A new era: Masconomet's departure will fundamentally reshape Cape Ann League

RYAN MCBRIDE/Staff photoMasconomet's Will Hunter returns the ball for a touchdown during last September's non-conference game against Danvers. Starting this fall, Masconomet will officially complete its move to the Northeastern Conference, meaning the next time Masconomet and Danvers play, they will do so as conference rivals.

Since the Cape Ann League was established in 1974, Masconomet has consistently ranked as one of the league's top schools athletically. The Chieftains have won a total of 291 CAL titles — plus 29 more in other leagues for girls hockey and skiing — and have enjoyed decades-long runs of dominance across multiple sports.

But with the cancelation of this year's spring season, Masconomet's time in the Cape Ann League has officially come to an end.

Starting this fall, Masconomet will be a member of the Northeastern Conference, ushering in a new era for both the school and the league it leaves behind.

"It's very exciting, a good step for Masconomet and hopefully for the NEC as well," Masconomet athletic director John Daileanes said following the move's announcement in October. "I anticipate it being a great relationship."

The move brings the Northeastern Conference to an even 12 teams, with two divisions of six schools in nearly all sports. It will also leave the Cape Ann League with 11 schools, with either five or six teams per division in most sports but, crucially, a single eight-team division for football. 

For Masconomet, the move will allow the Chieftains to compete against similar-sized schools that better reflect the types of opponents they'll typically face in their division come tournament time. The move could also pay dividends under the MIAA's new MaxPreps postseason seeding system, which is also set to take effect this coming year.

For the remaining CAL schools, Masconomet's departure will result in a more level playing field, opening up opportunities to schools and programs that previously struggled to compete with its sheer numbers.

Whether a good move or bad, there is no doubt that Masconomet's departure represents a seismic shift in the Cape Ann League landscape — and the implications of its move will be felt for years to come. 

Even playing field

One of the biggest reasons for Masconomet's consistent dominance of the CAL has been its prohibitive size advantage. According to the current enrollment data available from the MIAA's website (based on 2015 figures), Masconomet had more than double the enrollment (1,272) of the average remaining CAL school (597) and was more than three or even four times bigger than the smallest schools like Georgetown (399) and Rockport (303).

While those figures fluctuate from year to year — The Salem News recently has Masconomet's current enrollment is 1,145 — the Chieftains have held a significant size advantage over the rest of the league's current members.

For much of its CAL tenure, there were at least other big schools to help balance the scales, with North Andover (1,411) boasting a similar size advantage over the competition and Wilmington (877) not far behind. But following Wilmington's departure to the Middlesex League in 2011 and North Andover leaving for the Merrimack Valley Conference in 2012, Masconomet stood alone as a juggernaut and subsequently dominated the league throughout the 2010s.

In the Northeastern Conference, Masconomet will rank fifth out of 12 schools in enrollment, just a shade above the league's average enrollment of 1,120. The remaining CAL schools will be much more closely aligned, with seven of the 11 schools boasting enrollments around 600 to 800.

Based on the MIAA's numbers, the CAL's largest schools are now North Reading (801), Newburyport (777), Pentucket (718) and Triton (713).

New football alignment

Masconomet's departure will bring a major structural change to the CAL in football, one that could potentially revitalize the prestige of the league's Thanksgiving football rivalries and the league title race as a whole.

With Masconomet gone and Georgetown and Manchester Essex playing as independents, the remaining eight schools can now do away with the Kinney and Baker Division alignments and compete as one unified league. Under such a structure, each school would play the other seven once, including six games in the regular season plus a non-conference game before moving into the MIAA tournament. Then, the final league games would be played on Thanksgiving, at which time a single league champion would be crowned.

This structure would mark a major improvement on the current setup, which has regularly produced two and even three-way shares for the league's divisional titles. Last fall Pentucket, North Reading and Masconomet all shared the CAL Kinney title, and in 2018 five of the league's 10 teams finished with a share of their respective division's titles. Most years it only took three league wins to claim the title, and often the race was effectively over by mid-October.

Now, the CAL title race has the potential to be a true season-long endeavor, one that most years could be decided on Thanksgiving morning. And if we have a scenario where Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich once again happen to be tied at the top of the standings going into the finale? That could be epic.

Who fills power vacuum? 

While Masconomet has regularly been a fixture at the top of the league standings in most sports, there are a handful where their dominance has been virtually unquestioned. In boys soccer, for instance, the Chieftains won 35 league titles in their 46 years in CAL play, including 17 of the past 18 — with the departed North Andover taking the lone other title in 2009. 

That dominance has distorted the historical gravitas of the Chieftains' competitors, many of whom have proud histories with little in the way of league hardware to show for it.

While boys soccer is the most glaring example, the Chieftains have exerted similar dominance in field hockey (8 straight league titles) and boys lacrosse (8 titles in last 9 years) in recent years as well. So one of the most interesting subplots of the next few years will be seeing who — if anybody — steps up and asserts themselves as the new top dogs of their respective sport.

Mac Cerullo may be contacted at mcerullo@gloucestertimes.com

Cape Ann League Enrollment

Amesbury: 617

Georgetown: 399

Hamilton-Wenham: 607

Ipswich: 551

Lynnfield: 647

Manchester Essex: 435

Newburyport: 777

North Reading: 801

Pentucket: 718

Rockport: 303

Triton: 713

Northeastern Conference Enrollment

Beverly: 1,258

Danvers: 1,009

Gloucester: 867

Lynn Classical: 1,639

Lynn English: 1,656

Marblehead: 1,054

Masconomet: 1,272

Peabody: 1,770

Salem: 942

Saugus: 716

Swampscott: 704

Winthrop: 564

  

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