Football: Brainerd back to 5A, Pierz, Aitkin in new sections highlight realignment
Area teams see a shuffle in sections as realignment is announced last week. Brainerd no longer in 6A. Pierz joins Pequot Lakes in Section 7-3A and Aitkin is with Crosby-Ironton in Section 7-2A
BRAINERD — Brainerd won’t have to worry about playing in Class 6A for another two years.
When the Minnesota State High School League released the new section alignments Friday, April 7, the Warriors found themselves back in Section 8-5A after spending the last two years in Class 6A.
Brainerd’s enrollment ranked 37th in the state at 1,582 students, which was 48 behind Rochester Mayo who was the 32nd in the state and jumped to Class 6A. The top 32 schools are designated for 6A football.
“I don’t think it changes much of anything,” Brainerd head coach Jason Freed said. “We’ve talked about this before, but it’s one of our goals to keep and maintain our local rivalries. I think in terms of the big picture and postseason play the road still runs through most of the metro schools and whether it was playing 6A or playing 5A you can argue in the top end of 5A there are a lot of really, really good teams. A lot of them are located on the outer ring of the metro. Your mindset to get through postseason play still has to be to get through high-level football teams. Whether it’s 5A or 6A, the level of football you want to get to at the end of the season is still the same.”
The Warriors join Alexandria, Bemidji, Moorhead, Sartell and St. Cloud Tech in Section 8-5A. Moorhead was 33rd in the state in enrollment just four students off Rochester Mayo from making the jump to Class 6A.
Since 2000, the Warriors have won six Section 8-5A titles with the most recent one coming in 2017.
“The last couple of years it was still nice to play those teams in 5A because those are the teams we play in every one of our sports,” Freed said. “At the same time, you knew in the back of your mind you didn't know how seeding would turn out the last two years. Now, knowing we are going to be playing all the teams in our section and that they’ll be on our regular-season schedule, it brings back the importance of those games.”
Brainerd isn’t the only school moving classes in football. Aitkin moved down to Class 2A and is in Section 7-2A with rival Crosby-Ironton.
The two teams, who play every year for the Stump, now could see each other in the postseason.
“The move just amplifies the game in the regular season now,” C-I head coach Bryan Syrstad said. “Not only in our section, but also in our rivalry. Our whole section got revamped as you went from five teams to eight teams, so you get rid of byes and everyone has to play that Tuesday.”
Aitkin spent the last few years in Section 7-3A where they reached the section final in 2021.
“We’ve always thought that we are much more of a 2A-type team,” Aitkin head coach Alan Hills said. “We were on the bottom end of 3A football and we feel we fit in better at 2A, so we are excited about moving down a class and being back where we belong. Out of the last four years, we’ve been to three section finals, so we’ve had some pretty good teams. But you also get the opportunity to not have to feel like you have to be at your best to have a chance to win and advance. The teams that move on are going to be good regardless of class, but now we don’t have to be at our peak to play in a section final and have a chance to go to state.”
In Section 7-3A, Pequot Lakes is joined by Class 3A powerhouse Pierz. The Pioneers, who have won three state titles in Class 3A, join Section 7-3A with Esko who’s won the section the last two seasons.
“It adds another very quality opponent,” Magnuson said. “We added Hibbing as well who bumped down. The challenges are there to make it more challenging to make a section final, but if you get out of there you should have a chance to do well at state.”
Magunson said the Patriots haven’t played Pierz in a regular-season game since he’s been coach, but they always scrimmage them in the preseason.
“We’ve been in their scrimmage for the last six years and it’s a great test to go against Pierz,” Magnuson said. “We have a lot of respect for each other and it makes it a very fun scrimmage and could make for a fun game in the playoffs.”
In Nine-Man, Verndale jumped from Section 4 to Section 5. It’s a move Pirates head coach Mike Mahlen anticipated since last year Section 5 only had four teams.
“Some of the other sections were a little upset about that since they were the only section with four teams,” Mahlen said. “Section 4 added Ottertail Central, so I figured we’d be going to Section 5.”
Section 5, nine-man now has eight teams as they added some of Verndale’s rivals in Sebeka and Bertha-Hewitt.
“It’s good that we kept our two closest rivals,” Mahlen said. “Not counting those two teams, I figured mileage would be 499 miles going east and going west like we did last year was 494, so it didn’t really add much mileage.”
Verndale won’t have to play Wheaton/Herman-Norcross, who beat the Pirates the last two years in the Section 4 final.
“That part doesn’t break my heart,” Mahlen said with a chuckle.
The Pirates are in the same section as Cromwell-Wright who has made three state tournament appearances in the last seven seasons.
“Cromwell has always been good,” Mahlen said. “This is nothing new though. We were over in that section in the 90s when we played Cromwell and Nevis.”
Overall, Freed said he tries to focus on what he can control when it comes to realignment.
“For 80% of the state it doesn’t make a difference,” Freed said. “What makes it tough is when you are a bubble team like we have been. It creates a lot of unknowns and you don’t know where you fall. We were waiting to see whether we would be in or out and ended up being like six teams who missed out on 6A based on the numbers. When you are on the bubble and see the shuffle, it gives you a little sense of uneasiness, but it happens at all levels.”
Other notable realignments
Pequot Lakes stays in Class 2A for most sports including basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball.
The Patriots however moved down in girls’ tennis back to Class 1A and will play in Section 7-1A with Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton and Pierz. Pequot was in Section 7-2A with Brianerd. The Warriors moved from Section 7-2A to Section 8-2A in girls’ tennis, but not boys’ tennis.
Pequot Lakes remained in Section 6-2A for volleyball, but Wadena-Deer Creek did not, so a rematch of the five-set match in the Section 6-2A semifinals won’t happen as the Wolverines are now in Section 8-2A.
Wrestling saw a shakeup in Section 8-3A. Little Falls moved down to Section 7-2A while Monticello took the Flyers’ spot in Section 8-3A with Brainerd.
Aitkin moved down to Section 7-1A which is the same section as Crosby-Ironton and Staples-Motley.
Boys hockey stayed the same for Little Falls, who remained in Section 5-1A, and Northern Lakes and Wadena-Deer Creek, who stayed in Section 6-1A.
In boys’ basketball, Section 8-4A added Sauk Rapids with Brainerd to give the section nine teams. In girls’ basketball, Section 8-4A also added Sauk Rapids while St. Cloud moved down to Section 8-3A.
CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.