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GCAC move leaves disbelief

The patches, worn on a jacket or hung inside a locker, were important.

Individual all-conference recognition was even something to put on a college application. A conference championship was gym-banner worthy, a source of school-wide pride.

Hernando County athletes and teams may have seen the last of all of them.

In the wake of Citrus, Crystal River and Lecanto's surprising announcement that they would leave the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, area coaches, athletic directors and players were left angry and aghast.

"Our kids and Citrus kids are losing out on a lot," Central athletic director John Sedlack said. "(The GCAC) will not survive with four Hernando County schools."

In a letter dated Sept. 16, the Citrus County public school principals _ Mike Mullen of Citrus, Steve Myers of Crystal River and Kelly Tyler of Lecanto _ said they wanted to withdraw from the GCAC effective immediately and listed three reasons.

All three principals did not return calls from the Times Wednesday.

Three Hernando athletic directors _ Sedlack, Hernando's Matt Smith and Springstead's Bob Levija _ said they were not aware of the situation until Tuesday, when a letter from GCAC executive secretary Ron Allan (a Lecanto coach) arrived at their schools explaining the gist of the Sept. 16 letter.

"I don't understand," Sedlack said. "I've spoken to some people there, and I'm not sure if we're getting the honest to goodness story."

The conference has been in existence with Hernando and Citrus representation since 1975, and county athletic directors questioned the reasons cited by Citrus principals.

Scheduling concerns, which the letter said now are irrelevant with new schools, raised eyebrows considering some such as Wesley Chapel and Mitchell are one county south of Hernando.

"They're going to find they're spending more on traveling than they thought they could save," Sedlack said.

Money concerns also were cited, with GCAC membership costing some $2,000 per school. Half the money is used for awards, from trophies to patches to banners, yet those are highly-coveted prizes in a conference.

"Conference patches meant a lot to them," Smith said. "And when we had conference tournaments in some sports, I also think that it drew more people to come watch."

Citrus County school board member Ginger Bryant said saving $2,000 in conference fees would be "a piddling" to member schools.

A third issue, voting rights, also left county officials puzzled.

The Citrus principals' letter stated how the two counties occasionally would have "differing visions," and in those cases the four Hernando schools could outvote the three Citrus schools.

"In three years I've been athletic director, I don't remember it coming down to a 4-3 vote where it was all Hernando against Citrus," Smith said.

The timing of the exodus struck a nerve, with teams nearly a month into fall seasons.

"What kind of example are we setting for our athletes when our leaders are allowing them to quit the conference in the middle of the season?" Sedlack said. "I could have more easily accepted this back in May than I can in September."

Citrus athletic director Vicki Overman admitted "the timing was poor, I'll give you that" but said the issue of leaving the GCAC had been "in people's minds for a while."

The announcement leaves some fall conference competitions in doubt. Golf is scheduled for Sept. 30 in Crystal River, and swimming and cross-country conference meets are in October.

"I think it would be a shame if we didn't have the GCAC meets anymore," said Nature Coast Tech's Kali Kingsley, an all-conference swimmer last year.

"Some high school swimmers don't have the chance to swim against several schools at one time like that, and it seems unfair that they won't be allowed that experience anymore," she said.

The multi-school, cross-county competitions also frequently offer athletes far better chances for success than in state series play.

"In years we were not contenders in the state, the most important meet has been the conference race," said Hernando cross-country and track coach Ernie Chatman. "It meant something to be all-conference."

Now, however, those honors could be a thing of the past.

"I hope the powers that be can sit down and rethink this," Springstead girls golf and softball coach Craig Swartout said.

"I don't think it has hit the student body yet, but when it does, it's going to be a sad day for the kids."

_ Times staff writers Dawn Reiss and Emily Nipps contributed to this report.

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