avenue that provided both a forum and topic to knock the rust off the wheels. My initial 6-8 months of writing wasn't strong, but I started to find a style that fit and today, I'm a better writer for the time I've taken to author this site.

However, two questions arise when I dig deeper into the idea of being blackballed. Do my peers think of me as lazy, self-indulgent or both to simply start a blog without a speck of self-introspection? Second, did my peers believe my blog would simply be a rip-and-shred destination for all things officiating or was this an indictment on the general synopsis of the blogosphere? The truth is the MHSAA has let me write freely and has offered opinion rather than edict when it comes to this blog.

Blogging comes from all people in today's self-publication, self-author world. The credible blogs that offer opinion based on actual insight and fact come from real writers, their public accreditation coming from a credible resume rather than scathing opinion and wit shot straight from the hip. Ultimately, it's up to the reader to decide if the writer, the content and writing style speaks to them.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Be Thankful For What Detroit Is And Is Not

My wife and I returned last night from New York City and the weekend's 37th annual American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference. I moderated a panel on successful blogging Saturday at the Grand Hyatt, connected to historic Grand Central Station. I take great pride that a healthy number of professional writers represented our metro in New York so admirably. New York City is an unbelievable town, it's my favorite U.S. city to visit and I'm happy to say we added a little something to the journalism world from Detroit.

But I'm thankful to be home, too. It was nice to be on Orchard Lake Road at midnight last night with no honking horns, cabbies with guard rails on all four sides and streets clogged with pedestrians and trash in equal numbers. I'm thankful for green grass. There's hardly any grass in New York City, save for small patches in front of three-story brownstones that could be trimmed with scissors from the junk drawer in your kitchen. It's one of the reasons Central Park stands out in NYC. I'm thankful that our schools have lawns, shrubs, stadiums and fields. Our schools don't have to rent auditoriums and parking isn't confined to a seat on a subway car.

We have a special, unique aspect of our metro we all call Detroit. We're one of the smallest big cities you'll ever see. We're about coney islands and chili fries. We're suburbs and street signs. We're not landlocked. We're not congested and co-mingled beyond recognition. Our schools have names, faces and traditions. New York City has schools called Public School 180, and that gets shortened to PS, who on any given day PS 180 might play PS 148 or PS 127. We have Eisenhower and Chippewa Valley, Pershing and Denby, Troy Athens and Lake Orion. New York City schools rise among concrete jungles, decorated in colorful murals tagged on five-story buildings. Our schools have manicured greens, atriums with doors matching the school's colors and bands that march downtown before football games.

We're not at all like New York City, and in some ways that's sad. Our big city is corrupted and confused, sorely lacking leadership and professional direction. We have no mass transit of any kind, and no, the People Mover doesn't count -- we all know this. The building clocks and neon signs that mark other big cities are missing here. Remember the Goodyear auto production counters perched above our freeways? Gone. The neon letters of General Motors? No more. The Yellow Pages ad seen from the Lodge? It no longer works. We've allowed those aspects of our city to die. We allowed our city, county, regional and state leaders to take us to nowhere. It's truth.

But we also have some things to point to that make us special. We still love high school football, and why shouldn't we love high school football game? We have an excellent high school baseball tradition in this area, with numerous major leaguers coming from metro Detroit. We have beautiful gyms and a basketball heritage most major cities would love to claim. Our schools are clean. They offer gleaming facilities and opportunities that big city institutions can't come close to offering. In our schools, 10 dollars buys you a ticket, a program, a hot dog, popcorn, something to drink and a great game to watch with your neighbors and friends. In New York City, it might get you a trip uptown and back, and a cup of coffee from a cafe you've never seen but passed a million times before.

A fun place to visit, that New York City, but not somewhere I'd want my kids to be kids. New York City takes your childhood and makes you grow up too fast. Metro Detroit isn't New York City. That isn't going to change, and I hope it doesn't any time soon.

I love New York City right where it is. Detroit? We call that home.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The MHSAA Preps For Bankruptcy

The nervous days and tough decisions facing Michigan's caretakers of prep sports intensified yesterday as the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) finally responded to last week's stunning $7.4 million judgment against MHSAA for legal bills stemming from a gender-equity case the associated high schools fought and appealed with little success for approximately 10 years.

