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Left out, NLS takes a Wright

New London-Spicer will lose State Highway 23 rival Paynesville on its schedule when it joins the Wright County next fall. In one of the most exciting games in the long series, the Wildcats came from behind in the last minute to beat the Bulldogs 33-28 at New London. Here, NLS back Ronnie Johnson runs for first-half yardage. Before joining the West Central Conference in 1981, both teams were members of the West Lake Conference. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.

By Rand Middleton

NEW LONDON -- On Sept. 23, New London-Spicer's football team will play at Holy Family Catholic in Victoria, on State Highway 5 just west of Eden Prairie. The 91-mile trip will match the program that produced the 2009 Class AAA state champion with the 2010 AAA runner-up.

Besides Prep Bowl finals, the two schools have this in common: they've been tumbled from their old conference and will end up in the sprawling Wright County Conference in 2012.

That means the Wildcats and their fans will be chanting "Eastward, ho!" for all conference clashes.

NLS has been in the West Central Conference team since 1981, more recently in the larger-enrollment North Division.

The Wright County football schedule for 2012 has been approved: at Mound-Westonka, Waconia, at Litchfield, Glencoe-Silver Lake, at Dassel-Cokato, Annandale, at Holy Family Catholic, Albany (non-conference).

For football, NLS is in the West Division with Annandale, Litchfield, Dassel-Cokato and Glencoe-SL.

West teams play three crossover games with the East and one crossover with Granite Ridge. NLS will continue to meet Albany as part of its crossover. Volleyball will be one division meeting each team once.

Peak years for NLS in boys basketball (state champions 2010) and football likely contributed to becoming a castaway.

Schools are fortunate to have that kind of success once in a generation; they came to New London and Spicer at the same time the school's 9-12 enrollments peaked.

Now enrollment is on a down slop, as at many rural districts.

New London-Spicer never wanted to leave the comfort of the West Central. But the West Central North had crumbled with the defection of Foley, St. Cloud Cathedral, Milaca and Mora to form the new Granite Ridge. Albany has been accepted for 2012.

John Vraa, NLS athletic director, knew the school had to do something or face a year or more of being an independent while waiting in a competitive purgatory for placement by the MSHSL. The administration made the commitment to the Wright and gained acceptance.

Meantime, the Dutchmen up in Melrose will be orphaned after this school year and must wait for a conference placement by the high-school league..

The West Central reformed last spring along enrollment lines. Melrose, Albany and NLS were excluded. It will be a 10-team conference beginning 2012-13 with all the West Central schools which the West Central Tribune covers, plus Sauk Centre.

Based on predicted MSHSL 2013-15 enrollments (9th-12th), Montevideo would be the largest at 371 students down to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City at 182.

NLS projected numbers are 390, down from a high of 520 for 2007-09.

"We asked the West Central South schools to have some patience and try and work with us," said Vraa.

After all, NLS had been in the legendary conference since dissolution of the West Lake 30 years ago. NLS administrator Ron Dobbs, now retired, had been the league's executive secretary for 17 years.

NLS, Albany and Melrose looked at forming a new conference along with Annandale and Litchfield and Dassel-Cokato. Distances and school sizes were ideal. Talks were promising but Dassel-Cokato seemed to lose interest and a five-team league wasn't judged to be viable.

The Wright will form two divisions in some other sports, besides football, depending on number of schools and contest limits.

Waconia and Orono seem destined for a larger confederacy. Current 9-12 enrollment is 996 and 876, respectively, and Delano is at 735 in another area attracting young families.

(Willmar went through a similar relocation in 1977 when it outgrew the West Central and became a founding member of the Central Lakes Conference. Gone were the local rivalries, all within an hour's drive; suddenly fans had to travel two and three hours to outposts at Brainerd, Cambridge and Elk River).

While NLS must build new rivalries in football staring in 2012, post-season football will be a return to the familiar foes of yesterday. The new Section 6AAA will have Albany, Melrose, Montevideo, Morris, Sauk Centre and NLS.

Noting that cozy fit, Vraa can only wish that discussion toward football conferences based on sections would have become the MSHSL standard. That way, in all other sports, NLS might still be a part of the venerable West Central Conference.

West Central (2012-2013) -- Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, BOLD, Yellow Medicine East, Montevideo, Lac qui Parle Valley, Benson, Morris, Minnewaska, Paynesville, Sauk Centre.

Wright County (2012-2013) -- New London-Spicer, Litchfield, Annandale, Dassel-Cokato, Delano, Hutchinson, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Mound Westonka, Orono, Winona.

Granite Ridge (2012-2013) -- Foley, Milaca, Little Falls, St. Cloud Cathedral, Milaca, Princeton, Mora, Becker, Albany.