For years, the Colonial Conference has enjoyed something unique in South Jersey: While other conferences expanded the number of their divisions, the Colonial remained sans divisions.
The 12-team Colonial is splitting into two six-team divisions this season.
That was necessitated with the arrival this school year of Overbrook, which moved from the Tri-County Conference to the Colonial in all sports.
The Colonial will have two six-team divisions this season in boys' and girls' basketball. (Many of the other Colonial sports were already in divisional play before this season.)
The Liberty Division, with the larger-enrollment schools, consists of West Deptford, Sterling, Collingswood, Overbrook, Haddonfield and Haddon Heights.
The Patriot Division is composed of Haddon Township, Audubon, Gateway, Lindenwold, Paulsboro and Woodbury.
Even those with an affinity for the tradition of the Colonial, such as Haddonfield boys' coach Paul Wiedeman, can appreciate the new setup. Wiedeman won a state title in 1989 as a player and three as a coach from 2004 to 2006, led by current Duke center Brian Zoubek.
"I am definitely for the two divisions because we now have 10 out-of-conference games," Wiedeman said. "I wish it happened when we had Brian Zoubek because it would have been nice to play more Group 3 and 4 and parochial schools."
Under NJSIAA rules, this is the third year teams can play as many as 26 regular-season games. Before that, the number was 24.
Before this season, the Colonial teams played each other twice, meaning they could play only four nonconference games each season when Zoubek was at Haddonfield and six annually the last two years.
Now, as Wiedeman said, the teams can play as many as 10.
Colonial teams will play each team in their division twice and schools from the other division once. All 16 games count toward the conference standings.
"I think there are a lot of pluses to the new format," said Collingswood girls' coach Nancy O'Neill, whose team shared the Colonial Conference title last season with Haddonfield. "You get to play more nonleague games, and it's good for the smaller schools that used to get hurt in qualifying for the [state] tournament because of playing schools like Haddonfield and Sterling twice each."
The smaller schools, as O'Neill says, should be the bigger beneficiaries. This season, teams must have a .500 or better record by Feb. 7 to qualify for the state tournament.
For the smaller schools, there is another benefit to divisional play. It gives them a more realistic chance of winning a title.
"I think it's fantastic going to the divisions because, with a small school, it's awfully tough to compete with the Hadddonfields, Sterlings and Collingswoods," said Audubon girls' coach Cheryl Clark. "Now it gives the kids something to reach for."
Even those sentimental about the long tradition can appreciate the pluses of having two divisions.
"I know the Colonial Conference has had a long, rich tradition and was so unique having one division for all the teams," said Collingswood boys' coach Joe McLoughlin, whose team won the final single-division Colonial title last season.
"All things come to an end, and we have to adjust," he said.
And with the new format, McLoughlin, who said he liked the flexibility it gave him in scheduling, realizes that last season's team left what should be a lasting legacy in the Colonial.
"We were so excited to win the Colonial last year," said McLoughlin, whose team also won the South Jersey Group 2 title. "It meant a lot to all of us to win the Colonial, especially knowing it was the last year in one division."