by Andrew Garda
As Montclair Kimberley Academy head football coach Anthony Rea begins his sixth season in charge of the program, the Cougars also start their sixth season as members of the Metropolitan Independent Football League (MIFL).
The MIFL is exactly what it says in the name — a division of football teams made up of high schools from across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that operate outside the usual parameters of those three states.
This year the league has added a 10th team — Long Island Lutheran — joining Hackley, Fieldston, Riverdale Country, Poly Prep and Rye Country representing New York; Hopkins representing Connecticut; and Pingry, Morristown-Beard and MKA from New Jersey.
“Our experience has generally been good. There have been some days where I’ve been upset with the travel because we’ve got to go all around,” Rea said.
Last season that was complicated during the playoffs when a hurricane bearing down on the Northeast forced a Saturday game against Hopkins to be moved to Friday. It took three hours for MKA to get there and the game couldn’t be moved back because, as multiple games were being pushed up, the officials calling the MKA-Hopkins game had to officiate another game later that day.
Still, Rea said most of the time the travel isn’t too bad and going to New York isn’t much different than traveling to Pingry.
The rules and safety guidelines are the same. The teams just don’t hold to the same schedules the rest of the teams in their states do. For example, MKA still followed NJSIAA guidelines and rules, but they function independently of the organization in terms of scheduling.
One of the big reasons MKA chose to go this route was team size.
“There were some games on our schedule [before] that realistically. Every couple of years we could compete with everybody, but there were years where it’s hard to play a steady diet of Verona, Cedar Grove, Weequahic, Shabazz,” Rea said. “So, this is a little bit easier for us, because the teams have more light numbers.”
The reality is, a small school like MKA is going to produce small numbers of football players. As Rea points out, every once in a while, you can compete with a bigger school like Ceder Grove or Shabazz High School, who can put a roster of 50 kids together from a larger student population.
But most years, when you are a school scrambling to pick up 30 kids, that’s just too much to ask.
The MIFL lets MKA compete with teams with the same resources they have.
“I think it’s nice so, if we’re in a conference, we have a chance to win that legitimately,” said Rea.
The Cougars still stay involved in the NJSIAA leagues, and if they are invited to the state playoffs and the timing works out (there’s no conflict between the NJSIAA and MIFL playoffs), they’ll take part.
But whereas the MIFL represents a league they can compete in for a title, it’s a much harder task, against some bigger schools, to win a New Jersey State title.
“I mean, if things break right we can get to a state title game, but it’d be real hard to win one,” Rea said. ”So I think it’s nice to have something where you can say ‘we can win this’ and the New Jersey playoffs are just icing on the cake for a good year. You get to see what the best in New Jersey has. You face teams who have all state guys.”
This year the playoffs for the Metropolitan League and the NJSIAA don’t conflict, so if things go well, the Cougars can do both. Next year, Rea isn’t sure. The NJSIAA is constantly shifting it’s playoff structure to better hone the process down so one day they can have just a handful of state champions, or perhaps even a single champion.
That could leave Rea and his Cougars out in the cold.
“I’m interested to see this SEC Ivy league, what happens with that. Because that’s something that is interesting to me. It’s similar to what we do, although as of right now we still have the option to be in the state playoffs.”
Depending on how the next few years play out, Rea and MKA may have to choose whether they stay involved in New Jersey football at all. If they have to make a choice between playing ball at a level where they can honestly compete and holding on to games like Glen Ridge, it could put the school in an odd position. He hopes it’s possible, because playing local teams is half the fun, but if schools have to focus on teams playing full time in the NJSIAA because of playoff or points seeding, it might not be.
“You love to keep that local flare,” he said. “That’s why I always fight to keep Glen Ridge, Immaculate, Morristown-Beard, because that stuff keeps us close. But overall, I think the [Metropolitan] league’s been a good thing for us.”