OVAC: 75 years and going strong

WHEELING — The Ohio Valley Athletic Conference is deeply etched into the fabric of the Ohio Valley.

So much so, the nation’s largest functional prep conference is celebrating its 75th year of operation. Such longevity in a time of widespread athletic transiency speaks volumes of both the OVAC’s founding fathers and its current leadership.

The OVAC was organized in 1943 with F.W. Bowen, J.E. Ewing, J.C. Greer, M.S. Hattala, B.G. Lockhart, J.V. Nelson, Charles Petty, C.F. Walker and C.S. Wiseman among those responsible for its basic conception. Wiseman became the conference’s first president.

The original member schools were Bellaire, Follansbee, Linsly, Martins Ferry, Moundsville, Powhatan, Shadyside, St. John Central, Steubenville, Steubenville Catholic, Tiltonsville, Triadelphia, Union, Warwood, Weir, Wellsburg, West Liberty, Wheeling, Wheeling Central Catholic and Yorkville.

The forefathers were committed to creating a more productive program of competitive high school athletics in the upper Ohio Valley. It is safe to say they were successful.

The conference has mushroomed to 51 schools, divided over five classes. Much of that growth has come under the adept leadership of current Executive Secretary Tom Rataiczak. He has directed the conference since 1999 upon the death of Samuel A. Mumley.

“I have often asked myself when making decisions what the Founding Fathers would think of what we were going to do or how would they react to something we did. I was privileged to have personally known two of them,” Rataiczak said. “As a youngster, they were so intimidating to me. But as I look back on what they created, it’s much like the Founding Fathers of our country.

“Their vision was so spot on, their concept of a conference so thought out, their administration of the schools and board studied in detail,” he continued. “I truly think, especially with all the technological changes, they’d raise an eyebrow or two, but I also believe they would be beaming with pride to see that the seed they planted had grown into such an impressive entity.”

Rataiczak is getting member schools and conference officials to become active in the anniversary celebration.

“We gave every school three items to celebrate the anniversary with: A banner to hang in their building with the 75-year logo (donated by McDonald’s and Wheeling Hospital), awareness bracelets for every athlete who competes in their school and lanyards for each coach. It is our hope that these will allow everyone to realize that the conference is celebrating 75 glorious years,” Rataiczak said. “Additionally, each director and commissioner has been charged with creating something at each of their events to recognize or celebrate something pertinent to their sport. It will be interesting to see how each person executes this.”

Rataiczak’s tenure as executive secretary has been marked by a proliferation of events and activities. The basketball championship tournaments, Band Showcase and Hall of Fame have all come about under his watch, and each proving a major success.

Toss in the Varsity Board, a revised track championship format as well as junior high cheering championship, Ratiaczak has put his stamp on the conference, elevating it to elite status.

“A lot has changed over the past two decades. Perhaps the most important would be the development of the website (www.ovac.org) which allows us to maintain closer communications with our member schools as well as their coaches. When I open the championship notebook, I’m always impressed at the amount of valley history that is contained therein,” Rataiczak offered. “The close friendship and partnership with WesBanco Arena has also been amazing. It houses both the OVAC Sports Museum and the OVAC Hall of Fame, both items that I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything similar to either of them anywhere in the United States.

“Having been associated with basketball for half a century, the basketball championships hold a special place in my heart. Watching them grow over the past decade, you realize how much these athletes enjoy putting it all on the line to prove who’s the best. Additionally, the monies we’ve returned to the schools have been very rewarding.

“The track format, the soccer format, the dual meet wrestling format, the junior high cheering competition, the Band Showcase, the Varsity Board have all been created to allow more than just athletics to be emphasized. Every championship except football is now determined by head-to-head competition and not settled on paper. That’s the way it should be,” he added. “While I would like to claim credit for these, they wouldn’t exist without the tremendous effort of the directors, commissioners and workers who go out of their way to see that each event held is special. And every time I sit back and think we’ve reached our limit, along comes someone else who says “why don’t you try . . .” and off we go again.”

