The high school football season begins Friday with Platteville hosting Darlington at Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium at 7 p.m.
(Obligatory self-promoting commercial: I will be calling most Hillmen games this season with former Platteville coach Wally Trouten on WPVL (1590 AM) and online at theespndoubleteam.com. Tune in or log on around 6:40 p.m. See how often the subject of Vidalia onions comes up.)
Friday’s game will be the only nonconference game the Hillmen and their five Southwest Wisconsin Conference opponents — Dodgeville, Lancaster, Prairie du Chien, Richland Center and River Valley — will play this season. The SWC season starts Aug. 30 when Platteville hosts Dodgeville. Five weeks later, Platteville plays at Dodgeville in the first of three games against SWC opponents for the second time; the other two repeats are Lancaster and River Valley.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should; it happened in 2005 (when Platteville played Dodgeville and Richland Center twice) and 2006 (Lancaster and Prairie du Chien were the repeat opponents). Unlike those seasons, when only the second meetings counted in the SWC standings, they all will this season.
That is better than having just five conference games, although having eight conference games may create a bubble team if some team finishes 4–4, since teams with winning conference records get into the playoffs and .500 teams … might get in. It also creates the specter of teams having conference schedules of unequal strength based on who’s on the schedule twice and who’s played only once.
Platteville plays Lancaster (12–1 last year) and River Valley (8–2), the two teams that finished ahead of the Hillmen last season, twice this year. In contrast, Lancaster’s other two double-opponents are Richland Center (2–7) and Prairie du Chien (3–5), and River Valley’s other two double-opponents are Dodgeville and Prairie du Chien. Maybe National Football League-style weighted schedules are next for the SWC.
The latest chapter in the SWC saga may be in September, when the WIAA Board of Control (and what an Orwellian name that is) is supposed to receive a new realignment proposal among the SWC and the Coulee Conference — Arcadia, Black River Falls, Gale–Ettrick–Trempealeau, Onalaska Luther, Viroqua, West Salem and Westby — that may include two nonconference games between SWC and Coulee teams starting next season. (Or may not, given that the WIAA this month rejected a plan to mandate two SWC vs. Coulee games starting next year.)
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should; Platteville played Westby and G–E–T in 2007, West Salem and Black River Falls in 2008, and Viroqua and West Salem in 2009 and 2010. The issue, of course, is that scheduling nonconference football games in the first two weeks of the season is easy compared to scheduling nonconference games in the third and fourth weeks, as SWC schools must do. (The Coulee, meanwhile, has a bye team for each of its seven conference-season weeks. If you think finding a nonconference opponent in week four is tough, try finding one in week seven.)
The WIAA creates or approves conference alignments on three criteria. The third is sports that are played at the various schools. (Platteville is in a different swimming conference, and not all the SWC schools have the same sports, such as girls golf or soccer.) Criterion 1A is distance between schools, and criterion 1B is similarity in enrollment. The WIAA keeps veering between distance and enrollment in determining conferences, but no one at the WIAA apparently has noticed that gas is approaching $4 per gallon and diesel is approaching $5 per gallon.
Differences in enrollment are most important by far in football. That’s because, unlike in every other sport, not every football team gets into the playoffs. Except at football powers like Lancaster, a school’s enrollment is a good predictor of how many players a football team will have. Football also plays just one game per week, which makes the issue of long travel to games on school nights less of a concern, unlike, say, going from Platteville to Mount Horeb for a boys basketball game on a Monday night in February, as happened last year. (That’s what happens when conference games take up less than half of your schedule.)
Back in 2009, the WIAA proposed separating football from other sports by creating eight-team districts based on enrollment, as is the case in Iowa and other states. Each team would have one nonconference game to open the season, followed by seven district games. Week nine would be either the first round of the playoffs, for those teams that finished in the top four of their districts, or a final game in which one non-playoff team would play the closest team that finished in the same place in its district.
The district plan, as it came to be called, made sense then. It still makes sense because, in addition to the enrollment-equals-team-size issue, football is the only sport where not every team makes the playoffs. Football coaches seem leery about expanding the playoffs to every team because it will expand the season (though by only one week), and because the first playoff week would feature a lot of ugly blowouts (and a lot of first-round byes). That was the impetus behind the district plan four years ago.
If the district plan were to be enacted, the next logical step would be to reconfigure conferences based on geography instead of on enrollment. It seems illogical that Platteville is in a different conference from Cuba City or Southwestern for sports not named football, but according to the WIAA school-night trips to Spring Green and Richland Center for SWC games are acceptable.
The other option might be to bring back the old two-division Southwest Wisconsin Athletic League, but (unlike in the ‘90s) arrange by enrollment for football and by geography for everything else. SWAL I and II may have worked better than what’s happening now.