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Commentary: Prep football embraces for change

Mike Schmidt made a woman cry.

The Staples-Motley activities director spoke honestly and eloquently Thursday in front of 20 Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) board members at the Brooklyn Center office.

Schmidt explained the erosion of enthusiasm for Friday night football in his community and others like it.

“We travel too far and too wide,” said Schmidt. “Our Friday night lights are dimming in outstate Minnesota. Our football travel budget is bigger than basketball. We had a volleyball gate that was bigger than football.”

Schmidt’s comments, which he said had one woman in tears, were in the context of the MSHSL’s discussion to institute districts for regular season football scheduling purposes.

The board voted 19-1 to approve districts, which will take effect beginning with the 2015 season. John Millea, MSHSL’s media specialist, said a statewide committee will decide on district lineups in the spring. The board of directors will approve those districts over the summer.

Schools with football teams grouped into the same districts will be able to meet no later than August with a goal of finalizing football schedules for 2015 and 2016 by Nov. 1.

So what are football districts? According to Millea’s posts on the MSHSL web site:

• Scheduling groups would be created around the state, based on factors that include school size, geography, “like schools” and strength of programs. The groups should consist of at least 16 or more schools whenever possible. The minimum size of any group is 10 schools. Districts could include teams from more than one class.

• A placement committee with representatives from all areas of the state would place schools into scheduling groups. Those decisions would be reviewed by the MSHSL’s Activities Director Advisory Committee and would have to be approved by the MSHSL board of directors.

• Districts would be realigned every two years to make adjustments for enrollment changes, changes in nine-man teams, changes in cooperative programs and changes due to programs being dropped, school consolidations, etc.

• A guideline is that the enrollment difference in any group should be no more than a ratio of 2-to-1, and when possible the ratio would be less than 2-to-1.

• All schools would be able to provide information to the placement committee, including important rivalries, willingness to play against larger schools, travel issues or a willingness to travel farther for a competitive schedule.

• Class 6A would follow the same plan as other classes, and some Class 5A teams may be included in groups with 6A teams based on enrollment and geography.

• Each school must play all eight of its regular-season games within its district. The only exceptions are districts with an odd number of schools. In that case, Zero Week games may be used to provide a full schedule or games could be scheduled against out-of-state teams.

• Each district would create schedules for teams in the district. Districts may create conferences or other sub-groups within the district for scheduling purposes.

• The section playoff format would remain the same as it is currently, with section seeding based on regular-season results.

Initial reactions were mixed among area football coaches and activities directors. Schmidt was in favor of the proposal.

“It makes sense for outstate Minnesota to go play the communities right next door,” he said. “It allows for families not to have to work so hard to get to games and events. This model is about neighboring schools playing neighboring schools. Rivalries and traditions are only relevant to those who lived them. Kids from 2013 really don’t care about 1989 games.”

Staples-Motley’s football schedule last fall included road trips to Breckenridge, Warroad, Detroit Lakes and Glyndon. Next season, the Cardinals will have to travel to Roseau. S-M hasn’t played Wadena-Deer Creek since 2010. The only other area team S-M plays is Pequot Lakes.

“We pass through 31 other towns we would love to pull over and play,” said Schmidt. “Outstate football is all about Friday night lights and families being families and playing a game with neighboring communities. I can’t defend our current schedule. I just want to do what is right for our kids, our families and our communities.

“Football, despite being a game of numbers, every program has its ups and downs. We have great numbers in our youth football and junior high, but once they get to the varsity we’re asking an awful lot of our families. It’s not just the activities fees, it’s leaving work early to get to Warroad. It’s pumping almost $400 worth of gas to get to all these places. That’s just crazy.”

Little Falls Flyers’ head coach Jay DeCann understands Schmidt’s point of view, but he’s not in favor of fixing what isn’t broken for everyone.

According to DeCann, Little Falls won 30 games in 30 years as members of the Central Lakes Conference (CLC). There is fear the Flyers, who left the CLC for the Granite Ridge Conference three years ago, will be stuck back with many of those same teams.

“I look at the work (former Flyers activities director) Aaron Sinclair went through to try and get Little Falls into a better situation,” said DeCann. “It wasn’t just for football, but for our girls athletics as well. I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens. But it’s three years of work by Aaron and we could be put right back where we left. It took us three or four years to get things rolling, and like a flick of a switch that could be reversed pretty fast.”

DeCann threw out a number of questions that won’t be answered until June 2.

“We don’t know how big of a district we would be in. You don’t know how many teams. It could be 10, 12 or a 14-team district. You just don’t know. They say you’re going to have like schools. Well, here at Little Falls we’re sitting at 40 percent reduced lunch students. Across the board I don’t know how many CLC schools have that kind of a number,” he said.

One thing that is for sure is the modern day conferences are likely done and that doesn’t sit well with Pierz’s activities director and assistant football coach Dave Rocheleau. He said the biggest loss will be the relationships with other schools and between the athletes.

“In our boys game against Kimball, they presented the team with a game ball, signed by all their players for our injured student Matt Athman. It said, ‘Wishing you the best Matt.’ Those ties that have been developed and those relationships, you aren’t going to get those by changing every two years,” he said.

Rocheleau said if a clearer picture of what was going to happen was presented he’d probably be for the change.

That echoed DeCann’s opinion.

“If we could have seen what this would look like before it would have been better,” said DeCann. “There was a survey each school took and only 20 percent of the schools were for it. They didn’t even ask the football coaches association what they thought. There are currently 18 percent of the schools who are having issues with scheduling. I knew it was going to pass, but I was shocked it was a 19-1 vote.”

One misconception that keeps being expressed is this was a metro school problem. Schmidt said that’s not the case at all. DeCann agreed.

“Fingers pointed at Eden Prairie and Wayzata,” said DeCann. “But a lot of those comments for needing this were from outstate schools who are having trouble scheduling games. You can’t point the figure at the big schools only.”

Crosby-Ironton football coach Mike Gindorff said there isn’t much to get excited about right now. He’ll get excited when the proposed districts are announced.

“In our conference (Polar Alliance) we didn’t have a problem,” he said. “We have 17 teams already and we crossed over with the Sea Range. It could impact our conference if some of the schools get pulled out. I could see Pine City going south. It just depends on where they start drawing lines from. We could end up any place. You just have to wait and see where they put you.”

Randy Schwegel, Pine River-Backus activities director and former head football coach, was for it.

“What a Godsend,” Schwegel said. “They’ve been talking about this for years. I hate having to break up our conference, but we had a situation this year that kind of ticked me off. We had to redo our football schedule three times, so I’m jumping on board. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Conferences are adding and dropping teams all the time.”

Schedules for Brainerd and Verndale likely won’t change much because of their respective sizes. Verndale being a nine-man can’t go play 11-man schools; and Brainerd, because of the 2-to-1 ratio, won’t be playing Pequot Lakes anytime soon.

But Pillager vs. Staples-Motley, Little Falls vs. Pequot Lakes, Aitkin vs. Wadena-Deer Creek, Crosby-Ironton vs. Pine River-Backus are all realistic possibilities if current enrollments remain similar.

Like the coaches and teams, area prep football fans will just have to wait and see who ends up where.

Area enrollment (9th-12 grades)

According to MSHSL

Brainerd: 1,616

Little Falls: 694

Pequot Lakes: 430

Aitkin: 344

Pierz: 329

Staples-Motley: 302

Crosby-Ironton: 296

Wadena-Deer Creek: 246

Pillager: 198

Pine River-Backus: 177

Verndale: 121

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
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