St. Francis will compete in the Mississippi 8 Conference for the 2013-14 school year.
The move was made official Tuesday morning in what should renew some traditional rivalries and allow the Saints to compete against more equal schools, both geographically and in program direction.
“We were not actively looking for a switch away from the North Suburban Conference,” St. Francis Activities Director Jeff Fink said as the Mississippi 8 reached out to St. Francis in October 2011 and formally invited the school to be part of the conference in mid-February.
He said the time was right for a switch as teams began to look away from the North Suburban Conference for a number of reasons. Totino-Grace chose to not be part of the conference in football and Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys’ hockey is going to play an independent schedule next season. On the flip-side, Columbia Heights continues to struggle to field enough teams to compete at a competitive level.
“Other schools are being approached for new conferences and we’re trying to be proactive and not be left out begging to join a conference,” Fink said.
As a result, Fink brought a resolution to withdraw from the North Suburban Conference to Tuesday’s District 15 School Board meeting and it was passed by a 7-0 vote. Before the vote, he spelled out the process for coming to the decision.
St. Francis could be part of a three-school conference shift from the North Suburban Conference to the Mississippi 8 Conference.
Fellow North Suburban Conference schools North Branch and Chisago Lakes were sent invitations and Princeton, currently a member of the Granite Ridge Conference, was the other school selected as a prospect for the conference after Becker moved to the Granite Ridge Conference. North Branch and Chisago Lakes had not submitted official documents to leave the North Suburban Conference before this edition went to press.
Current members of the Mississippi 8 Conference are Becker, Big Lake, Buffalo, Cambridge-Isanti, Monticello, Rogers and St. Michael-Albertville and the move could create two, five-school divisions based on geography.Speculation is that the East Division would include Chisago Lakes, North Branch, Princeton, St. Francis and Cambridge-Isanti, while a West Division would include Big Lake, Buffalo, Monticello, Rogers and St. Michael-Albertville.
Monticello Activities Director and Mississippi 8 official Gary Revening said the conference had had its eye on St. Francis for some time.
“We felt St. Francis had everything we’re looking for both competitively and location-wise and it really is a win-win for everyone,” he said.
The conference began looking to fill some openings after Becker announced its intention to move and left the Mississippi 8 with six schools, Revening said. “We knew six schools wasn’t as stable as we’d like and we’d like to get to an even number like 10-12 and St. Francis was one of those we tried to land for next year,” he said. “So we’re really excited for it.
“They fit nicely geographically between Cambridge and [Monticello] and we used to compete with them in the North Suburban.”
Monticello and St. Francis were part of the North Suburban Conference for one season about seven years ago. Revening and Fink coached against each other in baseball.
Fink said the first item he looked at was programming and how the move would work logistically. “Will we match up with the number of sports and activities,” he said, after which he began to meet with each head coach to gauge their interest and get their perspective on the move.
“I met with numerous booster clubs to see if they had any issues and I met with district administration weekly,” Fink said. “The consensus was very much positive from pretty much everyone.”
St. Francis doesn’t offer swimming and diving, but it does offer gymnastics and dance team and North Branch asked to enter into a co-op for girls’ hockey which would remain intact.
On the surface, the move would renew football rivalries with Princeton from the Rum River Conference days, a natural rivalry with Cambridge-Isanti and jump-start others with quickly rising programs in Rogers, St. Michael-Albertville, Buffalo and Monticello. Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld also plan to join the conference only in football.
When it comes to scheduling, having more teams only helps.
“We’ll have a lot of flexibility and with football you want to play teams in your section and class, but we’ll definitely take into account competitive balance,” Revening said. “We don’t want the biggest school beating up the smallest in the conference either.”
Another example of the new landscape comes in gymnastics where the Saints have dominated the North Suburban Conference, winning more than five straight conference titles. With the move, they will compete against perennial powers like Cambridge-Isanti, Big Lake, Rogers and Monticello.
Fink said St. Francis has always had a great relationship with the North Suburban Conference with a nice core group of teams. “We’re thankful for our time in the conference and hopefully they’ll continue to stick together,” he said. “It was a good place for us to be in, but with the changes coming in football this might be a good change for us.”
No decision has been made with regard to a conference name change to reflect how many teams are included. “In early talks we might keep it the same, like Big Ten or Big 12, but once we get the new ADs in we’ll discuss that,” Revening said. “But no, that question hasn’t come up yet.”
That major change comes in the form of an additional class to make football a six-class-system sport.
There is no doubt that another reason for the change comes from a competitive balance standpoint in which the two private schools in the North Suburban Conference won many more conference titles over the years.
According to Fink, the 2010-11 season was a typical example as Benilde-St. Margaret’s won 18 titles followed by Totino-Grace with 13 and Spring Lake Park’s nine. St. Francis won five and St. Louis Park had six. “Competitively this gives us a better chance to compete for conference titles and prepare us better for sections,” Fink said.
Benilde and Totino have both opted out of conference games in different sports, creating a void in scheduling and an unbalanced conference. Benilde will be an independent boys’ hockey program next season and Totino football hasn’t been part of the conference for a couple of seasons. In the new conference, St. Francis would be the second largest school in terms of enrollment behind Buffalo and ahead of Cambridge-Isanti.
Where does this leave the Panthers?
Spring Lake Park has an interesting dilemma to determine what is best for its future as a first-ring suburban school.
First-year Spring Lake Park activities director Matt St. Martin joined the district last August after serving in a similar role at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.
“There has been a lot of conference realignment and we’ve certainly talked about it at our conference activity directors meetings since November,” he said. “It’s the right move for St. Francis to make, both geographically and for their programs. Chisago Lakes and North Branch too.
“The changing landscape in our conference over the last two years has created a legitimate concern if [the North Suburban Conference] will exist. We’re not closing the doors on anybody and we’re all being hesitant of how [the conference moves] affect everybody.
“The North Suburban Conference has survived eight years with a broad socio-economic base and the question is where do we see Spring Lake Park in that. We’re looking at options for staying in this conference, joining another or possibly a new opportunity. We’re keeping all our options open to see what opportunities present themselves.”
St. Martin believes this is the first domino to fall in what potentially can be a sizable shift. “We’re waiting to see what happens but I’m meeting with three other North Suburban Conference schools and four schools from the Classic Suburban Conference soon,” he said.
St. Martin said the Panthers have mixed emotions about certain programs opting out of the conference schedule. “We’re in favor of [Benilde] to get better competition, because we’re not competitive with them and I don’t feel anyone wins in those situations,” he said.
Jason Olson is at email@example.com