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Summers cut short for 2 area prep football teams

WILLMAR -- Summer vacation will be a little shorter and the football season will be a little longer for two area prep teams this year.

Minnewaska Area and MACCRAY are among 12 Minnesota high school football programs that, for the first time in 2011, will be allowed to open practices a week earlier and play their first games of the season a week earlier under new Minnesota State High School League rules designed to aid teams that encounter scheduling problems.

"It's the lesser of all other evils, and we're happy to have an eighth game," said Minnewaska Area head coach Steve Hill. "We're none too happy that summer is ending a week earlier, but in the long run we won't even remember it once the season gets going."

Historically, Minnesota prep football programs begin practicing the third week of August and play their first games at the end of the month or in the first days in September. All other teams in the area open practices this year on Aug. 15 and play season-openers the first two days in September.

This year, under what has been termed "zero week" scheduling, Minnewaska Area begins practicing Monday.

The Lakers will travel to play at St. Peter on Aug. 26 and MACCRAY will play host to Mankato Loyola on Aug. 27. MACCRAY and Minnewaska Area will engage in a two-team scrimmage at 10 a.m., Aug. 19, in Maynard.

"In my 28 years in coaching, this is the first time we'll be starting earlier," said MACCRAY head coach Mike Dammann, adding with a laugh, "If us and Minnewaska had known we were both in this situation, we probably would have played each other. But it works out good for us. (Mankato Loyola's) also a Class A school so it won't hurt us for the playoffs, and they'll be good competition."

Because of increasing movement among teams between conferences in recent years, the MSHSL is allowing for "zero week" scheduling. Students, parents and teachers in some school districts are familiar with the concept, in which students enroll in "zero hour" courses that are taught outside the regular school day schedule. For example, students might take "zero hour" choir classes that are taught before the regular school day begins.

The MSHSL began looking into "zero week" scheduling about two years ago when schools increasingly reported difficulties finding playing partners, said Howard Voigt, the MSHSL's Director of Information.

The MSHSL board of directors assigned a task force to examine the problem and suggest remedies for it. "Zero week" was the best option available, with a caveat being that programs which opt for it to secure an early season game must also take off a "bye week," with a somewhat limited practice schedule, later in the season, Voigt said.

"They have to apply to our office so we know what's happening and we can monitor it," said Voigt, who added that the MSHSL also maintains a clearinghouse so teams needing a game can seek out suitable opponents in a similar situation.

"It's essentially trading a game in October for one at the beginning of the season," he said. "It's probably a temporary solution but we'll see how it goes."

Some teams have grappled with non-league scheduling in some way, shape or form for years -- hence, the formation of the MSHSL task force. But the issue reached critical mass last season when two of the state's premier programs -- Eden Prairie and Wayzata -- had to go looking beyond the state's borders in an attempt to fill out their schedules.

Eden Prairie played a Canadian team and Wayzata was making arrangements to bring in a prep team from Florida before those plans fell through, Voigt said.

The recent flux of teams leaving conferences to join other ones, or banding together to form new leagues, has exacerbated that scheduling predicament.

MACCRAY, which plays in the Little Sioux Conference, found out last November that it would no longer have an agreement with a team for its sixth game of this season's schedule and also in 2012, Dammann said.

After searching for a replacement matchup, Dammann said two of the options open for the Class A Wolverines were to play St. Thomas Academy, which last season was 11-0 before losing to eventual state champion Totino-Grace in the state Class AAAA semifinals, or play Holy Family Catholic, which was 13-0 before falling to Rochester Lourdes in the Class AAA state championship game last fall.

"Those really weren't options for us," he said.

Minnewaska Area was in the same boat, Hill said.

Long Prairie-Grey Eagle dropped out of the West Central Conference, leaving the remaining teams with an open date. Before that happened, Hill was reading about the "zero week" option in a MSHSL publication. He never dreamed it would apply to his program.

"If fact, when I read it, I remember thinking, 'I feel for those poor suckers who are going to have to play zero week games,' " Hill said with a laugh. "Next thing you know, it's us."

Like MACCRAY, Minnewaska Area had very few viable choices.

"Either we take a bye and play seven games, which kills our playoff chances, or we play a bigger school from the metro area," Hill said. "Most of those are (Class AAAA) schools and we're (Class AA). It really wasn't an option. (Zero week) is the least objectionable option."

Rather than curse their fates, Dammann and Hill have chosen to embrace their unique circumstances.

After numerous emails between the schools to arrange the time and place -- including a failed attempt to try and play at a neutral site like Southwest Minnesota State -- Dammann said MACCRAY and Mankato Loyola settled on squaring off in Maynard and splitting the gate receipts.

"It's going to be interesting," he said. "It's definitely something new."

Hill recalled a 2000 meeting between Minnewaska Area and St. Peter, in which the Lakers went ahead 22-0 in the first half only to lose by a touchdown.

"That was a real good game and they were a good opponent," Hill said. "I'm sure there will be a tear or two shed Sunday night that we have to get going on football practice, but I think it will be OK."

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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