Fall high school sports: Get ready for a whole new look
Times they are a-changin’. And for the seven schools in the former Southwest Conference, that means entering a new chapter in their programs as part of the Big South Conference.
The new conference is a merger between the Southwest and former South Central conferences. The seven schools from the Southwest: Worthington, Luverne, Jackson County Central, Windom Area, Pipestone Area, Marshall and Redwood Valley — join the six schools from the South Central: Waseca, Fairmont, Blue Earth Area, St. James, New Ulm and St. Peter. The new alignment begins with the 2014-15 school year.
Each of the 13 member schools voted to join the new conference at their respective December school board meetings. Individually they agreed to be a part of the Big South for the next two years, but Worthington activities director Josh Dale thinks the conference will stay together for much longer than that.
“The biggest thing for us is that it gave us some stability in the conference,” Dale said. “With some of the other schools in the conference getting smaller, if teams dropped out and went to different conferences, with the size that we are, we wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. Now with 13 teams in the Big South we have a lot more stability.”
The idea to merge the two conferences originally came about a few years ago but, under the original plan, would only pertain to football. That idea was eventually turned down. But when it was proposed that they come together for all sports, the plan passed.
Coincidentally, football is the one sport in which the Big South will exist only in the short-term. The Minnesota State High School League announced in the spring that it will go to a district format in the fall of 2015, meaning all conference alignments will be done away with as teams will begin to play strictly within their district.
For Worthington, a few of those teams will remain the same with Fairmont, New Ulm and Marshall expected to be a part of its new district, according to Trojans’ head coach Brad Grimmius. He said the remainder of his team’s schedule will contain teams such as Albert Lea, Jordan, Belle Plaine and Tri-City United.
Football will change, but Dale said everything should remain intact for all of the other sports in the Big South.
“What the high school league is telling us is that the district thing will be just for football,” he said. “Other than that the conference should hold tight.”
In their one year within the Big South, the 13 football teams will play against conference schools of similar size. Worthington, for example, will play larger schools such as Waseca, New Ulm, Fairmont and Marshall while Windom Area plays other small schools like St. Peter, St. James, BEA and JCC.
Perhaps more importantly, it means each school will be able to play a full conference schedule rather than taking on similarly-sized schools from a long way away. Last season, JCC played nonconference games against St. Louis Park and Foley while Marshall took a trip to Robbinsdale-Cooper.
The travel isn’t expected to change much, according to Dale, but the hope is that the new conference will cut down on the length of some of the trips.
“We did a lot of studies on that in the process of creating the new conference,” he said. “The travel will probably be about the same as before, but hopefully we won’t have the long, long drives that we’ve had in the past. We’ll also try to play on Saturdays or Friday nights when we have to go to places like Waseca or St. Peter that are a little further away so kids don’t have to miss much school, if any. Obviously we want them to miss as little school as possible because academics are the number-one priority.”
The change in conference will be more noticeable in some sports than in others. In volleyball, for example, the regular season won’t really change at all. The teams from the Southwest Conference will still play a home-and-home series against one another as will the schools from the South Central. The rest of the schedules will be filled out by nearby schools in other leagues.
The exception to that will be a conference tournament at the end of the season that will feature all 13 teams in the Big South.
In Worthington, perhaps the biggest change this fall will be noticed in soccer. Worthington and Marshall were the only two schools in the Southwest with a boys soccer program while the Trojan girls were the only one.
Without a conference, Worthington has had to fill out its schedules as an independent.
In the South Central, New Ulm, Waseca, St. Peter and Fairmont all offer both boys and girls soccer. That means there will be enough teams in the Big South for a soccer conference.
“One of the toughest things is only playing each team one time a year so then you go in the next year and can’t remember who their best player was and who you had to focus on,” said Trojans girls soccer coach Emily Ahlquist. “Playing two games against those teams in the same season should help us know our competition a little better.”
Worthington will play a home-and-home series against each of the other teams, cutting the number of nonconference games from 11 last season down to five for the boys and 12 down to seven for the girls, who have an extra three total contests.
Dale added that Worthington was typically playing its new conference mates once a year anyway, but having them in the conference will give it two games against each and create less out-of-conference scheduling.
“It gives them something to play for,” Dale said of the Trojans soccer teams. “Now they can go for a conference championship and be a part of an all-conference team, things like that. It adds a new level of excitement. I’d say for any of our sports, this worked out best for soccer.”
While Ahlquist doesn’t know that being part of a conference will necessarily boost interest in the sport among girls in Worthington, she agreed it should add a new element of excitement.
“I don’t know if it will bring any more girls in,” she said. “But especially for some of the girls who play multiple sports, they’ll get to know some of these teams and it will maybe create more rivalries. Hopefully some good competition will come out of it.”
Dale, entering his second year as activities director at Worthington, said nothing is written in stone moving forward with the Big South. How divisions are made up is currently tailored for each individual sport, with some going in an “East” and “West” format, some in “North” and “South” and others in “Big Schools” and “Small Schools.” That, among other things, could change from year-to-year as the member schools are able to see what works and what needs to be changed.
It might be a work in progress, but in the end Dale thinks it will bring about bigger and better things for all schools involved.
“I see nothing but benefits coming from this,” he said. “It will add excitement about what the future holds for the conference. It will bring about more competitive games and new rivalries.”