By Phil Anastasia
In a landslide vote, the schools in the West Jersey Football League have rejected a merger with the Cape-Atlantic League.
The vote by the members of the 65-team league was 51 against the merger, with 14 in favor and one abstention, according to Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal, the president of the three-year-old WJFL.
"There's a feeling that what we have here has been a huge success," Kowal said Thursday of the super-conference, which merged football programs from the Burlco-Olympic Conference, Tri-County Conference and Colonial Valley League. "There was a hesitancy to change much of the dynamic."
Kowal said the addition of Hammonton, which will leave the Cape-Atlantic League to join the Tri-County Conference as a full member in 2014, will create a 66-team league that will be able to provide full schedule for every school.
"I remember when we were first forming this league a group of us saying, 'Man, if we could just find a 66th school,'" Kowal said. "I think there's a strong feeling of going through a (two-year scheduling) cycle with 66 schools and see how that works."
The WJFL's decision also is believed to be related to concerns that Kowal and others have referred to as "the elephant in the room" -- the strength of program of smaller Cape-Atlantic League programs such as St. Joseph and Holy Spirit.
Under WJFL by-laws, a school can only play opponents that are the same group size or one size removed. So a Group 1 program such as St. Joseph could only play Group 1s and Group 2s, while a Group 2 such as Holy Spirit could play Group 1s, 2s and 3s.
"If I was a smaller school, I would have legitimate concerns," said Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley, president of the Cape-Atlantic League.
Kowal said there was no serious discussion of adding the Cape-Atlantic League and creating a division comprised strictly of non-public programs.
"That's never going to happen," Kowal said, mentioning the travel hardship in asking a school such as Notre Dame of Lawrenceville to play Holy Spirit in Absecon.
Gatley praised WJFL officials for seriously considering a merger.
"Am I excited about this? Of course not," Gatley said. "But at the same time, I respect their decision and the process."
Gatley said the Cape Atlantic re-alignment committe would meet in late spring and begin working on creating a format for the league for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
With Hammonton's exodus, the Cape-Atlantic will have just 17 football-playing schools, so Gatley said there was "no way" the league would be able to provide full schedules for its members.
Gatley said that Cape Atlantic officials are determined to ensure that no public school will have to play all three non-public schools -- St. Joseph, Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep.
Gatley said the "door is not closed" and that the Cape Atlantic will continue to explore options in football scheduling, including a possible arrangement with the Colonial Conference as well as re-newed talks with th WJFL about the 2016 season.
"This will be ongoing," Gatley said.
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.