We live in an age of constant athletic shift: At the college and high school level alike, every year schools across the nation shuffle alliances and jockey for the best possible positioning for their programs.
But since February of 1963, the Northern Lakes Conference—which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year— has defied that trend, for the NLC has capitalized on a combination of competitive, pragmatic and geographic factors in order to thrive as one of the elite athletic leagues in Northern Indiana.
The conference originated during the 1964-65 school year with Bremen, Manchester, Nappanee, Plymouth, Rochester and Warsaw as its original members.
Over the course of the next 35 years, NLC membership morphed into the present-day line-up that includes several of the original schools (Warsaw, Plymouth and NorthWood, which absorbed Nappanee in 1969) as well as Concord (joined 1967), Wawasee (1968), Goshen (1976), Northridge (1987) and Elkhart Memorial (2000).
With most of the schools in the conference having now played each other for several decades, the result is a high school athletic league with a deep-rooted competitiveness that's hard to match by other Hoosier-state conferences.
“When you’re a rural area, (athletics) serve one-horse communities— small towns with school population sizes that stay relatively stable,” explained Mary Hurley, who served as Assistant AD at Warsaw, AD at Wawasee and the NLC Secretary/Treasurer for 26 years. “So to stay together a long period of time means that you develop a lot of rivalries and, I think, excellent communication between schools.”
The long-standing tradition of the NLC has been cultivated by the rivalries that Hurley speaks of— Warsaw and Wawasee facing off in “The W Game” being just one example— and these rivalries have continued to flourish despite the enormous difference in enrollment numbers between some of the schools.
“I have always respected the NLC for its quality of teams and athletic programs,” said broadcaster Rita Price, who has been calling NLC basketball since 1976. “There is a wide diversity in school size, but all of the programs are good.”
Price said another factor in the conference’s strength is how “the teams involved are very protective of the quality (the NLC) represents”— a quality that has proven to be an excellent draw to entice and keep high-caliber coaches in the conference.
“If you are in the conference, you will be dealing with some really classy coaches— coaches who know what it is to win in a large venue,” Price explained. “For young coaches, it is a move up the ladder to go to an NLC school.”
One of those “classy” coaches is NorthWood girls basketball head honcho Steve Neff, who has been at the helm of the Panthers program for 37 years now. Neff was quick to emphasize the difficulty of playing the NLC, a league that Price described as having “a long history of success” in girls basketball.
“I think we’ve won it 10 times in my career—that’s not very many,” Neff said. “It’s a tough conference to win in girls basketball, or the All-Sports Trophy, or any sport, for that matter.”
Warsaw senior Jordan Stookey, a three-year member of the Tigers varsity basketball squad, echoed Neff’s sentiment regarding the difficulty of conference play.
“Our (conference) games are always competitive,” Stookey said. “One team might have a way better team, but it still isn’t a blowout.”
Stookey was also quick to sound off on the Warsaw-Concord boys basketball rivalry, a feud which serves at yet another example of the deep-seeded tradition shared between NLC teams in every sport.
“You can take it back to the Shawn Kemp and Rick Fox days, but there’s just always been some (animosity) between Warsaw and Concord,” Stookey said. “I don’t want to say we hate each other, we just… very much dislike each other.”
But as Minutemen football head coach Tim Dawson says, the people running these programs—principals, ADs and coaches— don’t let their rivalries with each other interfere with the NLC’s original goal of providing “good, clean competition and fellowship for the boys, the coaches, and the school bodies of the Northern Lakes region."
“You’ve got to put your individual differences aside and do what’s best for the overall good of the group, and I think as coaches, we’ve always been able to do that,” said Dawson, who is in his 28th year coaching Concord. “And that’s the thing I’ve really respected and admired about the Northern Lakes Conference. From the athletic directors to the principals to the coaches, everyone follows the philosophy of, ‘Let’s do what’s best for the athletes’.”
In addition to that closely-followed philosophy, there are practical explanations as to why the NLC has managed to stay intact for half a century.
One, Dawson says, are the above-average facilities of NLC schools across all sports. Another, of course, is the all-important monetary aspect.
“Financially, it’s a conference that’s well-supported by its communities,” Dawson said. “It’s one of the reasons why (this year) Wawasee said, ‘No, we’d rather stay right where we are.’ It’s one of the reasons why Elkhart Memorial left the NIC and got into the NLC (in 2000)—for that stability and that financial support.”
Geography is another key ingredient to that stability.
“To have schools like Warsaw and Plymouth from the southern sector of Northern Indiana I think really adds to the attractiveness of our conference because it’s not just all our schools right in a bunch,” said current NLC Secretary/Treasurer Larry Kissinger, who is in his 13th year as Goshen’s AD. “We get the schools in Koscuisko county and Marshall County and they really add a nice mix to the Elkhart County schools.”
With a proper balance struck in terms of location, competition, school size and number of members, the NLC appears poised to continue to buck the growing trend of athletic realignment.
And if, on the off chance, the principals and ADs of the NLC decided they wanted to consider another member, the prospective school would have to meet the high academic, athletic and sportsmanship standards of the league.
“If there is an opening, you have to be a cut above to be considered to join,” Price said. “That is what keeps it so strong.”