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Citrus schools pull out of athletic conference

Tizzy Schoelles looked down at the note on her fax machine Monday in disbelief.

The note warned Schoelles, the principal at Nature Coast High School in Brooksville, that she would receive a letter Tuesday that contained unexpected news: Citrus County high schools want to pull out of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, effective immediately.

As president of the conference, Schoelles thought there would have been some warning, especially since she said the idea had never been brought up before.

"This is the last thing I wanted to deal with today," she said. "I thought we would need to get together and discuss it if there was ever such a big issue. It caught me a little off guard."

The letter, dated Sept. 16, is from Citrus High School principal Mike Mullen, Lecanto High School principal Kelly Tyler and Crystal River High School principal Steve Myers.

The men stated that their schools would like to withdraw from the conference, whose other member schools are Hernando, Springstead, Nature Coast and Central.

In a meeting on Friday, Citrus County principals and athletic directors, as well as Citrus County school staff member Dave Stephens, who is the coordinator of at-risk programs, had discussed what should be done.

"We thought we had to do it quickly or wait until next year," Citrus athletic director Vicki Overman said.

All Citrus County high school principals were in a meeting today and could not be reached for comment.

Schoelles said that, according to the GCAC bylaws, notification to leave the conference should be made at an annual May meeting. Schoelles will call an emergency meeting to decide if the Hernando County schools will continue the conference or dissolve it.

"We've always had a good relationship between Hernando and Citrus schools. This has been a good conference for coaches and kids," Schoelles said. "Apparently, the conference is not being viewed as a positive light in Citrus. It would be of no benefit (to the GCAC) to force them to engage in something they don't want to."

In the letter, several reasons were cited for Citrus County schools' withdrawal:

+ The most important reason listed was money. Each school pays close to $2,000 to maintain its conference membership. That includes $400 in annual dues, and two $500 payments that are used to pay for awards. A $900 payment from each school is due Oct. 1.

+ Citrus schools originally joined to alleviate scheduling problems, which according to the letter are no longer an issue. Lecanto athletic director Dick Slack said there are plenty of new schools, including Ocala West Port, Nature Coast, Pasco's Mitchell and Wesley Chapel, to make a large selection.

+ Because the conference comprises schools from two counties, there are numerous differences on policy issues that result in a "differing vision of the missions of the conference." When a vote is required on a particular issue, Citrus County schools are always on the losing end of the ballot, since decisions come down to three votes (Citrus schools) to four (Hernando), the letter said.

The letter also states that the decision was made in the best interest of Citrus schools and does not negatively reflect upon Hernando schools. The letter said Citrus has a strong desire to continue competing with Hernando schools.

"In my opinion, that money can be better spent on our kids," Slack said.

"There are no plans at this time for Citrus County schools to join another conference."

Slack said the money is a great issue for Lecanto, where athletic programs are run with revenue the football program generates. That's about $2,000 to $3,000 per game at Lecanto; the figures are higher at Citrus and Crystal River, Slack said.

Some coaches aren't happy with the decision.

"It's horrible," Crystal River cross country coach Tim Byrne said, adding that, since there is no conference, athletes and schools will not receive conference awards.

Byrne said he plans on continuing a Citrus-Hernando county meet with the help of Hernando's Ernie Chatman.

"Its one thing we've looked forward to every year," Byrne said. "As far as I'm concerned, we can still call it a county cross country meet. We can still do awards for the top 14 finishers."

The way schools finish in the conference doesn't bear on which teams compete at state-level contests. Even if a school finishes first in its conference, it doesn't matter unless it finishes in the top two in its district.

But many coaches worry about the effect on the athletes.

"We'll see what happens," said Ron Allan, who coaches several sports at Lecanto High and is the conference's executive secretary.

"I'm still hoping everyone will reconsider. I don't see that happening. It's like the NHL. They've made up their minds (to have a player lockout), and they're going to hunker down and throw away the key."