Just when it seemed that the waters had calmed concerning conference realignment in Southwest Michigan, two area leagues are expected to lose a chunk of their respective memberships with the berth of a new alliance.
It was announced in June that Bronson would be leaving the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League at the end of the 2016-17 school year to join the Big 8 Conference. The BCS began in 2014.
Now, all three St. Joseph County schools — Centreville, Mendon and White Pigeon — along with Cass County seat Cassopolis, are expected to exit the BCS this year as well. Those schools are joining Southwestern Athletic Conference defectors Bangor, Bloomingdale, Eau Claire, Hartford, Decatur and Marcellus to form the Southwest 10 Conference.
Seven of the 10 school districts have already voted in favor of the new league, with the last three unnamed schools expected to vote the same way later this month.
Once again, football was a driving force, though several other factors sparked the initial discussions back in August. It was important for Centreville, Mendon and White Pigeon to stick together after a long run dating back to the St. Joseph Valley League.
Competitive fairness and logistics were two other key concerns.
“(The SAC schools) came into this meeting stating the No. 1 goal is to not have a mega conference,” Mendon co-athletic director Glen Samson said. “They tried to get us to strike while the iron is hot. At the same time they are discussing this with us, the superintendents of the SAC and the BCS wanted us to all get together and form an even larger league, like 35 schools.
“We’ve just not had a whole lot of luck with this large conglomerate. It’s not really a league. You can see people voting on party lines, so to speak.”
A big obstacle in the BCS was football scheduling. The BCS did not make it mandatory that teams play cross-divisional games, which left some schools in the lurch when it came to filling out a nine-game schedule.
For instance, Mendon had to drive to the Upper Peninsula in Week 9 to play Manistique after finding no takers from similar-sized schools and with no desire of its own to compete against the likes of Class B programs up to three times a year.
Current BCS schools like Berrien Springs, Buchanan, Comstock and Parchment — all with about 450 students or more — are twice the size of schools like Mendon (203) and Cassopolis (278).
“This idea came across our table, so we took a look at it,” Samson said. “The schools involved want to keep it to 10 teams. The more we got into it, the more it made sense.
“When Bronson left, it left us with four teams in our division in football. All that guaranteed Mendon, Centreville and Cass were three games. We’re sitting here with three games, and we have to find six and we have to now play two or three Class B schools to fill out a schedule in a league of 18 teams. This is not right.”
A 10-team league solves that issue and makes for easier organization of all other sports. More often than not, Samson and Cassopolis athletic director Matt Brawley agreed, coaches didn’t even know what division their school was in as the groupings changed by sport.
“Scheduling and getting the bylaws in order,” are at the top of the priority list for Brawley. “Right now, things seem to be running pretty smoothly. We have a great group of athletic directors and superintendents working diligently.”
If all goes according to plan, schedules will take care of themselves in the Southwest 10 since most schools offer the same sports. There are five schools that offer soccer with a sixth considering adding it for next season. A positive byproduct would be less travel time.
“For Cass, logistically, our furthest drive (would be) 37 miles,” Brawley said. “Marcellus and Decatur are our next-door neighbors. It doesn’t make much sense not to play them (as is the case now).
“I’m very excited,” Brawley said of a new league without divisions. “What I’m most excited about is being in a league where you’ve got to (likely) win nine games to win the conference championship or go 17-1 or 16-2 in basketball. It holds a lot more weight. The BCS is a great bunch of people, but this opportunity makes the most sense for us.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Centreville and Marcellus face off in a girls basketball nonleague matchup. (Middle) Mendon and Casspolis will bring their football rivalry to the new Southwest 10 Conference. (Photos courtesy of Wes Morgan.)
There is a basketball court 5,000 miles from Sterling Heights with “MHL” painted on the center court.
It’s not the name of a local basketball league in the village where it is located – Siricino, Macedonia. Instead, it stands for Madison, Haleigh and Lola, the three daughters of longtime Michigan basketball coach, referee and athletic director Loren Ristovski.
“My dad loved going back (to Macedonia),” said Madison Ristovski. “He’s probably gone every summer since about 2017. His whole family still lives there. He loved going and visiting and seeing everyone.
“It was always a goal of his to give back to where he came from. He and Mom donated to the village to build a soccer field and basketball court with lights and everything. It was a pretty big deal. It’s something he wanted to do for them back home. We were very proud he did that.”
