It’s summer, so of course one’s thoughts wander off to … high school sports.
Before you read this, go to page 12A and read the exhaustive story from Jason Nihles and Tom Gunnell about high school conference realignment proposals involving the Southwest Conference, the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League, and even the Coulee Conference.
Now that you’ve returned to this page, you can see that getting everything to fit together into a conference where high schools are relatively equal in size, are relatively close to each other, and play the same sports is about as easy as combining three jigsaw puzzles to make one picture.
When I got to southwest Wisconsin in 1988, the Southwest Wisconsin Athletic League had two divisions. SWAL I included Cuba City, Dodgeville, Lancaster, Platteville, Prairie du Chien, Richland Center and River Valley. SWAL II included Boscobel, Darlington, Fennimore, Iowa–Grant, Mineral Point, Riverdale and Southwestern.
That worked fine until after I moved away in 1994. Cuba City dropped below Boscobel in enrollment, and Boscobel briefly dropped football because its teams were getting pounded. Now we have the six-team Southwest Conference, whose athletic directors need to schedule four nonconference football games and 12 nonconference basketball games each season. Scheduling nonconference games in the first two weeks of the season is pretty easy; after that, not so much.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association considers three criteria in deciding conference alignments. The third criterion is which schools sponsor which sports. The first two criteria are geography and similarities in enrollment, and the latter recently has proven more important than the former.
That is a mistake in these days of gas costing $3 to $4 per gallon, and diesel fuel more than that. That is particularly a mistake if the WIAA merges the SWC and the Coulee to form a conference that would be bracketed by Arcadia and Platteville, 154 miles apart. (There was even an idea floated for Platteville to go east into the Rock Valley Conference. Imagine conference games with Whitewater or Walworth Big Foot, 112 miles of two-lane road to the east.)
If the WIAA were to add Viroqua and Westby to the six SWC teams, that would work fine. Similar to playing Whack-a-Mole, fixing one conference problem results in another conference problem elsewhere.
The elephant in the room is competitive balance in certain sports, particularly football. Cuba City has been strong in basketball seemingly forever. Lancaster has been strong in football since 1989. Mineral Point sends wrestlers to state every year. The point of high school sports is participation, but no one likes to end up on the wrong side of running time, and football tends to get more attention because it has more players, more spectators and more expense than other sports.
My opinion, based on covering and announcing high school sports for a quarter-century (pause while I blow the dust off myself), is that the time may have come where the WIAA should separate football from all the other sports when forming conferences. Differences in enrollment mean the most in football, much more than in other sports, because generally speaking, the bigger the school is, the more football players it has. Football is also the only high school sport where not every team automatically plays in the postseason. (And there are arguments for and against letting every high school team into the football playoffs.) There is nothing appealing about a two-hour drive for a conference football game, but such a drive on a fall Friday night is preferable to a two-hour drive for a conference basketball game on a dead of winter weeknight.
I was a fan of the football district plan the WIAA came out with a couple years ago, where the state would be divided into eight-school districts more by enrollment than geography, with the top four teams in each district getting into the playoffs and the bottom four having one additional end-of-season game between teams that finished in the same place in their divisions. I still think the WIAA may end up going back to the district plan because of enrollment’s being more important in football than in any other sport.
Otherwise, it seems preferable to rearrange the old two-division SWAL, but differently from the last time. The football arrangement should put the seven largest teams (now River Valley, Platteville, Richland Center, Dodgeville, Prairie du Chien, Lancaster and Boscobel) in the large division, and the rest (Cuba City, Darlington, Mineral Point, Iowa–Grant, Riverdale, Fennimore and Southwestern) in the small division. For all other sports, the SWAL can be separated into north (Boscobel, Dodgeville, Iowa–Grant, Prairie du Chien, Richland Center and River Valley) and south (Cuba City, Darlington, Fennimore, Lancaster, Mineral Point, Platteville, Southwestern) divisions, or maybe east (Darlington, Dodgeville, Iowa–Grant, Mineral Point, Richland Center, River Valley and Riverdale) and west (Boscobel, Cuba City, Fennimore, Lancaster, Platteville, Prairie du Chien and Southwestern) divisions.
Seven-team divisions do mean a bye week, but one bye week is preferable to three, as is essentially the case with the SWC. The previous SWAL I and SWAL II arrangement had the teams not playing conference games play each other in a crossover week. In the old days, that accommodated nearby rivals such as Cuba City and Southwestern or Dodgeville and Mineral Point when they were in opposite divisions.
It’s a bit extreme to call a particular conference alignment option “least bad.” The status quo is not “least bad.” But there is a worse option, and that is the option of having Lancaster leave the SWC and Platteville having road trips of two or more hours north or east for conference games.
One more thing: Make a note for yourself on Thursday, Aug. 2 to go to www.brooksrunning.com and vote for Benton coach Paul Raley for Brooks’ 2012 Inspiring Coaches Award. Raley is thoroughly deserving of the award.