Conference realignment in prep football had long been a hot-button issue as the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association and the WIAA worked to try to even the playing field across the state in terms of playoff eligibility requirements.
On Tuesday, an official resolution was finally reached.
After months of vetting the proposal first released by the WFCA last July, the WIAA Board of Control voted unanimously (9-0) to realign the state’s 378-team landscape into 35 eight-team conferences and 14 seven-team conferences. The realignment will take effect beginning in 2020.
The objective of the realignment, the WFCA stated in the initial press release unveiling the plan, was to bring “uniformity to the number of schools per conference and the number of conference games played by each team.
“Currently, some conferences feature as many as 11 teams while others feature as few as four. Some teams must win five games to qualify for the playoffs, while others have to win as few as two,” the WFCA said. “Many schools are also having significant difficulty in finding non-conference games during the middle of the season if (they are) in a league with an odd number of teams.”
Due to some hurdles that couldn’t be cleared, not all conferences were able to be configured with eight teams. But the seven-team conferences will have “sister conferences” and teams in those conferences will be required to play crossover games that will count in the conference standings.
The first criteria for teams to become playoff-eligible is to have a .500 or better record in conference play, but with the current number of teams from one conference to the next so dramatically different in many cases, that model was thought by the coaches in the state to be inequitable.
Thus, the proposed — and now approved — realignment.
But even though the net gain is a plus, not everyone is thrilled. Some teams in the western part of the state, for example, are going to have to travel much greater distances to play certain conference games.
Beaver Dam, with an enrollment of 1,069, will go from being one of the largest schools in the Badger North Conference to one of the smallest in what will be the Badger Large Conference, which will also include Janesville Craig (1,865), Janesville Parker (1,517), Watertown (1,279), Waunakee (1,275), Oregon (1,160), Milton (1,126) and DeForest (1,051).
But being a small fish in a big pond isn’t Golden Beavers’ coach Steve Kuenzi’s only reservation. Kuenzi, who will be entering his sixth year at the helm with a record of 14-32, also said he would have preferred that the Badger Conference maintain its current geographical alignment — Baraboo, Beaver Dam, DeForest, Mount Horeb/Barneveld, Portage, Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie and Waunakee in the Badger North and Fort Atkinson, Madison Edgewood, Milton, Monona Grove, Monroe, Oregon, Stoughton and Watertown in the Badger South — in order to maintain continuity.
“From our standpoint, we’re thinking selfishly because we’ve gone through a lot of change in the last couple years already,” he said of moving from the Wisconsin Little Ten to the Badger North following the 2016 season. “(But) I understand the nature of high school football and the whole rationale behind (the realignment) — why the WIAA feels the need to do this.
“It’s one of those things where we’re going to play whoever we have to play and give it our all.”
Kuenzi added that his program is just starting to develop a level of familiarity with the other programs in the Badger North after leaving the Little Ten, and now in 16 months it will be having to go through the get-to-know-you phase once more.
The Badger Small will be made up of Monona Grove (1,049), Stoughton (981), Baraboo (957), Fort Atkinson (912), Mount Horeb/Barneveld (903), Reedsburg (868), Sauk Prairie (827) and Portage (783). Current Badger South schools Madison Edgewood — a private school with an enrollment of just under 500 — and Monroe (690) are headed to the Rock Valley.
Another reason Kuenzi isn’t in favor of reconfiguring the league based on enrollment is because with the WIAA set to evaluate the state landscape every two years in order to resolve any issues — and with Beaver Dam’s enrollment trending down of late, the Golden Beavers could easily swap spots with a growing school from the top of the Badger Small in the not-so-distant future.
“So we may at same point down the road be in the Small,” Kuenzi said of what would be the third time switching conferences in a very short window of time. “But for now, we just strap it up and play whoever we have to play.”
Beaver Dam isn’t the only area team impacted by the realignment. Every area team is in one way or another — either by switching leagues or by a shift in the makeup of its current league.
Waupun will see Campbellsport depart the East Central Conference for the Flyway, while Mayville will not only see the Cougars come into its league but also North Fond du Lac, which is currently independent.
Meanwhile, Port Washington will leave the North Shore and Sheboygan Falls will leave the Eastern Shores, both to join Waupun in the ECC.
But the most dramatically impacted conferences are the Capitol and the Trailways.
Dodgeland and Markesan leave the Trailways Large to join the Capitol Small, while Horicon/Hustisford leaves the Trailways Large to join the Capitol Large, which includes Columbus as well as four of the other five teams — Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran, Lake Mills, Lodi and Watertown Luther Prep — that previously made up the Capitol North. The lone team to leave the Capitol North for another conference is Poynette, which is headed back to the South Central Conference, of which it was previously a member.
The Trailways Conference shrinks from 15 teams down to eight with the combining of Rio and Fall River into one co-op and the departures of Dodgeland, Horicon/Husty, Markesan, Palmyra-Eagle (Capitol Small), Montello/Princeton/Green Lake (South Central), Parkview (Southwest Wisconsin Activities League) to other conferences.
In addition to Fall River/Rio (enrollment 256), the Trailways will now be made up of Delavan St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy (396), Oshkosh Lourdes (197), Deerfield (194), Wayland (188), Johnson Creek (186), Randolph (166) and Cambria-Friesland (127).
“I think they did the state, in general, a tremendous service because they tackled an issue that is very, very hot,” Dodgeland coach Doug Miller said last July of the people on the WFAC Ad Hoc Committee that worked to come up with the realignment plan. “It was a tough, tough job for those guys.”
While opinions vary from coach to coach as far as the specifics of the new landscape, Columbus coach Calvin Zenz said last summer that he was just happy his league — which in addition to Horicon/Husty and the four old Capitol North rivals now also includes Walworth Big Foot and Beloit Turner — was getting deeper and therefore better.
“It’s just going to make our conference even stronger,” he said, a sentiment many of the coaches in current small conferences can relate to.
But the biggest takeaway — whether on the perceived short end or good end of the realignment — is that a level playing field is being established in terms of postseason qualification.
“This way, there’s consistency across the state that everybody is going to have seven opportunities to make the playoffs,” Mayville coach Tom Noennig said last summer. “They’ve got to win four or more of those seven games to get into the playoffs. There will be no more (under) .500 records and tiebreakers or things like that.
“That’s what I like about it the best.”
Regional sports reporter Mark McMullen contributed to this story.