MHSAA released prepared statements revealing that its decision to continue appeals, as it related to potential legal costs and awards, was guided by prior case decision stemming from an affirmative action lawsuit involving the University of Michigan, where fees and costs were reduced 40-percent across the board by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. MHSAA also admitted that the award made by Judge Richard Alan Enslen 'exceeded even our worst-case scenario preparations'. MHSAA admitted they are considering an appeal of the award but are also preparing to file for protection from creditors. In short, MHSAA is preparing for bankruptcy.

As a three-sport official, I can tell you I still do not believe the MHSAA was hampering female student-athletes by playing girls' basketball in the fall and offering girls' volleyball in the winter. I admit my scope on this issue is narrow; I'm just a referee. Speaking as a contractor of the MHSAA as well as a taxpayer and property owner in Michigan, the prepared statements make me wonder if this is MHSAA's best course of action when it mentions the possibility of appeal.

Appeal is what got the MHSAA in this predicament in the first place, isn't it?

I wonder how the MHSAA will survive this, as many of us who care about high school sports are wondering. There is a lot of uncertainty and conjecture being offered about the survival of the MHSAA and what it, not to mention prep sports offerings, will look like if it manages to survive this.

I'm not familiar with all the case law that went into this 10-year battle, but I do know if this bill, which is adding interest at approximately $1,000 per day it remains unpaid, isn't settled soon, a judgment of lien will be placed upon the MHSAA, meaning any dollar going in and out of the MHSAA coffers would have to be first offered towards the outstanding bill. Attorney Kristen Galles, lead attorney for Communities For Equity (CFE) that brought forward the suit against MHSAA, remains unpaid after 10 years of litigation and could effectively control the MHSAA.

High school sports was never intended to be about litigation costs, judgments and awards or insurance policies for legal costs. How did this get so sideways so fast? Sadly, the ones who will answer those questions will be the student-athletes because they will mark the passing of this lengthy case as successful or not.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Groves & Seaholm Worthy Of Rivalry Tag

In the past two years, they’ve played three times and played 29 frames of gut-check baseball. Each school has scored 13 runs against the other. Since 2006 they’ve split three games.

Who splits three games? Birmingham Groves and Birmingham Seaholm do, going 1-1-1 versus each other since ‘06, when the Groves-Seaholm varsity baseball game went an amazing 15 innings and was suspended in twilight at a 7-7 standstill. The two Birmingham rivals have found they have more in common with each other than zip codes, toney restaurants and designer coffee houses. They’ve found bragging rights to be harder to secure than anyone would have believed without seeing it first-hand. In 2007 the two Oakland Activities Association (OAA) rivals split a pair of one-run games at Seaholm, with Groves taking a 5-4 nightcap after dropping a 2-1 decision to the Maples in the front end of a doubleheader.

Usually a good high school rivalry is more-commonly associated with football or basketball. Pontiac Central and Pontiac Northern's basketballers meet twice a year on an annual basis and the gym throbs with energy. Birmingham Brother Rice and Novi Catholic Central is must-see football. Novi and Northville High battle for the Baseline Jug while Clarkston and Lake Orion is must-see football and basketball. So why is Seaholm – Groves becoming a contest circled in red on the diamond?

For one, many of the kids that play youth baseball together end up scattered among the two schools. A healthy group of Maples and Falcons started playing travel baseball on teams named the Mariners, Red Sox or Motor City Pride. That familiarity breeds a healthy respect, but also a working knowledge of their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses, meaning every pitch and subsequent play is contested to the last available inch.

A second reason would be a refusal to roll over when the rival rallies, as was the case in the 2006 game. Jamey Sackett saw it first hand – he sat on the Groves bench for five innings, up on the varsity as a freshman with his brother, Jay Sackett, who started the game at catcher. A captain of the ’07 Groves team and current member of the Alma College baseball squad, Jay Sackett was summoned to the pitcher’s mound in the 6th inning of the game with two Maples on and nobody down and younger brother Jamey replaced him at catcher. When you’re a freshman and you enter the game with two innings to go, the last thought on your mind is the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s (MHSAA) 30-out rule, but they found out soon enough. Brothers Jamey and Jay teamed as a battery for the next 10 innings, which equaled 30 outs. Jay Sackett could no longer pitch to another hitter, by rule, and the game was suspended after the final Groves hitter was retired in the bottom of the 15th inning against a setting sun.

