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CL expansion makes sense for Northwestern

Recently, the Colonial League extended membership invitations to Jim Thorpe and Lehighton, which currently play in the Schuylkill League. If either or both schools accept, their membership would begin with the 2024-2025 sports season but there is a lot to be worked out between now and then.

In fact, there is a lot to be worked out even between now and the time that the athletic directors for the two schools take the proposal and their recommendation to their respective school boards.

Obviously, the Colonial League would not have extended the invitations if having the two schools in the league did not make sense for the league overall. The move could have ramifications for individual schools in the league as well.

Considering Northwestern Lehigh, the additions have few, if any, drawbacks. The size of the schools (classification), quality of their facilities and proximity in distance all fit what Northwestern athletic director Jason Zimmerman looks for in opponents.

“Northwestern’s position has always been to be inclusive in the Colonial League,” said Zimmerman. “We have always wanted Jim Thorpe and Lehighton in, it just seems like a natural fit. You see the disparity in classifications in the Colonial League. It’s similar to the Schuylkill but it is really accentuated in the Colonial. You have a Southern Lehigh that is up there in 5A in some sports, all the way down to single-A programs, so bringing in a Lehighton and a Jim Thorpe kind of balances that out and regionally it makes sense.”

Understandably, the biggest factor in the decision may be money, especially in terms of travel between schools. By adding two schools, the Colonial League could go to a geographical alignment for their divisions that would have Jim Thorpe and Lehighton join with Palmerton, Northern Lehigh, and Northwestern Lehigh to form one division. The two schools are currently part of a division that has them facing geographically close opponents in Panther Valley and Tamaqua, but having longer trips to division foes Blue Mountain, North Schuylkill, Pine Grove and Pottsville.

A game in Pine Grove is about an hour drive one-way for either school. The teams would still have an occasional long drive to Southern Lehigh and Palisades, the southernmost Colonial League schools, but would play those schools less often.

The potential for reduced travel for both the Olympians and Indians appears to be a cost saving, but division alignments are speculation at this point.

It is possible that both schools would want some agreement on just what teams they would have to play the most if they were to become members of an expanded Colonial League.

Both Jim Thorpe and Lehighton have field hockey and tennis teams that play an independent schedule because the Schuylkill League does not have enough schools to form leagues in those sports. The schools already play field hockey and tennis against many of the Colonial League schools to help fill their nonleague schedule, but do not have the opportunity to compete for a league championship. Moving to the Colonial would provide those teams with a seamless transition for both sports with the added ability to play for league titles.

“Two new schools could make scheduling easier, especially when it comes down to division alignments,” Zimmerman said. “Right now, we have some uneven divisions, and you go with more of a rating than individual win-loss records, so we can even that up a little bit.

“The attractive thing is the regionalization, because one of the negatives we have heard about the football cooperative was the amount of travel. For a school like Northwestern Lehigh, it’s great because we are in the middle of things, so we can go to a lot of schools with no real issue. We are in an area where it’s a 20-minute drive to the grocery store, so traveling to a lot of schools is no big deal even if it is 40 minutes away or something.”

So, why now? Why add Jim Thorpe and Lehighton into the Colonial League now when the two schools asked to join the league 25 years ago and were denied?

At that time, the two schools were much smaller than most of the schools they would have been competing against. The Colonial League did the two schools – and their league – a favor by rejecting them because they could have been trampled by the larger schools.

Now, things have changed, and the growth of Jim Thorpe and Lehighton has made them equals with Colonial League teams in size and the success of their sports programs.

With the growth of the two schools has come better facilities, something that coaches and athletic directors are always aware of when they travel.

“They have good facilities there,” said Tiger girls basketball coach Chris Deutsch of Jim Thorpe and Lehighton. “I always like for our girls to be able to play in a nice gym where there are fans and nice locker rooms and stuff like that. It’s also close, so parents and students can get to the games there to watch and that’s always a plus as well.”