Conference switch would help Camden, Wilson

Posted: January 18, 2014

Camden and Collingswood used to be one of the best rivalries in South Jersey - competition flowing back and forth in a number of sports, like the traffic between the adjacent towns on Haddon Avenue.

Woodrow Wilson has more in common - in terms of history, geography and enrollment figures - with schools such as Haddon Heights, Woodbury and Overbrook than with Washington Township, Lenape and Cherokee.

New Camden superintendent of schools Paymon Rouhanifard is about to unveil a strategic plan to revitalize one of the state's most troubled districts. Nowhere on his to-do list will be mention of the conference affiliation of the city's two primary public high schools.

He has higher priorities, and rightfully so.

But it would be a great thing for both schools and their athletic programs if Camden and Woodrow Wilson joined the Colonial Conference.

The move would make sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which would be the incentive to reset the athletic departments and create more broad-based programs at both schools that would engage more students in positive extracurricular activities.

There's no reason that Camden and Woodrow Wilson shouldn't have vibrant boys' and girls' soccer programs. The sport is alive at the youth level in the city and U.S. Soccer was a major contributor to the fund-raising effort for the new artificial-turf field at Farnham Park (which is lined for soccer games).

The same goes for baseball and softball, as well as boys' and girls' tennis and boys' and girls' cross-country.

The schools' current membership in the powerful and large-school-dominated Olympic Conference isn't the only reason the Camden and Woodrow Wilson athletic departments have been marked in recent years mainly by the football, basketball and track teams, with just a sprinkling of consistently competitive programs in other sports.

It's on district administrators to identify, inspire and support the right coaches. And it's on the coaches to bring the time commitment, energy and passion necessary to create fully-functioning programs in sports without much recent history of success at the two schools.

And yes, that's a lot easier said than done in a district where so many students face so many challenges.

But that's all the more reason that Camden and Woodrow Wilson athletics should be more inclusive, not less, with opportunities for students to participate and represent their schools and towns in a wider variety of sports.

Joining the Colonial Conference could help make that happen. Camden and Woodrow Wilson are by far the two smallest schools in the Olympic Conference, excluding private schools such as Bishop Eustace and Camden Catholic.

But in the Colonial Conference, Camden as a Group 2 program and Woodrow Wilson as a small Group 3 program would be a far better fit as far as enrollment - and there would be some built-in advantages as far as history, proximity and competitive balance.

Camden and Woodrow Wilson would have big problems on the scoreboard against the likes of Haddonfield tennis and soccer and Haddon Township soccer and Audubon baseball and West Deptford softball, among other potential mismatches.

But schools such as Collingswood, Lindenwold, Paulsboro and Overbrook would make for natural rivals with the Camden schools in a lot of these sports. And the similarity in enrollment between the Camden schools and the rest of the Colonial Conference would make for fairer competition across the board.

This wouldn't hurt the "major" sports such as football and basketball, either. Those programs would face stiff competition in the Colonial Conference - Camden vs. Haddonfield, home and home in boys' basketball every year, has a great ring to it - and the hoops teams would have ample opportunity to schedule outside games to maintain rivalries with the likes of Camden Catholic, Bishop Eustace and Paul VI.

This would only enrich the Colonial Conference, too (although I can already hear some administrators complaining about the Camden schools' lack of a full complement of sports as well as a shortage of sub-varsity teams and this and that and the other reason why it just can't happen).

The addition of Camden and Woodrow Wilson would broaden and diversify the Colonial Conference. It would create some new rivalries. It would restore some old ones. It would break down some of the barriers between the city and its suburbs - good for the city, good for the suburbs.

And for a league that proudly touts its history and tradition, let the record show that Camden has been playing these games since the turn of the 20th century and Woodrow Wilson since 1931, and that those two schools were South Jersey powers in sports such as baseball and tennis (yes, tennis) as well as football and basketball before nearly half of the schools in the Colonial Conference even opened.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

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