"It went so fast, I can barely remember it today, "said Jamey Sackett, now a junior and Groves' starting catcher. "At the time, I was caught up with so much energy and emotion. It was an amazing game to have played and at the end, I was too excited to even know how tired I was." The Sackett brothers played travel baseball as youngsters in 2001 with Seaholm’s catcher in '06, Casey Starnes, who logged all 15 innings for the Maples that day. If the average high school at-bat is five pitches, and the Maples faced approximately 75 Groves hitters, Starnes caught close to 400 pitches in the game. On the adjacent diamond next to Falcon Field, the junior varsity Groves –Seaholm game started and finished, and a youth game to follow also started and finished before the 15-inning marathon was suspended.

The Sacketts have a unique look into the Birmingham rivalry. While their two sons wear the green & gold of Groves, as does father Mark, an assistant coach under Jim Crosby, both parents are Seaholm grads. To top it off, Don Sackett, father to Mark, led what many call the most famous championship in the history of the Michigan high school baseball tournament. The 1988 Seaholm team, christened the ‘Miracle Maples’, finished third in the now-defunct Southeastern Michigan Association (SMA) behind now-closed Royal Oak Kimball and runner-up Troy High. Both Troy and Kimball lost in their district openers but Seaholm, after winning the district, thundered to a dramatic championship by winning the regional final, quarterfinal and semifinal in their last at-bat. The Maples captured championship gold after defeating Steve Avery and Taylor Kennedy 11-9 in the MHSAA's title game.

In 2008 the Maples and Falcons are scheduled to lay it on the line at Groves on May 10th for a doubleheader. Will another 15-inning classic be played? Will a walk-off victory or no-hit performance grace the rivalry? One thing is for certain: Nothing will be surrendered easily when bragging rights are at stake between two of Birmingham’s diamond gems.

T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit’s High School Football Rivalries, due August 25, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is MHSAA Facing Final, Dying Days?

How did prep sports ever get so sideways in Michigan that stories of million-dollar lawsuits and judgments jumped off the professional sports pages, skipped past the college roundups and ran smack-dab into the high school vernacular?

By now most who follow high school sports know about the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) being handed a $7.4 million bill Tuesday to cover legal fees absorbed by the victors in the gender-equity lawsuit the MHSAA ultimately lost. The MHSAA contested a lawsuit brought forth by an entity called Communities For Equity (CFE), a Grand Rapids-based group of mothers who felt their daughters were unfairly disadvantaged by Michigan's former fall girls' basketball / winter volleyball season schedule.

In public communication as it related to the lawsuit, MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts assured the public and private schools he represents, as well as the public served by the media outlets covering the legal battle, that the MHSAA was fighting this battle with an insurance-funded dollar as it related to legal fees. That much seems to be true. What insurance seemingly didn't cover was the legal fees for the plaintiff should the MHSAA lose. Tuesday District Judge Richard Alan Enslen awarded lawyers representing CFE with an award that could potentially devastate the MHSAA as we know it today.

The MHSAA's leadership fought a long but continuous losing battle, lasting more than 10 years, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, who ultimately rejected nearly every MHSAA argument and subsequent appeal, as did the lower courts below it. In delivering Tuesday's bad news to the MHSAA, Enslen also tacked on interest upon the initial $4.65 million award at 5.003%, instantly ballooning the bill to $7.4 million. For every single day the judgment goes unpaid, interest adds approximately $1,000 to the bill. The MHSAA issued a statement that it would have no comment for at least a week to 10 days.

Understandably, they're probably as shellshocked as the rest of us.

In the past few days, chat boards, blog sites and water coolers have been inundated with discussion about the latest chapter of this state's seemingly endless reality game, This Week's Biggest Loser in Michigan. As if Michigan's mortgage crisis, flagging job market, energy crunch and a state economy sieged by credit obligations wasn't enough, now school sports is in jeopardy? But the biggest loser in this crushing judgment isn't the leaders of the associated schools. It isn't taxpayers who fund public schools or those that pay tuition for the private institutions. It isn't officials or coaches, either.

It's our kids. The ones we turn the Friday night lights on for. The kids who sweat, toil and dream of achieving something noble and worthwhile. High school sports is about wearing a varsity jacket. Seeing your name in the paper on Saturday -- that's prep sports. It's a hug from your girlfriend or a pat on the back from your uncle after the game. High school sports was never intended to be about legal fees, bankruptcy discussions and squabbling over gym time.

