Changes coming for football scheduling

This fall might the last go-around for football conferences in the current format.

Not because the conference is going away, but because of a change in how the Minnesota State High School League will have its members schedule games.

The Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors Jan. 23 voted to restructure regular season football by approving a district football scheduling proposal.

The plan, designed to help schools that have had trouble scheduling their full complement of eight regular-season games, will divide schools into districts of at least 10, and preferably 16 or more schools, with proximity and similar enrollments among the criteria for placement. Schools within a district then would collaborate to create schedules for each team. The plan will take effect in 2015.

Section and state playoff formats would not change.

Districts could have teams from more than one of six enrollment classes, and there is no assurance that all schools within a conference would be placed in the same district.

The MSHSL board approved the proposal 19-1, with Rosemount High School Athletic Director Mike Manning casting the lone dissenting vote.

A committee will be formed in the spring to determine district lineups, with the goal to have them approved at the June 2 MSHSL board meeting. Districts then would begin work on scheduling for the 2015 and 2016 seasons with a Nov. 1 deadline to have them completed.

MSHSL Associate Director Kevin Merkle gave the board results of a football survey that found 18 percent of member schools currently had challenges scheduling regular season football games and 41 percent had had difficulty with scheduling within the past 10 years. Many of those schools are in outstate Minnesota and they either had to travel long distances to play a game or went with a week unfilled on their schedules.

Football scheduling also is a problem for several of Minnesota’s largest high schools. Eden Prairie, the 2013 state Class 6A champion, played only seven regular season games this past season, as did Wayzata. Both play in the Lake Conference, which has five schools, leaving teams four spots for non-conference games.

To relieve the burden, the Northwest Suburban Conference offered to schedule six games for four seasons.

Andover Activities Director Eric Lehtola compiles the football schedule for the Northwest Suburban Conference and said the announcement could be good or bad for his program and the other current conference members.

“We’ve been feeling challenges to the football schedule for years now,” Lehtola said, initially when Armstrong applied to join the NWSC to make it 11 schools. Elk River decided to move to the Mississippi 8 Conference for football for two seasons and Totino-Grace also joined the conference only in football before making the leap to all activities now. The NWSC has reached 14 teams now with the addition of Spring Lake Park and Irondale for the 2014-15 season.

“We want to see what the districts are going to look like,” Lehtola said, referring to a possibility of merging with programs like St. Francis, Elk River, Forest Lake and Cambridge-Isanti.

According to Lehtola, the other option would be to join with west metro schools like Minnetonka, Wayzata and Eden Prairie. “We’re not happy with that,” Lehtola said. “We {Andover} are already a 5A school and we don’t want to be the only 5A school in a 6A district.”

St. Francis Activities Director Jeff Fink said one reason the Saints moved into the Mississippi 8 Conference before the 2014 season was to return to more natural opponents like Chisago Lakes, Cambridge-Isanti and Rogers.

The Saints left the North Suburban Conference looking to develop those historical rivalries, cut down on travel expenses and possibly increase the number of fans coming to games on both sides of the field.

“Football really sets the tone for the rivalries for the whole year and it would be sad if we play different people than any other conference [activity],” Fink said, referring to what he sees as a move that could go in three directions – south to join Anoka, Blaine, Andover, Coon Rapids; north to join Brainerd, Bemidji, Moorhead and Duluth or something similar to the current format against other northern teams like Princeton, Buffalo and Rogers.

“I would hope our conference stays together with 12 teams, but if we lose some of those rivalries it would be interesting,” Fink said. “I’m concerned with who we would get grouped with. We’re not interested to play some of the teams in the North Suburban [Conference] and the one way to develop those traditions is by playing teams over and over again.”

Fink talked about some of the real challenges from a smaller gate or ticket sales from visiting programs. “Our old conference football gate receipts weren’t good,” he said. “We didn’t have teams that traveled well whereas we have Rogers and Cambridge that travel really well and that helps us make up our budget.”

Booster clubs help as much as they can by providing funds for helmets and other safety equipment, but Fink estimates the school spends $50,000 on coaches alone.

The high school league does have some scheduling idiosyncrasies.

Because the regular season is limited to eight games, teams can’t play all of the other schools in the conference in the same year. Some teams play conference opponents in all eight of their regular season games, while others play seven conference games and one non-conference game.

Earlier start in 2015

The MSHSL board also approved an earlier start to the 2015 football season, made necessary because the Prep Bowl is expected to take place two weeks earlier than usual.

The 2014 and 2015 Prep Bowls will be at TCF Bank Stadium. Because of University of Minnesota games already scheduled, Nov. 13-14 are the only weekend dates in November 2015 that the stadium is available to the MSHSL.

In 2015, preseason practices will start Aug. 10, one week earlier than usual. Teams will be able to play games beginning Saturday, Aug. 22. Games are likely to replace the scrimmages that many teams schedule at the end of the second week of practice. The change means most teams will have played three games before the opening day of school.

The change is likely to be for the 2015 season only because the MSHSL is expected to move the Prep Bowl to the new Minnesota Vikings stadium when it opens in 2016.

Four class softball

The MSHSL board also approved a proposal to expand the state softball tournament from three classes to four beginning in 2016. The tournament is expected to remain at its present location, Caswell Park in North Mankato.

Editor’s note: Mike Shaughnessy, SunThisweek and Dakota County Tribune sports editor, contributed to this story.

Jason Olson is at
jason.olson@ecm-inc.com

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