For high school athletes and coaches, Ypsilanti-Willow Run merger brings uncertainty
Voters wouldn’t go to the polls for nearly another month, but when the Willow Run High School football team took on Flat Rock Oct. 19 in their regular season finale, coach Rufus Pipkins knew it could mark the end of an era.
Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com
“It crossed our minds, to know that this might be the last Willow Run game,” Pipkins said. “Personally to me I’ve been here so long, I didn’t look at it that way. I thought this would just be another season.”
When residents took to the polls last week, they affirmed that it would indeed be the final season for both the Flyers and the neighboring Ypsilanti High School Phoenix.
Voters approved a pair of ballot initiatives last Tuesday to merge the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts. That means two high schools with long athletic histories will see their separate identities come to an end at the conclusion of the 2012-13 school year.
Any athletic team name, color or mascot for a consolidated district has yet to be determined, along with a building plan. The consolidation becomes effective July 1, meaning all fall teams have played their last games as separate programs.
“That is a little sad, this is going to be the last Willow Run football team, the last Willow Run basketball team,” Willow Run athletic director Matt Seidl said. “It’s historic and a little sad too.”
Ypsilanti will be changing mascots for the second time in six years, after the school changed from the Braves to the Phoenix in 2007.
“Obviously that was a change for the kids that were Braves that were changing to Phoenix,” Ypsilanti wrestling coach Claudell Ruffin said. “For us it’s definitely going to be a little bit of a change, but everything is going to be the same, schemes, strategies, stuff like that.”
Multiple Ypsilanti School District officials were unreachable for comment.
The next few months will involve decisions for athletes and coaches in both districts. Coaches will be finding out who will be leading the new merged teams, and many athletes will in turn be deciding whether or not they will be playing for the new teams or transferring to another school.
Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com
They, like all students and teachers in both districts, are in a wait-and-see mode to find out what happens next. Many of the decisions lie in the hands of the school board for the new merged district, which is expected to be appointed next week.
Pipkins said he hopes that any decision made about a new football program and its leadership is made quickly.
“It’s still fairly early enough where if you get something stable, you can really get something going,” Pipkins said. “If this kind of drags on, you’re going to see the better football players start to look for a better situation.”
In football, both programs suffered amid declining enrollment. Ypsilanti went 1-8, and Willow Run went 2-7. Other fall sports also struggled with on-field results.
Both Pipkins and first-year Ypsilanti coach Ra’Mon Watkins struggled with declining participation and rising attrition.
“They talked about possibly being at another school, kids would have conversations about what schools they would attend,” Pipkins said. “It was a small distraction the entire year.”
At Ypsilanti, Ruffin said he’s fielded a few questions about what’s next for the wrestling program, but it hasn’t had an effect on his numbers.
Seidl said he doesn’t see the merger as having any impact on dwindling participation numbers. He attributes those numbers more to lower enrollments and an interest level and commitment level that he said is the lowest he’s seen in more than 15 years of involvement in high school sports.
“There’s a lack of fire right now in some of our programs,” Seidl said.
Seidl said he can see positive and negative for athletes in a merged district. A committed, high-level athlete could have the opportunity to play for a more successful team alongside more committed teammates.
But a less talented athlete could also not make the cut, as more students compete for the same number of varsity roster spots.
Coaches will also be competing for fewer spots. Pipkins said he’s heard “about a thousand different things,” including that he may have the advantage because he’s been coaching in the district longer, or that he might be at a disadvantage because he doesn’t teach in the district.
And the decision as to who to hire as coach, could have an impact on students’ decisions from both schools.
“I’m going to get a lot of calls from parents asking for what direction to go in,” Pipkins said. “They’re so used to me, if I’m not part of that staff, it’s going to have a bearing on the decision process.”
According to MHSAA spokesperson John Johnson, students who transfer out of the new consolidated district and enroll in a different district by the first day of the 2013-14 school year will likely be immediately eligible to play, but said “nothing is cast in stone yet.”
State rules normally require transfer students to sit out a semester, but included in the transfer rules are exceptions for when a school “ceases to operate, not merged” or if a school is “reorganized or consolidated.” It also states that if a new school is established, students enrolled on the first day are immediately eligible, but the new district would have the power to make incoming students subject to the MHSAA transfer rule.
The MHSAA will likely consider the consolidated district an entirely new district, and the consolidated high school an entirely new school. This could potentially raise another issue as first year MHSAA member schools are not eligible for postseason play until their second year of competition.