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Athletics: Pequot Lakes to make conference move in 2023

Pequot Lakes making a move to Granite Ridge. What does it mean for the rest of the Mid-State?

Pequot Lakes Patriots girls basketball during the 2022 Class 2A State Tournament.
Pequot Lakes Patriots girls basketball during the 2022 Class 2A State Tournament.
Bill Johnson / Picture Day Pro!
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Pequot Lakes is switching conferences.

After years in the Mid-State Conference, the Patriots will be moving to the Granite Ridge Conference starting in 2023-24.

The change will make Pequot Lakes the most northern Granite Ridge team with Little Falls, Pierz, Mora, Milaca, Albany, St. Cloud Cathedral and Foley. In a corresponding move, Zimmerman will leave the Granite Ridge for the Mississippi 8 Conference.

When Pequot Lakes activities director Byron Westrich took over in 2020, he was concerned about the size of the Mid-State and whether it would stay together.

Byron Westrich.jpg
Byron Westrich

“Because of our size as a school and some other schools I started planting the seed to some local conferences that we might be looking to make a change,” he said. “In December, the Granite Ridge made an informal invitation to a meeting and we visited about the specifics.”

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After sitting down with his coaches, Westrich got the OK to try and pursue the switch to the Granite Ridge and a formal invite from the conference shortly followed.

“We got school board approval and then the Minnesota State High School League just needs to be notified, they don’t have to approve the process,” Westrich said.

One of the big reasons for the switch has to do with the Fine Arts. Westrich believes the Granite Ridge provides more opportunities for kids to compete in speech, one act as well as band and choir. The other component was the schools in the Granite Ridge have a similar enrollment size to Pequot.

“That gives us more level of play,” Westrich said. “A perfect example is volleyball. Instead of having just a JV and varsity, we can have four levels of play and that’ll be in a few different sports.”

Another jump Pequot might make in the future is going from Class 2A to Class 3A, which Westrich said was in the back of his mind when debating on switching conferences.

“It was a big factor,” he said. “With our growing enrollment, it’s important for us to compete against similar sized schools.”

Although Pequot Lakes won’t be sharing a conference with Mid-State teams anymore expect to still see them on Patriots’ schedules as non-conference games.

“This is by far the most difficult place I’ve had to schedule non-conference games,” Westrich said, who previously was the AD at Kimball for six years and Upsala for two years. “Part of the reason is because I had to schedule more of them, but the other part is our size is not appealing to other schools like us in the area. 3A schools don’t want to play us and it’s a lot of traveling for 2A schools. It is really hard.”

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Westrich admitted it wasn’t easy leaving the already established rivalries and relationships Pequot built in the Mid-State.

“The only drawback is the camaraderie and coaching fraternity the Mid-State has brought Pequot,” Westrich said. “Pequot has been very fortunate to be a part of the Mid-State. It’s a great group of schools and an even greater group of people that we get to work with. That’s the hardest thing.”

So what happens to the Mid-State?

Detroit Lakes seems to be the queen on the chessboard when it comes to keeping the Mid-State intact with the current schools of Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, Staples-Motley and Park Rapids.

As of now the plan for the Lakers is to stay put.

“We were disappointed when Pequot decided to leave,” Detroit Lakes activities director Rob Nielsen said. “I’ve been in Detroit Lakes working here for 30 years, not as activities director, but in the district, and these discussions come up periodically. To be honest, the Mid-State has been a pretty good fit for us most of the time.”

Detroit Lakes is in a similar situation to Pequot Lakes as a bigger school in the Mid-State, but unlike Pequot, the Lakers have no problem getting a beefy non-conference schedule.

Other options for Detroit Lakes could be the Heart of the Lakes Conference which features schools like Perham, Pelican Rapids and Frazee.

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“We are already playing those teams in non-conference games already,” Nielsen said. “We don’t gain much from making them conference opponents and then all of the sudden Aitkin probably wouldn’t travel all the way to DL and I wouldn’t blame them if they aren’t part of the conference. To me, I don’t think we really gain anything from leaving the Mid-State.”

Another option would be to join the Central Lakes Conference, but even then the closest team would be Fergus Falls which is two hours from Detroit Lakes.

“To go somewhere else I don't know if we would get anything different,” Nielsen said. “I think what Pequot was looking for was a little more consistency at all the levels and to be honest that hasn’t been a real challenge for us. There are plenty of schools in our area that will play us on the JV and ninth-grade levels if we need to fill in and that’s been good.”

Nielsen admits the Mid-State days might be numbered.

“I think we got one more year with Pequot Lakes in the conference and everyone will be thinking in the fall and spring about what the future of the Mid-State Conference is,” he said. “Everyone hates to see it go, but it might be a reality. It’s all still talk now.”

Nielsen said a challenge for the Mid-State is for it to grow.

“I think that will be hard with us still there,” he said. “I think other schools would be interested in coming into the Mid-State if we weren’t there. I guess I don’t know where the Mid-State is headed. I guess we have to start shopping around a little bit because I think as the conference loses schools, other schools in the conference are going to look at other conferences in their area.”

Westrich said most of the other schools in the Mid-State were not surprised that Pequot made this move. He added what they did, probably put Detroit Lakes on watch.

“I feel a little bit bad for the Mid-State,” he said. “I think us leaving might help because maybe two or three schools of similar size will move in to make it a stronger conference. We kind of put Detroit Lakes on edge because they are similar in size to us and probably might look for another conference. I think if Detroit Lakes does find a conference of similar size to them as we did it might help the Mid-State. Until something happens with Detroit Lakes and some other schools, it’ll take some time to happen.”

Detroit Lakes is the only 3A school in the Mid-State currently.

“If you start looking at conferences they are kind of all the same to a certain degree,” Nielsen said. “It isn’t like we’ve been dominant in anything. We had a good run of football in the 90s,. We had a good run in boys and girls golf for a while, but you start looking at other sports and other teams have taken turns at being the top dog. So it’s not like we roll over anyone.

“Most of the better programs embrace having to play us twice a year. We go and play Moorhead a couple of times a year. That’s a good check to see where you're at. I think our Mid-State teams have embraced that for the most part.”

As for a plan, Nielsen wants to work with the teams in the Mid-State and explore options that come.

“We want to try and do what’s best for everyone,” he said. “We have a great group of leaders in the conference and activities directors that want what’s best for the kids.”

CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or conrad.engstrom@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.

Started at the Dispatch in June of 2019.
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