HOL football loses out to numbers game
By Brian Wiermia
The ever-changing landscape of Minnesota prep football has now forced a facelift in area gridiron action.
The longtime Heart O'Lakes Conference in football is no more, after Frazee and Agassiz Valley opted to move out of the HOL and into the Northern Plains Conference.
Those two moves -- along with Perham and Roseau moving to the Northern Lakes Conference -- left just four teams in the HOL, thus ending its long tenure as one of the area's toughest conferences. Only the football portion of the conference has been disbanded.
In the end, it was all about numbers.
"There was talk of adding such teams as East Grand Forks, Crookston and Warroad, and this was a concern for the smaller schools (in the HOL)," said Frazee head coach Steve Carlson, who spearheaded the Hornets' departure from the HOL. "Frazee's enrollment has declined, and some of the schools in the conference have grown."
In short, football is a numbers game and Frazee was coming up short.
In a letter Carlson presented to the Frazee School Board last spring, the concern of Frazee being one of the smallest in the conference was the reason which spurned the move to the Northern Plains Conference.
In the letter, Carlson stated, "... the disparity in enrollment numbers is just too great to overcome. It is nearly impossible to compete in football with schools that outnumber your enrollment in grades 10-12 by between 100 to 200 students. Also, the safety of Hornet student athletes is a major concern when your team is so greatly outnumbered."
One of the "orphans" resulting from elimination of the HOL is Pelican Rapids -- which has won or co-championed the conference the last two years.
The Vikings have enjoyed steady numbers in enrollment and in football. Unlike Frazee, Pelican Rapids didn't have to have many of its players play "ironman" football, which is when an athlete plays on both sides of the ball.
"It didn't catch us by surprise, it was something we knew was on its way," said Pelican Rapids head coach Dave Haugen. "The big thing was that the numbers were not there (for some teams), and football is a numbers game.
"It's a big disadvantage when you have to play players both ways and the other team doesn't."
The teams which will be without a conference next year include Pelican Rapids, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Breckenridge and West Central.
For Pelican Rapids, Haugen said the 2007 schedule will be close to the same, except with Pequot Lakes and East Grand Forks replacing Frazee and Agassiz Valley.
But after this coming season, the Vikings have no one on future schedules.
"I like what we have for this schedule," Haugen said. "But in two years, we have nothing for 2008. The most natural thing for us (in the future) is to join the Northern Plains, if they were to ever expand again.
"Chances are, the Minnesota State High School League will get involved and put us in a conference."
Although not official members, the four former HOL teams now classified as independents will be included into the schedules of the Northern Lakes Conference.
"We looked at the geography and found a way to work those teams into the schedules," Perham Activities Director Fred Sailer said. "It works out well for us for now. We'll have to wait and see what happens down the road."
Perham's 2007 schedule is set with home games against Crookston, Park Rapids, Roseau and D-G-F; and road games against Warroad, East Grand Forks, Pelican Rapids and Breckenridge at the FargoDome.
Sailer added there is a chance Staples-Motley could be thrown into the mix, as they might be leaving their current conference before the 2008 season.
"I think it would make sense to bring them into the Northern Lakes, but only if we can add another team with them to keep it at an even number," Sailer said.
The Northern Plains Conference will also have a facelift for the 2007 season. With the new 14-teams included, the conference has split into two halves.
Instead of being one of the smallest schools in a conference, Frazee will be the largest. The Hornets' schedule is already made out for this coming season, with one Northern Plains crossover game to start the season, and the rest being inter-conference play.
Other teams on Frazee's side of the conference include Bagley, Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, Hawley, Blackduck, Mahnomen and Cass Lake.
The other side includes Lake of the Woods, Barnesville, Fertile-Beltrami, Fosston, Badger-Greenbush-Middle River, Warren-Alvarado-Olso, Lake Park-Audubon and Red Lake Falls.
There will be two Northern Plains Conference champions and two sets of All-Conference teams and awards.
"There is also possible movement and switching of conferences if enrollment sizes change," Carlson said. "That provides flexibility."
Another advantage for the Hornets is the chance to play more of their section opponents. Although Frazee loses section games against D-G-F and Pelican Rapids, they gain ones against Hawley, Mahnomen and Bagley.
With several rivalry ties severed with the closure of the HOL, new ones can be formed -- and already are.
"Perham was a rivalry, but then again, we haven't beat them in 10 years," Carlson said. "But we are forming a rivalry with Walker now, after some playoff games against them. It boils down to the size of the schools."
"It's been a challenge," Sailer said. "People don't realize how tough it is to set a football schedule."
Sailer added he felt it's time for the MSHSL to step in and create conferences to match sections, a system already in place in North Dakota.
(Brian Wiermia is the Sports Editor for D.L. Newspapers, a division of Forum Communications. EOT Illustrated Sports Editor John George contributed to this story.)
North Plains Football Conference
Group A Enrollment
Pine River-Backus 262
Cass Lake 188
Lake of the Woods 192
Lake Park-Audubon 145
Red Lake Falls 116
Northern Lakes Football Conference
Park Rapids 483
East Grand Forks 416
Pequot Lakes 355
Wadena-Deer Creek 337
*Pelican Rapids 316
*West Central Area 211
*Indicates former HOL teams