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Conference realignment talks heat up for SWAL & SWC schools
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    The winds of change may be blowing through the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League and the Southwest Wisconsin Conference soon. But, where those winds– and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association– take them is anyone’s guess.
    A pair of recent meetings between the two conferences and the WIAA produced several interesting proposals, a couple of surprises and many questions, according to Darlington High School athletic director Kurt Cohen.
    In April, the principals, district administrators, superintendents and athletic directors from all 14 schools met to discuss the problems the six-team SWC was having scheduling games, especially in certain sports.
    The SWC proposed at the time that the conferences return to the old SWAL-I and SWAL-II format. That proposal was met with lukewarm reception by the current SWAL schools.
    “Obviously with a six-team conference, they’re struggling with scheduling non-conference games,” said Cohen noting that basketball allows up to 22 games now and baseball and softball allow for 26 games in a season. “But, (the SWAL schools) had some of the same concerns from when it broke up last time.”
    Then, representatives from Riverdale mentioned that they wouldn’t be opposed to joining another conference, such as the Scenic Bluff or Ridge and Valley. That took most people by surprise.
    “It was news to everyone at the meeting,” noted Cohen.
    Also, while talking about enrollments at the April meeting, the idea of a merger between the Coulee Conference and the SWC was brought up based on either enrollment or geography.
    “Size-wise that merger would make more sense,” Cohen said.
    The schools left the April meeting with nothing decided, but many concerns voiced to WIAA representative Deb Hauser.
    In early June, Platteville superintendent Connie Valenza called around to all the SWAL schools giving them a heads up that the SWC was going to the WIAA to request putting the conferences back together.
    “(Valenza) said to be prepared that a meeting between the two conferences and the WIAA was going to happen,” said Cohen.
    That meeting took place in Dodgeville on June 28, with all 14 schools sending a representative or two to the meeting. There was a mixture of principals, administrators, superintendents and athletic directors involved in that meeting, but due to an oversight neither of the conference commissioners were invited to the meeting.
    The first proposal by the SWC was a 7-7 large school/small school split similar to the make-up of the former SWAL-1 and SWAL-2 conferences. Boscobel, the largest school in the current SWAL with a 2011-12 enrollment of 292 students, and Cuba City, the second largest with 271 students, were not interested in moving up to the large school conference.
    Cuba City switched from the SWAL-1 to the SWAL-2 in 2003; while Boscobel, which swapped with Cuba City at the time, dropped out of the SWAL-1 in 2005 due to competition concerns.
    Since then, the six remaining teams in the SWC have struggled to fill their schedules for several sports, including football, boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, baseball and softball.
    The second proposal by the SWAL was a 7-7 North/South split with the eight SWAL teams and six SWC teams dividing evenly by geography with four SWAL schools and three SWC schools in each division.
    According to Cohen, Darlington would be in the South along with Southwestern, Mineral Point, Cuba City, Platteville, Lancaster and Dodgeville. The North would consist of Iowa-Grant, Boscobel, Riverdale, Fennimore, River Valley, Richland Center and Prairie du Chien.
         That proposal also was met with lukewarm reception by the smaller schools. In the South, Platteville and Dodgeville would have nearly twice the enrollment as the other five schools.
    “A lot of the SWAL schools weren’t excited with either proposal,” stated Cohen even though the proposed changes were both based on sports other than football. “Football was the elephant in the room.”
    Then, the talk at the meeting switched to the SWC disbanding and the six teams getting distributed to separate conferences. Some of the SWC schools had already contacted other conferences, such as Prairie du Chien and the Mississippi Valley Conference and River Valley and the South Central Conference, while others had not had any contact with other conferences.
    However, the problem was Platteville because size-wise (476) the school didn’t fit well in any of the existing close conferences and a move to one of the conferences out of the area would prove troubling travel-wise.
    According to Cohen, if the SWC disbanded then Platteville and Lancaster wanted to join the SWAL to make a 10-team conference. When weighed against either of the 7-7 split proposals, the 10-team conference was no more appealing to the SWAL schools.
    Riverdale again spoke up and said that if the two large schools moved into the conference, then they would move out. Dodgeville said if Riverdale left the SWAL, they would like to come in meaning the 10-team conference would now have three SWC schools along with seven SWAL schools.
    Finally, another realignment proposal was brought up putting the SWC and Coulee together into one 12-team, two-division conference with Viroqua joining Platteville, Dodgeville, River Valley, Richland Center and Prairie du Chien in the South Division. Arcadia, Black River Falls, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, Luther, West Salem and Westby would make up the North Division.
    Lancaster would then move to the SWAL and Riverdale would leave for another conference.
    Under this proposal, 14 of the 20 schools would have less travel time than they have now and enrollment would be similar to or better than what the conferences have now.
    “From the vibe I got from Deb Hauser, this may be a viable option for football,” said Cohen, noting there are some concerns about SWC/Coulee crossover games during the winter or on school nights
    For example, if Platteville was traveling to Arcadia for a basketball game on a Tuesday in December, the Platteville bus would have to leave before school ended in order to complete the three hour, 15 minute one way trip and make it in time for the junior varsity game. The team probably would get back to Platteville around 1 a.m.
    “It’s a bear, without a doubt,” said Cohen. “It’s a little different for a Friday night football game in the fall every other year.”
    Darlington superintendent Denise Wellnitz added that safety in transporting kids in the wintertime was a big concern for those around the table as well as financial concerns with every school facing tight budget crunches.
    “Transportation costs are an issue given the budgetary decreases across the state with education,” said Wellnitz.
    The June meeting broke up with no decision being made, and Hauser going back to the WIAA to discuss the situation.
    “Who knows with the WIAA? It may come back as something completely different,” Cohen said. 
    The SWAL and SWC conference commissioners agreed to work on some common scheduling in the problem sports of boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, baseball and softball in the meantime, but there are still problems with football where the SWC schools have no games scheduled in weeks three and four of 2013.
    “They’re under the gun,” said Cohen. “I don’t think everything is ironed out yet, but we’re at the point where a decision has to be made real quick so that those schedules can be done for 2013-14.”
    Cohen feels if they stay with the current conference formats, the schools will be back at the table in a year or two discussing the same things; but he also feels either of the 7-7 splits are not beneficial as well. Either way, it will be a “band-aid” over a situation that is not going away.
    “We understand that a six-team conference has some problems. I would hate to try and schedule it. But I just don’t know if putting our two conferences back together to solve that scheduling problem doesn’t cause more problems with safety and competitiveness. These are the same reasons we split to begin with. I think it creates more problems than it solves,” said Cohen.
    Declining enrollments are everywhere at most of the schools in southwest Wisconsin. Of the 51 teams in the six area conferences (SWAL, SWC, Six Rivers, Coulee, Scenic Bluff and Ridge & Valley), 45 have lost enrollment since 2003-04 when the landscape of the SWAL-1 and SWAL-2 first started to change.
    Lancaster lost the most with a drop of 135 students from 431 to 296 (based on 2011-12 enrollment), and will have a smaller enrollment this year than one or two of the SWAL schools.
    As a whole, the SWC schools have lost an average of 87 students per school.
    Enrollment at every school in the SWAL and Six Rivers has also gone down over the last nine years with the SWAL losing an average of 45 students per school and the SRC losing 38 students per school.
    Darlington, which had an enrollment of 307 in ‘03-04, will have around 230 students this year and drops down around 213 students in 2014-15.
    Right now, there are no definitive answers, and none may come for another six to eight months.
    “The longer the answer is to come out, the less the chances are of something happening in 2013-14,” noted Cohen.
    Until then, things will continue to be blowing in the wind.