BENTON – When Benton first welcomed Shullsburg into a co-op agreement for their girls’ basketball programs, many of the Zephyr players– and some of the Miner players as well– were not happy with the arrangement. However, they had no say in the matter and were forced to accept the situation and play alongside one another.
Four years later, the former foes have become fast friends and have built up a successful program. And now they are being forced to break their co-op agreement– once again against their will– and they are even more unhappy with the situation.
At a meeting last Tuesday afternoon, the superintendents of the Six Rivers Conference voted 8-5 against allowing the Benton/Shullsburg girls’ basketball co-op to continue. Although rumors about the potential break-up have been circulating since last summer and picked up steam during winter as the Zephyr/Miners were charging towards the Six Rivers West title, head coach Nathan Russell wasn’t too concerned because the conference had never turned down a co-op agreement.
“I didn’t think a whole lot of it because the conference had never not approved a co-op in any capacity, and there were other ones that have had way bigger number disparities than ours could ever have, so I didn’t think much of it,” admitted Russell.
But, others in the conference were thinking a whole lot about it and felt their numbers were too good to justify the schools continuing with their co-op.
Benton and Shullsburg, of course, feel otherwise.
Russell says he’s been “religious” about keeping both school boards informed about the program’s participation numbers ever since taking over as coach of the co-op from its start, and added that often his projected numbers are almost always on the high end because not every basketball player in eighth grade goes out for basketball in high school and not every player in high school plays all four years.
“Playing in junior high does not indenture you to playing four years of high school basketball. Attrition has been rife in Shullsburg over the years,” he stated.
According to what Shullsburg superintendent Loras Kruser told Russell, schools at Tuesday’s meeting were tossing around participation numbers of between 39 and 49 players for the co-op over the next two seasons– numbers which came from neither Benton nor Shullsburg.
Russell disputes the validity of those numbers, which he noted came from counting the number of girls from both schools from their volleyball rosters– the only female sport the two schools do not co-op in– and carrying them over to the basketball program. Instead, he feels the two schools together will have closer to 23-28 players combined next season.
“To say we’ll have 39 kids next year and 49 kids the next year, it’s just not true. I’d love that to be the case because both programs could survive on their own,” said Russell. “I do believe that there are schools that are presenting numbers that are inaccurate attempting to break us up on that basis when in fact it is competitive in nature.”
Benton should be able to run both a junior varsity and varsity program next season with around 15-17 players, but Shullsburg would probably offer just a varsity team next season since they feel their numbers will be in the 10-12 player range. This was exactly why the schools joined into a co-op agreement four years ago, because both schools– Shullsburg in particular– were having troubles getting enough players to form both a varsity and JV squad.
“I’ve always been at the point where if both schools could be above the five-quarter rule for a consistent period of time that would make it reasonable for us to look at breaking the co-op up. That’s what I’ve said since the inception, before I was the coach. If we could go through it and not have a special waiver from the WIAA, then that makes sense to me,” added Russell.
The WIAA five-quarter waiver states that if a school schedules two levels of teams, such as JV and varsity, and have 15 or fewer players between the two levels, then an individual player(s) may participate in a maximum of five quarters in a single day.
“Our experience with the co-op has been very successful and it was a positive experience for the girls who were involved with it. I’m disappointed to see that opportunity with that joint venture come to an end at this time,” commented Kruser. “We’ll take a wait and see approach, but if the numbers are low I expect to go back to the conference in a year or two to ask that the co-op be reinstated.”
Benton superintendent Kyle Luedtke also felt the co-op was working well for the schools, the kids and both communities and is disappointed to see it end. But, as a member of the Six Rivers Conference, he feels his school is obligated to go along with the vote until a time when the numbers favor returning to the co-op.
“As a school, I think we should follow what the conference sets out for us,” Luedtke said, noting that he voted to continue the co-op. “The conference has spoken. As a member of the conference, I feel we have to abide by the decision. As enrollments decline here at Benton, we may have to look at co-oping again in the future. But, at this time, we have enough players.”
Russell also heard at the meeting he was accused of actively recruiting players not to go out for basketball to keep numbers down. He vehemently denies such an accusation and noted all the opportunities that players had in the program from the youth level through the high school level due to the co-op.
“Anybody who knows me and knows what I do for the program knows that’s ludicrous. That’s a complete slap in the face. I quit coaching (back in 2011) to get the co-op together and I would gladly quit again if it would get these kids the opportunity to play together,” said Russell, who has already decided he would not coach either team next year because he could not chose between the two schools.
Many opportunities will go away since the youth teams will no longer be able to compete together in some of the traveling leagues or in the Wisconsin State Invitational tournaments because teams have to mirror the make up of their high school programs. This upcoming weekend, the Benton/Shullsburg fifth and sixth grade girls’ basketball teams will participate in separate state tournaments, and it may be the last time they get to play together as a team.
“We are going to be drastically limiting the chances for the younger kids to play competitive basketball and that’s unfortunate,” Russell stated. “These kids have worked too hard to have an opportunity to play with kids at their same level and have the potential to be good and have lifelong memories together. I’m disappointed this is what it’s come to. (The kids) just don’t get it. They look to me for an answer and I can’t give it to them because I don’t know why.”
The same can be said for the high school players who have dedicated themselves to working hard to make the co-op a success both on and off the court. And, just as they are starting to see the fruits of their labor, it’s being to taken away from them.