The solvency and future of the MHSAA is unknown, but this much is clear: The MHSAA and it's constituency of public and private schools have some heavy questions to answer, both internally and to the public at large. Tenuous would best describe the relationship between Michigan's public schools and the tax dollars that fund them -- that relationship will certainly be strained further.

This million-dollar award could potentially change high school sports as we know it today. Will the games go on? Yes, but will there every be a carefree discussion as it relates to scholastic athletics? Nope. That innocence was crushed under the weight of a 10-year war that did nothing but move seasons around and potentially ruin a state association. Does anyone really think that a talented volleyball player doesn't get to play collegiately because she's from Michigan?

The possibility of a rudderless conglomerate of schools offering prep sports going straight to the top of the list of issues like pay-for-play, admission cost, liability for athletes and coaches, eligibility, travel limits, television, licensing, advertising, officiating fees, vendor contracts and facility issues, just to name a handful, is scary. Michigan's worries now include high school sports legislation and that's good for no one.

Our student-athletes deserve better.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

High School Sports Offer A Gritty Clarity

Between the rusted fences, crooked baselines and lumpy outfields lies a game, unfettered by negotiations, eight-figure egos and contracts to define every person's shuffle and step. It won't be seen by millions but rather, a handful or friends and neighbors. There's no fireworks or heart-throbbing music before an at-bat. No gimmicks, trivia questions or foul balls to keep. There's no advance ticket booth and the only season-ticket holders are usually the local volunteer, a man who gets senior discounts and watches every game from his folding chair.

That's the difference between prep baseball and professional baseball. Prep baseball is still baseball. Major League Baseball is The Show.

Pictured to the left is longtime Birmingham Seaholm baseball coach Don Sackett, coaching his last game against his school's longtime rival, Frank Clouser and the Royal Oak Kimball Knights, on May 11, 1990 at what is now Royal Oak High. Sackett's 'Miracle Maples' won the 1988 Class A state title when his Seaholm team won the regional final, quarterfinal semifinal and championship game in their last at-bat. Clouser's Kimball teams went to the title game in '71, '72, '73 and '80 and captured the 1972 title. There's no media relations or sports information department in high school sports. It's hand-written notes and facts committed to memory.

Major League Baseball is a heavy metal band's six-month gold album tour compared to prep baseball, and Opening Day commands our attention in Detroit like a Black Monday automotive press conference. Everyone knows about it, many will be there to witness it first hand and nearly everyone has an opinion about it, too. That's metro Detroit. We love our sports and the Tigers will always own this town in that regard. It's the one game we've all played at some point in our lives. Prep baseball, by comparison, is hundreds of scores and names jammed into agate type in your local paper.

It was amusing to watch and listen to the fans, many sporting a double-fisted 16-oz opinion, talk baseball yesterday in Comerica Park. The game is the same at either venue but the presentation at the major league level distorts the reality of what wins and loses a game. Most fans walked out of Comerica Park yesterday describing a gas can with arms and legs, that being the Tiger bullpen. The Tigers dropped yesterday's opener because they stranded about a dozen runners on the bases yesterday in what should have been an 8-3 Tiger win instead of a 5-4 extra innings loss. Today we're talking about the failure of the Tiger bullpen. The high school coach will talk about all the runners his boys stranded on the island.

That's the difference of prep baseball. It's a game worthy of following or attending. Why do prep players hustle every single ball out when it looks like major leaguers are on cruise control? Because anything can happen in a prep game; a good major leaguer errs about once a month. A prep player gets 20-30 games to prove himself; a major leaguer will play another sold-out concert tomorrow, and the night after that, and the night after that. A prep player doesn't make millions and still has algebra homework to finish after the game.

We don't apply the scrutiny to our kids that we do to million-dollar adults. Prep baseball is what we can improve on; pro baseball is about what didn't get done more than what did. There's going to be 161 more chances at glory for the Tigers. Losing the one game you'll play for first place all season makes high school special in it's own way, too.

If you love baseball as much as you love the Tigers, you'll get to high school game this spring. It's still baseball the way Abner Doubleday saw it. It's gritty, emotional, raw and pure. It's a history teacher who has prepped for 25 dates for the 10 months since last season ended. It's a neighbor or nephew who gets dirty at the first chance he gets. It's a fight to the finish, a handshake at the end and a hug from a girlfriend after it's all over.

That's a real baseball game, and it doesn't need a 40,000-seat stadium to be important.

(Photo courtesy The Daily Tribune, Royal Oak, Michigan/Craig Gaffield)

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