IRON RIVER—The high school sports rumor mill is bubbling again, and the topic is high school football conferences—how much and how soon they will be changing.
Nothing is certain right now. “But no doubt about it,” said Forest Park Athletic Director Dwaine Anderson recently, “there’s going to be some changes coming.”
At present, West Iron County is part of the seven-team West Pac Conference, which also includes Houghton, Hancock, Calumet, L’Anse, Ironwood and Northland Pines, Wis.
Forest Park is part of the six-team Great Western Conference, which includes Ontonagon, Baraga, Gogebic (a co-op between Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco), Lake Linden-Hubbell and Hurley, Wis.
The status quo is changing, though, and one change leads to others.
For the last few years, faced with declining enrollment, Ontonagon has struggled to field a full 11-man team. Starting in 2014, Ontonagon wants to switch to eight-man football. While it is not yet official, Anderson said it looks that way.
Baraga has also struggled with numbers in recent years. Baraga reportedly plans to stay in 11-man in 2014 but could switch to eight-man for 2015.
Either way, it’s a big problem for the Great Western—especially Hurley. The Midgets are perennial titans in the GWC and qualify for the Wisconsin playoffs every year. They reached the Division 6 state semifinals in both 2009 and 2013.
In Wisconsin, a team qualifies for the playoffs if it plays at least five conference games and has a winning conference record. That means Hurley needs at least six teams in the GWC. With the GWC already at six and Ontonagon wanting out, that creates a problem.
Ironwood could solve that problem—short-term. The Red Devils are reportedly willing to leave the West Pac and jump to the Great Western as soon as 2014, taking over Ontonagon’s schedule. Anderson said Ironwood Coach Dan Niemi attended the GWC all-conference meeting in early November.
If so, that would bring the Great Western back up to six teams. Since the West Pac would still have six, Northland Pines could still qualify for Wisconsin’s playoffs.
But most conference bylaws require any team that wants to leave to give a year’s notice. It also means other West Pac teams would need to fill the gap in their schedule where the Ironwood game is now. Athletic directors usually want next year’s football schedule mostly finalized by December.
In any case, if Baraga switches to eight-man in 2015, leaving the GWC with five teams, it creates the problem all over again.
Anderson said he has talked to other teams in the region. North Dickinson? Anderson said ND isn’t interested. “But Norway wants out of the Mid Pen bad,” he continued. “They are interested and said they are willing to listen [about making a change for 2015].”
Anderson said there also has been talk about forming a brand new football conference. “Names that are tossed around are us [Forest Park], West Iron, North Dickinson, Norway, North Central, Bark River and Stephenson.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “Sit down at a table, throw it out there and see what is best for everybody.
“But no doubt about it, there’s going to be some changes coming.”
What’s driving the move to eight-man football and the possible scrambled conference lineups? It’s the declining enrollment problem, a modern-day fact of life for many U.P. school districts.
With fewer students available, it becomes much harder for schools to field a full football team. Schools like Ewen-Trout Creek, Mid Peninsula and Rapid River have switched to eight-man in recent years.
Anderson said not even Forest Park is immune. Projected enrollment figures aren’t promising. “Our enrollment drops so far in about three years,” he said, “that we might even have to look at eight-man football. And if it’s happening to us, it’s happening to other schools, too.”
Speculation is rife now, with meetings are planned during December and January. “After those meetings, probably by the end of January, we’ll know a whole lot more and have a better sense of where it might go.”
“I don’t know what’s happening,” West Iron AD Mike Berutti said last week. He said Ironwood’s school board has not taken any action about conference changes.
“I’m not going to go into an all ‘D’ [small school] conference,” Berutti said. “That wouldn’t benefit us.”
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens, he added. “As more teams pop to eight-man, these small schools in the western half [of the U.P.] are going to have to start playing schools that are only 50 or 70 kids bigger than them.”
As for the new conference Anderson spoke about, Berutti said there will be a meeting early in 2014. “I don’t know what their feelings are, either,” he said. “Everybody’s struggling to find games” for full nine-game schedules.
Both the West Pac and Great Western conferences will be meeting (separately) on Dec. 18. “It’s going to get interesting in the next two months,” Berutti said.
• On an unrelated matter, Forest Park is starting its final basketball season in the Skyline Conference under its present format.
Beginning in 2014-15, Superior Central, Big Bay de Noc and Munising join, as the Skyline and Central U.P. conferences merge. Meanwhile, Republic-Michigamme leaves the Skyline to join the Copper Country Conference.
The other current Skyline schools are North Dickinson, North Central, Carney-Nadeau, Bark River-Harris, Mid Peninsula and Rapid River. All but Forest Park, North Dickinson and Republic are members of the CUP already.