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May 29, 2013

KITCHELL: NCC should stand for New Castle’s conference

In all my years of watching high school basketball games in Indiana, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more classic Indiana game in this state that I did the night Marion played at New Castle in 1983.

It was a showdown between two ranked clubs and two marquee players – Marion’s James Blackmon and New Castle’s Steve Alford. Media from all over the Midwest lined the tartan court in the world’s largest high school gym. When it was over, Blackmon had outdueled Alford in points, 47-41, but lost the game nonetheless.

It was just one of countless memories brought to us by the North Central Conference, which has been legend in Indiana for generations.

Just when it appeared one of the state’s most prestigious conferences was becoming more stable this year, another brick in the foundation of it suddenly appears to be lacking the mortar it needs to keep it in place.

New Castle, long a member of the North Central Conference, is possibly headed out of the conference, supposedly because the school’s athletic department is hurting financially. Maybe it’s simply coincidence that there are administrators in place there who aren’t New Castle graduates, but then again, maybe not. If the NCC would simply schedule football and boys and girls basketball games between distant teams at neutral site locations, it might reduce the costs to the schools and raise more revenue for the conference and the schools involved. Why not Richmond vs. Logansport and Logansport vs. New Castle for instance in Hinkle Fieldhouse in basketball, or at Lucas Oil Stadium in football, or IUPUI for track events?

For what it’s worth, the high school athletic purists in Logansport and other NCC cities such as New Castle should rally to keep New Castle in the NCC. New Castle and Logansport have been virtual counterparts in the southern and northern half of the conference for years, primarily because neither school has the massive enrollment that Huntington, Kokomo and larger schools have. With Lafayette Jeff rejoining the conference and Harrison and McCutcheon joining for the first time, the NCC will have 11 members. If New Castle drops out, that leaves the number at 10 which would make it easier for scheduling conference games on weekends. With an odd number of teams, one NCC squad would have to go without playing a conference rival every week during the conference portion of the schedule.

But it’s somewhat hard to believe that New Castle’s athletic financial plight rests solely on its conference membership, particularly if the conference would split into two divisions.

There are two main reasons to keep New Castle in the NCC. The first is tradition. From Ray Pavy to Kent Benson to Alford and Darnell Archey, the Trojans have had a proud tradition in basketball, and could win a state baseball championship this year. Much of that tradition has been the product of playing in NCC cities, and it’s going to be hard for New Castle to get that kind of exposure in a conference with smaller schools. New Castle is not likely to have the same level of rivalries in a new conference it has had with NCC schools. For the NCC sake, it makes sense to do what it can to keep the school with the world’s largest high school gymnasium in the conference. But it’s also time to re-think the NCC brand and the potential for televising key conference games in certain sports, or at least marketing them more aggressively on the Web and adding value to what it means to be an individual or team champion in the NCC. Posters are nice for students, but there has to be something more for fans if they are expected to drive more than an hour after work on a Friday night just to get to a high school sporting event.

When Lafayette Jeff left the NCC a decade ago, I was among the most vocal critics of the move. The reasons why Jeff left then apply to New Castle now: The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Lafayette left to pursue a more competitive conference in an area of the state with potentially more media exposure. But after Warren Central, Carmel, Fishers, Pike, Ben Davis, Center Grove and  the parochial titans of Indianapolis get their air time, there simply wasn’t much of a slice left for Jeff, McCutcheon and Harrison. In the end, their new conference left them, they didn’t leave it.

Hopes that a new conference would be a boon for New Castle’s athletic fortunes? If you ask me, it’s just a Trojan horse of a proposal.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

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