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Winds of change blowing for high school football

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Last week I spent three days at the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletics Administrators Association Annual Convention in St. Cloud. While there were many interesting topics discussed, one that seemed to inspire the most debate the passion was easily the move to district football scheduling for teams in Minnesota during the 2015 season. I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I will try to give a bit of information on this topic and how I see it relating to the football program in Wadena-Deer Creek.

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I grew up following and playing football in this area. As a youngster I grew up following and then playing for the Staples Cardinals, graduating in 1994. During this time, I played in the Mid-State Conference, along with Wadena-Deer Creek, Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, Detroit Lakes, and Park Rapids. It was a conference that worked; not only for football, but for all of the different activities. About the time I went through High School, Detroit Lakes got really, really good in football. They won back to back State Titles and ran through Mid-State School like a hot knife through butter.

Somewhere in the late nineties, the Mid-State voted to not offer football anymore. Not only was the competitive balance out of whack, but more classes were added to MSHSL play. Many of the teams moved to the Northern Lakes Conference, a football only conference, along with schools like Warroad, Thief River Falls, Crookston and East Grand Forks. This conference also seemed to “work;” however the travel on Friday nights got longer and longer.

This was about the time I started coaching at Wadena-Deer Creek. During those years, we were graduating upwards of 130 students each year and we were able to compete with the East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls’ of the world. The travel to play teams we would play in our section seemed to make sense from a competitive standpoint. For parents, who traveled on Friday nights to East Grand or Warroad, maybe not so much.

As we moved into the 2000’s, WDC, like many outstate schools, started dealing with declining enrollment. As this happened, we no longer fit playing the larger Northern Lakes schools, so we made the change to the Heart of Lakes Conference, where we hooked up with teams like Pelican Rapids, West Central Area, and Breckenridge. Some of the Northern  Lakes Teams, like Warroad, were going through the same changes and also joined the HOL.

We continued to get smaller and our section changed again, so we made the move to the Prairie Conference, where we currently sit. From a travel standpoint, and a competitive standpoint, we like it and it makes sense. We haven’t lit the world on fire yet, but as we look at graduating classes from 57 in 2013 to leveling out in the 70’s and 80’s it looked like a conference where we could have the right competitive balance and shorter travel on Friday nights. Playing at Menahga, New York Mills or Battle Lake make for an enjoyable evening for parents and players.

Having read the above information, you now have a feel for what has been going on all over the state. Schools have switched conferences and sections and scheduling has become increasingly difficult. One needs only look a few years back here at WDC when we played Pequot Lakes twice during the same season and when we filled our schedule with the likes of Roseville, Cloquet and Proctor to see that even we have had difficulty getting games.

What the league is planning on doing is breaking the state into districts with anywhere from 10-16 teams for football scheduling purposes. The districts would include factors such as size, “like” programs, as well as geographical distance. Schools would then schedule their regular season within those districts. Conferences would go away throughout the state and the districts would be redrawn every two years.

There are many reasons for strong feeling regarding the plan. It can potentially change the landscape for many teams. As I stated earlier in my piece, we are a team that feels pretty good about where we are. We are lucky to be in good conference that works, both from a competitive standpoint and travel wise.

Any time there is a change, there are strong feelings. The league has put good people in place working on this. The preliminary feeling I have based on conversations with those on the scheduling committee is that while our schedule will change some, we are in a good place. I think we will see a few different teams, but overall our travel will be about as good as it is now, which is very good.

The fear really is the unknown. Schools are worried about losing rivals or having to travel further than they currently do. The reality is that the League is charged with doing what is best for all of the kids throughout the great state of Minnesota. They feel, while it may change things for the worse for some, the new district football scheduling will enhance the experience and schedule for the vast majority of schools in the state.

More information will be available on the schedule for 2015 as we move toward September. I will keep the WDC community abreast of changes as they come. I appreciate the work those on the committee are doing and I look forward to what they come up with. Regardless of what the league ultimately decides, there is certain to be a lot of debate amongst coaches, AD’s and football fans throughout the state.  

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