For one season, the West Shore Conference will have an uneven number of teams.
But if you ask the football coaches, the changes for 2011 - in which Firelands and Fairview depart for the Patriot Athletic Conference and Elyria Catholic comes in from the North Coast League - will only make the conference stronger.
"Our conference takes some criticism," said Avon coach Mike Elder, who coached the Eagles to a 10-0 regular season and the WSC title last season. "Elyria Catholic and Lakewood (joining in 2012) strengthen it even more.
"North Ridgeville is our border rival and always a close game. Any time you play teams that are in close proximity - kids see each other in the grocery store, at the movies, at the mall - it makes it a little more fun."
Firelands and Fairview seemed to duke it out with Vermilion the past few seasons for the bottom three spots in the WSC. While EC, in Division IV, is smaller than both schools, the Panthers bring their winning tradition and track record.
"I think when you bring a team such as EC with their athletes, their tradition and their past history, I think you improve a conference tremendously," Midview coach Bill Albright said. "We'll miss playing Firelands and Fairview for sure. I felt those programs were starting to get competitive and we'll miss them. But EC brings a competitive football team and a pretty good gate when you play them at home. It definitely brings some positives to our conference."
The chance to renew some old Lorain County rivalries with EC, as is the case with Midview and North Ridgeville, or start some new ones, as with Avon and Vermilion, should make for some exciting Friday nights in the WSC.
"It adds that want-to-watch factor with EC in the mix," said Midview's Ryan Mains, a senior co-captain and starting wide receiver/cornerback. "EC made the playoffs and there's plenty of big hype over there. We're looking forward to playing them."
North Ridgeville coach Jeff Riesen scheduled EC as one of his scrimmages for years. Now they'll meet in a game that counts.
"It will be exciting for the fans, that's for sure," he said. "When I was at North Ridgeville the first time, way back when, we scrimmaged them every year - back to when Jim Rattay was their coach and they were winning state championships.
"Fairview and Firelands - no disrespect to them, but they are smaller. When you add an Elyria Catholic and the success they've had when they've been in the playoffs, that's only going to raise the level of play in our conference. It really should be exciting."
Adding Lakewood, a Division I program, should help even more.
"I am very excited about the changes in our conference," said second-year Bay coach Ryan Gorius, whose three WSC wins last season came against Firelands, Fairview and Vermilion. "EC and eventually Lakewood are definitely contenders when they step in. I look forward to the challenges that lay ahead when we play them. Our conference just became a lot tougher and stronger."
It also becomes tougher for a team like Vermilion, which has struggled to win games the past two seasons. However, first-year coach Ben Ohlemacher is in favor of the change, even though it meant losing rival Firelands as a conference game.
"I see the WSC only being stronger with the addition of EC this year and Lakewood next," he said. "It will be tough for us in the short run, but the benefits will be there in the long run."
Elyria Catholic coach Mike Polevacik is thrilled to be joining the WSC. Gone are the long bus trips to Bedford (Chanel), Chardon (Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin) and Akron (Hoban), among others.
"Every week there's something there," he said. "There's a good story every week. Whether it's a neighborhood rivalry - county team - it's nice. I can't wait to see the crowds.
"You've got families on different sides. You go here, I go there and we're going to knock heads on Friday nights. It's different when you know the kid across from you."
While the coaches unanimously peg Avon as the favorite, they believe the race to the top is more balanced than ever before.
"This definitely brings some positives to our conference," Albright said. "You start with EC and, of course, Avon. Avon is the reigning champ, so you can't look past them. Then, you add in teams like Ridgeville and Rocky River, who had solid years.
"I think the West Shore is now a fairly balanced conference. This year, more so than others, I think it's going to be very interesting to watch."
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.