Loren Ristovski, athletic director for Taylor schools, died earlier this month while on leave to have surgery on his foot. It was a shock to his family, friends, and the Taylor community.
“It was a heavy blow,” said Matt Joseph, girls basketball coach at Utica Ford and a longtime friend of the Ristovski family. “It was like getting kicked in the gut. Basketball was his passion. Next to his family, basketball was definitely No. 1. He loved the game and all the intricacies of it. He loved seeing kids excel.”
Ristovski emigrated from Macedonia to Michigan when he was 9. He went to high school at Hamtramck St. Florian, where he excelled at basketball. He went to Wayne State University to get a degree in criminal justice and had plans to become a lawyer.
Before he could take the Law School Admission Test, however, basketball came calling.
“He started coaching at Henry Ford High School and Fuhrmann Middle School,” Madison said. “Once he realized how much he enjoyed coaching, he decided to go into education. He stayed the entire time. He never went to law school.”
Loren Ristovski became the head coach at Harper Woods but gave that up when his daughters were ready to start playing in high school.
“He gave up coaching varsity at Harper Woods so he could be at every one of my games,” Madison said.
He also coached them as youngsters, often teaming with Joseph to coach an AAU team.
“I met him when Madison was 5,” Joseph said. “He and I decided to put our daughters in the same parks and recreation team, and next thing you know we were coaching AAU.”
With Ristovski’s tutoring, Madison, Haleigh, and Lola all excelled at the game, each playing Division I college basketball after standout careers at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. In 2012, Liggett reached the Class C Final with all three starting. They combined for 55 of Liggett’s 57 points in the championship game, with Madison scoring 42 after earlier that week receiving the Miss Basketball Award.
Lola and Haleigh played at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Madison played at the University of Michigan. Today, Haleigh lives on the west side of the state and plays recreational basketball. Lola is a referee in the Catholic High School League as well as for the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and also works area Division III college games.
Madison is a teacher and the varsity girls basketball coach at Sterling Heights Stevenson.
“He taught us the game when we were very, very young,” Madison said. “We grew up in the gym with him and watched him coach his team. He coached me my whole life. He was very instrumental – he taught us all those things you need to become an athlete, and more importantly the things you need to do to succeed in life.”
Her dad is the reason she became a coach.
“Watching my dad coach and seeing the impact he had on his high school athletes and even the kids in our church community – it inspired me to want to coach as well and give back like he did,” she said. “I watched him with my teammates and the impact he had on them. I thought it would be so cool if I could do the same for others.”
Loren Ristovski left a legacy at Taylor, too. School officials recounted several stories of how he balanced athletic budgets with the needs of student-athletes. He would lead fundraising efforts, created the Bitty Ball program for youth basketball players and cheerleaders and helped students become certified officials – and then would hire them to officiate games.
“He didn’t say no,” said Taylor boys basketball coach Chris Simons. “We made it work. We didn’t go out and ask people for a bunch of money. We would just do it. We all pulled together and made it work. Loren did everything he could to make things as pretty and presentable as he could with the budget we had.”
Ristovski also put on summer camps at both Taylor and at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Sterling Heights, where he lived. He commuted about an hour to Taylor every day.
“He loved Taylor,” Madison said. “He loved who he worked with and the students. He included us, too. My mom would run the ticket table or do the scoreboard clock. I don’t know how many times I sold tickets for volleyball tournaments with him. He loved his people and loved having us there with him.”
Loren Ristovski, who played professional basketball in Europe during the late 1980s, ran well over 20 marathons in his life, including the Boston Marathon. He was a registered MHSAA official for 16 years, and in the weeks before his passing he refereed a varsity game in Rochester with his daughter, Lola.
“He looked at basketball, I think, differently than other people do,” Madison said. “He saw it as a way to have relationships with other people, to help people achieve their goals and to find meaningful relationships with others. It was more than just a game to him.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Loren Ristovski, far left, and wife Svetlana support their lineup of Division I basketball-playing daughters – from left: Madison, Haleigh and Lola. (Middle) Loren Ristovski heads an all-family officiating crew with Lola and his brother Dean Ristovski. (Below) The daughters’ initials “MHL” glow on the court the family funded in Macedonia. (Photos courtesy of Madison Ristovski.)