Benton/Shullsburg was set to return four all-conference players and their top five scorers next season if the co-op were to continue. Three of those players will play for Benton and two will play for Shullsburg if the teams are divided.
“We have a couple of classes of kids who’ve done nothing but spend time in the gym on their own. Yeah, they can be competitive without each other. But, they’d certainly be more competitive together as a team. These kids know each other and all they know is the co-op. And, that’s what their drive has been,” Russell said.
“We’ve tried to do everything over the last four years to develop a program that can compete and hopefully someday get to Green Bay (for the state tournament). Our kids now see the opportunity present itself with what we have coming down the pipeline. They want to play with their friends. That’s what they’re most broken up over. This is out of their control and it really blindsided them.”
Every school in the Six Rivers Conference– both West and East– has been in a co-op agreement in a sport at one time or another, and currently 13 of the 14 schools co-op in at least one sport.
Benton co-ops in 10 of the 12 sports they offer at the school, including five of the six girls’ sports. Benton and Shullsburg also co-op in baseball, softball and track and field in the spring, but those co-ops could be in jeopardy as well if their numbers remain strong.
However, nobody knows what will happen in those sports because the Six Rivers Conference doesn’t have a clear criteria for allowing or not allowing a co-op to form or be broken up. Russell cited the Pecatonica/Argyle co-op for football has been approved for more than 20 years despite having both success on the field and outstanding participation numbers most seasons compared to other teams in the league.
Russell, who played against the Pec/Argyle co-op as a student-athlete at Shullsburg in the late 1990s, said he has no ill-will towards their co-op or any other co-op in the Six Rivers. He would just like to see his team’s arrangement go on.
“I see no criteria for turning anyone down or allowing a co-op to continue. It seems pretty arbitrary and capricious how it was done,” he said.
Part of the problem is a lot of the co-ops with Six Rivers schools are with bigger schools outside the conference, so the discussion about those co-ops takes place outside the Six Rivers.
“We have no problem with any other co-op,” stated Russell, who noted a co-op agreement in softball between Albany and Juda was unanimously approved at Tuesday’s meeting right before they voted to end the Benton/Shullsburg co-op.
What Russell did say he had a problem with was decisions being made by individuals who are not involved with either school district that affect the kids and the local tax dollars. Dividing the program will prove costly as each district has to purchase new uniforms, find new coaches, cover travel expenses and develop new schedules as part of the break-up.
And, with the potential to be back together in a few years, those costs seem to be a bit of a waste.
“It would have been easier to stay together now. I wanted the co-op to continue for continuity,” mentioned Luedtke.
Both administrators and Coach Russell admitted that they understand the plight of the other conference schools with regards to their declining enrollments and dwindling participation numbers, especially in girls’ sports where the numbers have been drastically dropping around the state. And, all three also see that their co-op works well in terms of proximity to one another since only eight miles separate the school.
However, what they don’t understand is why they’re being singled out for running a successful program.
“When did the schools, as a whole, look for the lowest common denominator in a sense of what’s good for the least of the schools is good for everybody,” asked Russell. “What we’ve done has been successful. Part of that is because of talent and part is the development we’ve done over the past four years. Why are we trying to bring everybody down to a level rather than bring everybody up to a level.”
Russell also pointed out what he feels is a bit of hypocrisy by the conference in their decision when seen in conjuncture with the push of the Six Rivers’ schools to get their reducer plan passed by the WIAA.
Their plan would reduce a school’s enrollment by 40 percent of its free/reduced lunch count, so a school of 100 students with 20 students on free/reduced lunch would count as only having 92 students using the formula X-(Yx0.4)=Z. This plan is supported by a survey of all Minnesota public schools that shows students in poverty participate in school activities at a rate 40 percent lower than students of non-poverty.
Russell noted Shullsburg has the highest free/reduced lunch count in the Six Rivers at around 50 percent of its enrollment, which would mean they would have more non-participating students than any other school in the league using the Six Rivers’ own argument.
“It falls on deaf ears,” he stated.
Russell, who is an attorney by trade, personally filed a complaint with Lafayette County district attorney Kate Findley asking her to investigate and prosecute any open meetings law violations stemming from last Tuesday’s meeting and throw out the secret vote that was made during the meeting.
He feels the meeting constituted a government meeting because of the schools who were involved and resources they collectively hold, and as such, was subject to open meetings laws. His complaint included four parts: 1– no public notice was given for the meeting, 2– it was not held in a public place, 3– they had walking quorums before the meeting with schools discussing the vote prior to the meeting, and 4– a secret ballot was held for the vote, which is not allowed for such a vote.
“I believe the meeting that was held on Tuesday violated open meetings rules,” said Russell, who wanted it known that the lawsuit was not being paid by either school.
Russell acknowledged a hearing has been scheduled for the morning of April 1 regarding the co-op on a motion for temporary order, but he doesn’t know what will come from the meeting.
April 1 is also the deadline for submitting winter sports co-op applications for next season to the WIAA.
“I think we really turned a corner where, and I know not everybody from both schools is going to agree with everything, but a majority of the people in both communities really support the co-op and could see what was going on with what we were doing from the youth levels through high school,” said Russell. “We were headed in the right direction. What they don’t realize is that it’s not only what’s happening on the basketball court. It’s also about what’s happening outside it.”