Although the OVAC is experiencing the best of times, Rataiczak also realizes the conference isn’t void of challenges. He notes there are several and in varying degrees.

“Oh my, do we face them. The biggest? Getting younger people to become willing to step up and become involved. This conference was built by people who were willing to give of their time and talents without expecting anything in return. Why? So that kids could have an experience they’d always remember. Those kids are now adults, and they need to stop, remember, and get involved,” Rataiczak said. “Second: officials. Like many of the directors and officers, we’re all getting older. As fans become more brutal on officials, many younger ones decide it’s not worth it and drop out in the first probationary years. We have officials who have been working for 40, 50 years, and while they still want to go, their bodies are wearing down. We have some of the best officials you’ll find anywhere in either state, and we need to maintain that tradition.

“Three: financial security. Unlike schools who have a season to collect revenue, we have one shot with each sport. The days where schools gave you their facilities, people worked for nothing, many things were donated, are gone. But again, every school is experiencing this, not just the conference. It’s going to take some careful planning to maintain our staff and the events they direct or we are going to have to cut out things that make each event so special,” he continued. “Four: loyalty to the school, to the sport, to the conference. We have 8 schools who have supported and belonged to the conference for all 75 years: Bellaire, Linsly, Martins Ferry, Shadyside, St. John, Steubenville Catholic, Weir and Wheeling Central. That is simply amazing. For most of them, their primary association has been the OVAC. They serve as a nucleus that isn’t looking for an easy championship, a winning record, a quick fix. That’s loyalty. And we see younger member schools developing the same attitude. Our challenge is to earn and keep that loyalty among all member schools.”

Despite the issues the OVAC may be forced to deal with, the conference has shown the resiliency and resolve to remain strong over its seven-plus decades. Rataiczak sees no reason why that should change.

“I believe that the conference will continue to thrive as it has for the past 75 years, but not without some challenges. I can still see some expansion in the northern and southern areas particularly, but only if it allows schools in those areas to better accommodate their scheduling needs,” Rataiczak said. “I think we will re-evaluate the way we run the organization as we move to a stronger board of commissioners, while maintaining our connection to schools through the Executive Board.

“I truly believe that all schools, whether they belong to another league or not, whether they have had bad or good experiences, realize that the OVAC offers their athletes opportunities unlike any they can gain elsewhere,” he added. “State runs are precious and few and far between. For many, the OVAC championships are the apex of their season. I can only foresee these events becoming more rewarding than they currently are.”

And what does Rataiczak feel the best about during his tenure as the OVAC boss?

“That’s a tough question, but I believe there are a few things that stand out. Most importantly are the people who bought into our mindset, who hung in there year after year, who “get it.” Their loyalty and dedication cease to amaze me. They are way too countless to list and recognize, but each one knows who they are. I respect them, I admire them, I love them like family,” Rataiczak said. “Two: I would have to say the championship notebook/website/history of the conference. When I look at the museum, when I read the notebook, I realize that we have compiled, recorded and made available to people a history they can’t find anywhere else, a history that celebrates one of the most cherished events in the Ohio Valley, high school athletics. It’s what we celebrate, brag about, follow, discuss, argue over, travel to, work for. It’s what has made the Valley what it is today, over a century later. To know that we have preserved some of that is very rewarding.

“Three: the organization of the conference. Our minutes, our files, our records, have all been collected to make the job of the next generation easier to access and execute,” he added. “Four: our financial stability. Through the marketing arm we developed a decade ago, we’ve been able to insure our member schools that we will continue to provide them a platform to compete for years to come. Each year costs a little more to operate, just like any business or household. Additionally, attendance is dropping off in everything and ticket prices can only go so high. But regardless of all these, each day that I go to my office, I am proud to say I’m a small piece of the greatest conference in the United States. It’s very rewarding, yet at the same time very humbling.”