ADRIAN/ELLSWORTH — The Ellsworth and Adrian school districts will extend their sports pairing relationship to include all athletic offerings, the district’s respective school boards recently voted.

Pending final approval by the Minnesota State High School League, the districts' teams will combine to be known as the Adrian-Ellsworth Dragons and mostly sport blue and gold uniforms during competition. The new consolidation is set to begin as soon as the girls' and boys' upcoming basketball seasons.

Ellsworth Superintendent and Principal John Willey called the decision tough for both districts, but one he feels will benefit students from both Ellsworth and Adrian.

“School officials believe it will enhance the overall athletic opportunity for students, play (at) appropriate levels and be more competitive,” he said.

“We look forward to it and think it’s good for kids,” added Adrian Activities Director Joe Kruger, who said the pairing will allow athletes more competition in practice and the ability to field more competitive teams.

Already paired in baseball, softball, wrestling and — new this fall — football, the schools plan to consolidate their girls and boys basketball, golf, cross country, track and field and girls' volleyball programs. The agreement will have both districts contributing to the cost of programs based on the number of students participating.

While Ellsworth will adopt Adrian’s mascot and colors for most regular seasons and all conference and playoff play, Ellsworth's maroon and gold colors won’t be completely retired.

Select “home” basketball and volleyball games are planned to be hosted at Ellsworth, where the Adrian-Ellsworth Dragons will suit up in Ellsworth’s uniforms.

Other details of the agreement such as practice logistics are reportedly still being sorted through.

Declining sports participation numbers played a role in both districts' decisions to consolidate. According to Willey, Ellsworth has a 45-student enrollment in grades 9-12. In select cases, eighth-graders are competing at the high school level to help fill the void.

While Adrian has a larger student population (191 students grades 9-12), Kruger reported its sports numbers are also experiencing a slight decline.

“We’re definitely always looking to get more kids out in athletics,” he said.

Under the consolidation, the team will compete in the Class A division.

The discussion to consolidate began as early as last spring, when Ellsworth reportedly approached Adrian about the potential to bring its boys to a gridiron that would require less travel distance than Edgerton, where they’d played the preceding season.

This year’s football team comprised of Adrian and Ellsworth players became known as Adrian Area.

According to Willey, the Ellsworth board had talked about other sports pairings months ago, but about two weeks ago, seriously considered its options for the upcoming winter sports season.

By a 5-1 vote, Ellsworth’s Board of Education approved the pairing agreement on Tuesday, with Adrian’s school board giving its unanimous approval during a special Wednesday meeting.

Ellsworth school board chairperson Angie Boyenga said decisions like the sports pairing always produce strong feelings on both sides.

“It was a difficult decision and one that I believe every Ellsworth board member agonized over,” she said. “In the end, I believe we all made our decision based on what we thought to be in our students' best interests. That has always been, and will continue to be, our first priority."

Ellsworth seniors Morgan Dreesen and Ashlyn Meester felt like the decision was made abruptly.

“I’m really disappointed in what the decision was — we've been practicing all summer together as a team,” Dreesen said through tears. “I’m sad I won’t be able to play with my whole team.”

Dreesen said she’s concerned about fair playing time, and expressed sadness to lose the school’s identity as a Panther. Despite the few games promised at Ellsworth, Dreesen said it won’t be the same.

As for the immediate future, she’s disappointed with how this will affect Ellsworth’s upcoming homecoming, which is historically during the winter season due to greater participation in basketball.

“We had all our homecoming (basketball) games set and we lose our homecoming games,” Dreesen said, adding that she’s going to give it “all I can” this season despite her disappointment.

Meester said she’s heartbroken to not be able to support the Ellsworth Panther her senior year of basketball, but added that she’ll keep an open mind and “strive to push my team to the best we can be.”