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Prep Football: Area teams not severely affected by new MSHSL district plan

This Sept. 6, 2013 file photo shows Willmar linebacker Colten Carlson, center, and defensive back Trey Tollefson, back, trying to tackle Brainerd running back Logan Davis, left, at Hodapp Field in Willmar. The Cardinals will still get a chance to chase down a win against Brainerd as the teams will be in the same district starting in 2015. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

Area football programs likely won’t experience a completely different landscape in 2015, based on how the state’s new districting plan has been configured.

The Minnesota State High School League announced its placement of 371 football teams into an 18-district alignment.

The plan, which breaks up the traditional conference alignments, was conceived to aid schools having problems scheduling games. For example, programs like Eden Prairie have been forced to play out-of-state teams — the Eagles will even play a non-conference game in Winnipeg this fall — because they were unable to fill out their eight-game schedules with local teams.

The MSHSL’s Board of Directors approved the plan on Monday, and the league claims 90 percent of schools’ requests for preferred opponents were granted.

The 19 Tribune-area teams have been lumped together mostly with teams in their current conferences, plus teams from neighboring leagues. Coaches and athletic directors will meet this summer to determine how to create sub-districts and schedules, either according to geography, enrollments or both.

In two major changes, MACCRAY and Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart will switch to 9-man ball and play in the 26-school 9-West District with teams such as Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, Hancock, Renville County West, Stephen-Argyle and Verndale. They, too, will have schedules built with geography in mind.

Willmar will play in the 22-team North Central District, which is comprise primarily of teams in the Central Lakes and Mississippi 8 conferences. Teams relatively new to the Cardinals include Rogers, St. Michael-Albertville, Cambridge-Isanti, Buffalo and Monticello.

“We’ll be able to stay with our traditional rivalries with some cross-over games,” said Willmar head coach Jon Konold.

“I’m happy to stick with the CLC, and our section already is all of those (Mississippi 8) schools. So far, I’m happy with what’s going on.”

New London-Spicer is in much the same spot it was when it moved to the Wright County Conference several years ago.

The Wildcats, already one of the smaller schools in the WCC, will be joined in the 16-team East Central District by its district brethren and teams from the Granite Ridge Conference, such as Albany, Becker, Foley, Little Falls and St. Cloud Cathedral.

Head coach Dan Essler’s concern is that the Wildcats are able to carve out a competitive schedule against like-sized schools. For example, Hutchinson, the largest WCC program with an adjusted enrollment of 824 students in grades 9-12, is almost three times the size of NLS, which has 383 9-12 students. The next smallest schools in the East Central are Watertown-Mayer (419 students) and Glencoe-Silver Lake (460)

In other sports, the WCC is adding New Prague (1,155) and it’s possible Watertown-Mayer (419) and Rockford (421) could be in the fold in coming years, Essler said, which would allow the district to pair up larger schools against each other and put the smaller schools together.

“It’s going to be virtually the same except for Hutchinson (795), Becker (795) and Delano (724),” Essler said. “Our kids are just going to have to step up. It’s not like we’re facing something we haven’t seen before, but at the same time, I never thought we’d be seeing these schools, ever.”

Teams like Dawson-Boyd and Lac qui Parle Valley will play in the 18-school Southwest District, which mostly a conglomeration of the Camden and Southern Minnesota conferences.

Eight Tribune-area West Central Conference schools are in the 24-school Mid State District, along with Central Minnesota Conference schools, such as BBE. Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, which played in the Prairie Conference last year, will join the Mid State.

Willmar’s transition should go smoothly because the CLC has incorporated somewhat isolated schools of similar size, such as Moorhead and Bemidji, into its non-conference schedule, Konold said.

“Time will tell,” Konold said. “I’m sure there are a handful of schools out there that are not super-excited about districting, but for us it didn’t really change too much. We’ve gone a lot of work over the years to get ready for this and to accommodate the Bemidjis, the Moorheads and the Duluth schools. I think it helped us, in the eyes of the (state’s districting) committee, that our schools already have done some give-and-take and that helped keep us together somewhat.”

Essler, too, said he was pleased that the new regular-season plan won’t carry over into the postseason. Wildcats teams take some lumps during the regular season playing larger WCC programs, but that stiff competition forges stronger teams once back among like-sized schools in the playoffs.

“At least it doesn’t change what happens at the end of the year, with the section thing,” Essler said. “One thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other, so that’s kind of nice.”

Coaches in other sports sometimes wonder why football has six classes and has difficulties with equitable competition, Konold said.

He notes that Willmar, with an enrollment figure of 960, will play schools like Rocori (680) and also Elk River (1,536) and Brainerd (1,627)

“The big thing is, football is such a numbers game,” he said. “You can’t have teams playing teams with twice the enrollment. You’re not looking for five basketball players, you’re trying to find up to 22 guys. To try and make sure the enrollments work makes it more difficult, more challenging. You’re never going to find a perfect system.”

Tom Larson

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

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