Big changes coming in football
The Minnesota State High School League board of directors made a decision last week that affects every high school football program in the state.
Any time that happens, the decision is bound to be met by mixed emotions. That’s the case for many of the football coaches and athletic directors around Douglas County after the board members voted 19-1 in favor of grouping schools into districts, which will take effect starting in the 2015 season.
The point of assigning teams to districts was to help alleviate the problems some teams have with filling out an eight-game regular season schedule. Under the new plan, districts will be comprised of at least 16 teams whenever possible.
According to a post on the MSHSL website by media specialist John Millea, districts will be created around the state based on factors that include school size, geography, “like schools” and strength of programs. The minimum size of any district will be 10 teams and could include teams from more than one class. Each team will then play all eight of its regular-season games within its district with the schools working together to create the schedules.
It’s a move that will put an end to the conferences that teams are currently used to playing in. According to some in the area, the move to districts is an issue of fixing something that wasn’t broken for the majority of programs. For others, it is looked at as an inevitable move that will hopefully make scheduling easy for every school in the state. Here is a look at how some of the programs around Douglas County are viewing the change.
Alexandria and the rest of the Central Lakes Conference got out in front of the scheduling issue with the additions of Grand Rapids, Bemidji and Moorhead last year. That made it an even 12 teams in the conference, which made scheduling fairly easy. Still, Jefferson High School athletic director Dr. David Hartmann can understand where other schools are coming from.
“There are some flaws but when they say that 25-40 percent of the schools have issues with scheduling, then obviously something needed to be done,” Hartmann said. “What we’re doing is not working, so I think it’s important to fix it. It’s not perfect, but I think this is a step to do that.”
Hartmann said that Alexandria was in the minority as one of just three schools in the CLC that came out in support of the change. He has heard the issue of scheduling in football come up time and time again over the past two decades and felt that a change was ultimately inevitable, so why fight it?
“There’s challenges with any of it,” he said. “I think some don’t want to let go of the conference championship and so forth. That’s a challenge, but to give someone a full schedule competing against like schools will be a positive thing. The downsides are you could get isolated where you are in a district with no one else in your section.”
The loss of playing for that CLC title and the potential loss of rivalry games are a couple things that concern Cardinals head coach Mike Empting. He pointed to his program’s rivalry with Brainerd, a school that is almost a two-hour drive from Alexandria, as one he wants to hold on to.
“There have been some great football games between those two schools,” Empting said. “I don’t know. You look how it’s grouped right now and think how many different ways can they cut the pie here in the outstate? They could throw those northern schools together and group Brainerd up there with Duluth and whoever, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that whoever the committee ends up being that they take that rivalry into consideration.”
Brainerd has the largest school enrollment in the CLC at 1,616, according to MSHSL numbers. Alexandria is listed at 1,091 and Fergus Falls is at the bottom with 647 students in grades 9-12. Playing programs with a discrepancy in enrollment numbers like that can be difficult, but Empting sees it as an opportunity.
“I’ve never been one to be incredibly concerned with what our schedule is,” he said. “As long as we’re fair to our kids as far as how much time we spend on the bus and travel, and fair to the district in terms of cost and travel expenses … we have to run our program the right way and at some point, whether it’s at sections or state, you’re going to run into the bigger schools, so you might as well play them early, too.”
Osakis is a program that currently sits near the middle in terms of enrollment among Prairie Conference schools.
Head coach Bill Infanger said that always left them feeling that in good years they could compete near the top of the conference, and even in down years, they could still be competitive in many of their games.
“I would hate to get us in a situation where it would just be really, really tough to win football games and have a competitive program,” Infanger said. “Because it’s hard enough to get kids to go out the way it is, and when they’re faced with losing seasons year after year, it’s tough. So you hope we’ll be put in a situation where we can at least be competitive.”
Osakis was comfortable knowing what it had in a stable conference like the Prairie. They might retain a lot of those same opponents, but right now, they went from something that was working well for them into the unknown.
“I was apprehensive going into it and I guess I still am, simply because when I was asked my opinion we weren’t given any kind of indication what district we would be in,” Infanger said. “And we were happy with our current conference as it was before.”
Osakis athletic director Brad Hoffarth said scheduling hasn’t been an issue for them in the Prairie Conference. He was also surprised by how easily the changes passed on an issue where the majority of Minnesota schools were not in favor of going to districts.
Programs will be able to voice their opinion to the placement committee on how the districts will be set up. Hoffarth said he plans on being active in that, but he isn’t sure what kind of an impact it will have.
“We’ll do what we can,” Hoffarth said. “But again, there are multiple surveys throughout this process and how those were used I’m not sure because I spoke to a number of people and their surveys weren’t filled out the way things turned out.”
Brandon-Evansville is in a unique situation from the other teams in Douglas County with the Chargers being a 9-man program.
“They simply told us that they were going to do 9-man differently from everybody else,” Brandon-Evansville athletic director Tom Trisko said. “They didn’t say how or what they’re going to do, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
Filling the schedule hasn’t been an issue for the Chargers as members of the Pheasant Conference. Things were working well for Brandon- Evansville, but Trisko says he understands that wasn’t the case for everyone. He’s willing to wait and see what happens, but with the inability of 9-man teams to be paired with Class A programs, it might mean some longer trips for the Chargers.
“I understand what they’re doing,” Trisko said. “I know that some schools really need the help with schedules. Unfortunately, we weren’t one of those that needed the help. Although there have been years when we’ve struggled with our own schedule when teams dropped out. My concern is distance. Right now, our travel distance isn’t real [long]. What’s it going to be like when we district 9-man schools? Because they’re spread out a little more.”
The Prairie Valley football team, a cooperative program of Parkers Prairie and Eagle Valley schools, knows what it is like to wonder how it is going to fill a schedule.
The Nighthawks were put in limbo for a little while last year when they had to find another conference other than the Pheasant to compete in after going from a 9-man program to 11-man and the Class A level.
An opening in the Northstar Conference was one they were happy to accept, knowing it would only be for one year. Barnesville is leaving the Prairie Conference this next season and Prairie Valley will be taking its place.
As members of the Northstar Conference, the Nighthawks traveled a long ways north to towns like Red Lake Falls, Pine River and Cass Lake last season.
“We chose to do that because they had a team that dropped out of the Northstar, and we needed a conference because the Pheasant had kicked us out because we weren’t 9-man anymore,” Prairie Valley head coach John Sieling said. “I liked that conference. It was a fun conference to be in. The only negative was the travel of course. Mileage wise, it was just too far.”
The Nighthawks were thrilled to be back in the Prairie Conference this year. It’s ideal geographically and a league they were used to after competing in it for years before moving to the Pheasant.
“We’re hoping that it doesn’t change a lot,” Sieling said. “This next year in the Prairie Conference is kind of perfect for us because everything is pretty close. My opinion is they did it for mainly the bigger schools who didn’t have a conference who were traveling really far to try and find games, even out of state. Even though the high school league says it wasn’t because of the big schools, it’s for everybody. I think it will work, but I always think doing away with the conferences, some people won’t like that very well.”