MAPL: a winning league for Mercersburg?

By Elisa Gan
NEWS Editor-in-Chief


Girls varsity volleyball rallied before their game.

Girls varsity volleyball rallied before their game.

 

To the majority of athletes at Mercersburg, the Mid-Atlantic Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) represents the highest level of competition during the athletic season. Mercersburg Academy, along with the other five boarding school members, Blair Academy, The Hill School, The Hun School, Lawrenceville School, and Peddie School, compete across 20 sports throughout the school year.

Yet for some Mercersburg athletes, the sheer mention of the MAPL gets their palms sweating and heart pumping; it even evokes a sense of intimidation and dread in the back of their minds.

The reason is simple. An away game usually means a six-to-eight-hour round-trip bus ride on a weekend. MAPL competitions can be not only physically demanding – and time consuming! – but also emotionally draining. While some teams have been sweeping the competition across the board, such as baseball, others have been struggling to win even a single game each year. Many athletes – and coaches – find it hard to balance their academic work, personal lives, and athletic ambitions.

The question, then, is: why the MAPL?

Historical Overview

Prior to the MAPL era, Mercersburg struggled to find a league that could match its location and needs.

Boys sports and girls sports also suffered from imbalanced competition. While the boys teams dominated Mid-Atlantic Athletics Conference (MAC), playing against mostly private day schools from Maryland, Virginia and D.C., the girl teams were forced to play in the Apple Valley League with large West Virginia public schools.

The need for a new league became more apparent in 1995 when Mercersburg’s application to the all-girls Independent School League was rejected due to the distance between the other member schools and Mercersburg. In the meanwhile, the MAC showed no intention of going coed. “As the years went on, issues made it clear to Mr. Hale and me that we were somewhat mismatched for the MAC,” commented the former Athletic Director Ron Simar, who at the time was given the task of searching for a new league to join.

In 1999, after a long investigation, Mercersburg decided that the newly-founded MAPL was a better fit. “It was an attractive athletics option as far as we were concerned,” said Simar. “It was a coed league; its schools were more similar in size; and each school enrolled PGs. More importantly, however, the MAPL is comprised of all boarding schools with like missions, excellent academic programs, and similar student bodies.”

The move was made final when word came that Mercersburg was accepted into the MAPL for 2000-01.

Cost and Travel Time

Membership in the MAPL brought many changes to Mercersburg’s athletics program. Primary was that the budget increased about 10 percent. Transportation costs accounted for much of the increase, as more charter buses were hired.

However, Simar advocated these changes, saying that traveling to DC-area schools around the Beltway on weekdays, as Mercersburg often did, was also expensive. “Joining the MAPL was as much a business decision for the school as anything else,” said Athletic Director Rick Hendrickson.

“There is no question that we spent a lot of money. But it is a lot of money any way you do it. Athletics cost a lot of money. All quality programs offered by a quality boarding school are pricey propositions,” said Head of School Douglas Hale.

Now students miss less class time since all MAPL games are scheduled on Saturday.  Yet MAPL game days have indeed become longer for athletes and coaches, taking much study time and relaxation time away. While some consider long travels a bonding experience for teams, many question if such tradeoff is worthy, since not all come back feeling elevated after the exhausting competition.

Caroline Brown ’16, a varsity field hockey and lacrosse player who juggled five APs last year, noted, “It can be demoralizing traveling such long distances only to lose. ”

Stiffer Competition

How well has Mercersburg done in MAPL?

In total, Mercersburg has won 12 championships in 15 years, baseball (9), boys soccer (1), football (1), and boys swimming (1). It is an unimpressive number considering that about 20 conference titles on are given each year (according to the schedule on the MAPL website).

Mercersburg’s overall winning percentage hovers around 53%, while its winning percentage in MAPL fluctuates from 25 to 30%.

However, Blue Storm teams have been getting more competitive over the past five years. For example, according to the Athletic Department, in 2013-2014, 11 of 23 teams finished in the top three in MAPL competition. Individual sports especially (for example cross country, squash, and swimming) have been climbing in the ranks.

While some sports like baseball, cross-country, and boys soccer have been breezing through the competition, many other team sports like football, lacrosse, and tennis still struggle to establish their place in MAPL.

Demographics account for some schools’ dominance in certain sports. Lawrenceville has swept every squash championship and all but a few track and field conference titles since the founding of the league . According to Hendrickson, “Lawrenceville, Peddie and Hun are located in Mercer County, which has one of the highest levels of youth sports participation in the nation.”

Mercersburg also has the smallest student and day student population in the league, limiting the number of incoming experienced players.

Because the demographic trend remains and the level of competition continues to increase, many athletes and coaches feel more pressure. Consequently, in some sports, such as soccer, senior players who have dedicated many years to the sport are forced to quit.

Alternatives

Playing at the high level as it has, Mercersburg still faces the dilemma of few choices. While membership in the MAPL does demand more in terms of resources, commitment, and athletic performance, the IPSL and local competition cannot entirely satisfy the school’s needs for scheduling and, most especially, exposure to collegiate level of play.

Of the coaches that the Mercersburg NEWS approached to interview, four did not respond to the request and one preferred not to speak on the record, attesting to the complexity of the issues involved.

Some have suggested that certain sports should leave the MAPL while others should stay (the Hun School, for example, does this). While this would complicate scheduling, it might reduce the anxiety that some teams feel.

Conclusion

For better or worse, membership is the MAPL coincides with the philosopy that underlies Mercersburg’s athletics programs and physical education curriculum. To the school, it represents the pursuit of sportsmanship, excellence, hard work and unity.

Perhaps there isn’t a perfect league, and the MAPL will continue to strike a nerve in Mercersburg athletes, and the school community, with an equal amount of excitement and poignancy. On the sports field, there will always be possibilities for difficulty and growth.

“Our students are gonna go out into the world among the best. They will go to some of the best colleges, get some of the best jobs, and be in some of the best situations,” concluded Simar. “Playing the best athletically, win or lose, will help prepare them for those best situations.”

Said Hale, “I never judge the value of an athletic program on the basis of how much we win or how much we lose. What I am looking for in our athletic program is an opportunity for students to learn about being involved in something that is bigger than themselves.”

 

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