By Mike Deak
ELKHART – There is certainly a sense of pride in being a lion. Former Chargers and Blazers are going to relearn that pride as they all become Lions.
The merging of already two of the larger schools in the state – Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial – into simply Elkhart High School comes with it a move in conference for half of the Megatron. Memorial leaving the Northern Lakes Conference, to which it belonged for 19 years, shelves several of the comforts it had, but now joining what Central had and what Memorial once did in the Northern Indiana Conference is a whole new set of goals.
“Not going to lie, when July 1st hit, it got to me more than I thought it would,” said Jacquie Rost, former Memorial athletic director and now co-Elkhart AD with Brian Buckley, who guided Central’s athletic department. “It was like ‘oh my gosh, Memorial is done’. My mom went to Elkhart, but I went to Memorial and both of my kids were in the Memorial system. I’ve been with Memorial for 25 years. But, I wholeheartedly believe this is a good thing.”
The Northern Lakes Conference will say goodbye to Memorial, which came into the conference in 2001 and immediately asserted itself. The Chargers quickly moved up to second in the NLC All-Sport race in boys for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, and the girls moved to runner-up in both 2007-08 and 2008-09. In the two decades of competition in the NLC, the Chargers combined to win 34 boys and 26 girls championships. Wrestling alone won 12 consecutive titles from 2002-13 (13 overall) and the Rost-led volleyball program claimed 10 straight from 2002-11 (12 overall).
“The Northern Lakes Conference has a proud history of competition, sportsmanship and education-based athletics. Elkhart Memorial has been a large part of that tradition,” stated Goshen athletic director and NLC secretary Larry Kissinger in the spring in a statement made about Memorial’s exit from the conference. “NLC members cherish the relationships formed between our administrations, coaching staffs and student athletes. Those relationships are the highlight of all good organizations.”
Rost is still head coach of the Elkhart volleyball program, one that has accrued nine sectional and three regional championships to the program’s name. With the move back to the NIC, Rost is looking forward to rekindling some old rivalries in the conference.
“We’ve been going to NIC meetings now for about a year-and-a-half,” Rost said. “I went just to meet some of the ADs. We’ve had that feeling of being welcomed since the announcement was made, even with the merge. We know there is an obvious concern with a few of the schools, like ‘oh, great, your teams are huge.’ But the meetings so far have been productive and we feel like this is a good fit.”
Memorial opened its doors in 1972, giving Elkhart a second high school to go with Elkhart Central. Athletically, Memorial did not win any IHSAA State Championship games as a team, but Elkhart and Elkhart Central have produced several state team champions, including two boys track champions in 1969 and 1993, and the Central baseball team in 2013. The Chargers in its history has won 117 sectional titles, 33 regional crowns and six semi-state championships.
The merging into Elkhart Megatron still doesn’t make it the biggest school in the NIC, and barely cracks them into the top 10 in the state. Central’s 1,618 students and Memorial’s 1,567 puts Elkhart at 3,185, which will rank it 10th in the state in attendance. Penn still has Elkhart dwarfed, sitting at 3,338 students. But in a conference that fields schools like Bremen (509), John Glenn (594) and Jimtown (595), both Penn and Elkhart are miles away from even the third-largest school, John Adams at 1,913.
“We had to do the conference schedule first, then build around it,” Rost said. “For me in volleyball, it was important to get bigger schools on the schedule just for ranking and state recognition for awards. Which means that we might have to travel. We also have to center around our sectional opponents. Some schools just don’t fit anymore. NorthWood, as much as I love what Hilary (Laidig) is doing with them, they are a fourth of our size, not in our conference and not in our sectional. That goes for a lot of our programs now.”