Portage, Baraboo and Reedsburg have some of the state’s longest standing rivalries, especially in football, where the Thunderbirds and Beavers date back to 1900, the oldest in the state, according to WisSports.net.
Those close-knit conflicts could be tossed asunder in just two months time after the WIAA Football Realignment Committee advanced a proposed realignment plan from the Sun Prairie Area School District on Wednesday that would greatly impact all three of three of the time-honored rivalries.
“We felt it was important that the WIAA Realignment Task Force heard from us directly so they could get a better understanding of the views of Portage High School and why this current proposal is not fair and does not meet the criteria the WIAA is looking to solve,” Portage athletic director Ed Carlson wrote in a statement sent to Capital Newspapers.
“I went up to Stevens Point to fight for our student athletes and our Portage community.”
The committee voted 16-1 in favor of the proposal that would keep Portage in the Badger Small Conference, but would squarely put the Warriors on the low end of the totem pole as the leagues shift to a Paired 7 configuration. Portage’s enrollment of 778 would be the smallest among the new configuration that includes Monona Grove (1,028), DeForest (1,027), Fort Atkinson (1,003), Stoughton (978), Mt. Horeb/Barneveld (904) and Sauk Prairie (878).
While Portage would remain, both Baraboo and Reedsburg would be moved over to the Mississippi Valley Conference in the West Salem and River Falls modifications. The Beavers and T-Birds would join the likes of La Crosse Central, La Crosse Logan, Sparta, Tomah, Onalaska and Holmen.
While the T-Birds (896) and Beavers (884) would be in the middle of the pack of the Mississippi Valley, they would take on a much greater travel responsibility. The average travel time for the T-Birds would spike to 1 hour, 38 minutes, while the Beavers’ average time on the road would be 1:23.
“There are numerous concerns we have that are associated with a move to the Mississippi Valley Conference,” Baraboo athletic director Jim Langkamp wrote in an email to Capital Newspapers. “I will work with our administrative team and school board to prepare and present those to the WIAA Board of Control in March.”
While it wouldn’t have as stark a travel increase, the Warriors’ enrollment disparity would also carry over into the Badger Large Conference, which Portage would be forced to have a conference crossover game with each season. Each school in the new league has an enrollment over 1,100 with an average of 454 more students compared to Portage, which has qualified for the postseason just once (2007) since joining the Badger Conference for the 2001-02 school year.
The Badger Conference itself took steps to help try and minimize the league’s “football problem” ahead of this school year as the 16 schools broke away from the league’s traditional geographic based alignment.
“We basically did the work that the WIAA was attempting to do statewide,” Carlson said during his allotted three minutes at Wednesday’s meeting, vehemently opposing the proposed changes. “We had a problem, so we did the best we could to solve the problem.
“As a school that has notoriously struggled competing in the sport of football since our placement in the Badger Conference, the Badger Large/Small restructure gives us an opportunity to be more competitive,” he added. “We realize it is still a very difficult conference, but we feel it is a fair solution that addresses school enrollment numbers and competitive equity.”
While Carlson, Langkamp and Reedsburg athletic director Bryan Yager all had a chance to speak, albeit briefly, during Wednesday’s meeting, the group wasn’t originally told of the WIAA’s modified plan. Carlson wrote in his formal letter submitted to the WIAA that he was never notified that Portage, which wasn’t initially in Sun Prairie’s realignment proposal, was being directly impacted prior to the Realignment Task Force’s initial review on Dec. 9, 2020.
Langkamp confirmed the short window, stating that he hadn’t received a notification from WIAA Assistant Director Stephanie Hauser until Dec. 8. The communication, or lack thereof, gave Langkamp and others opposed to the change little time to put together an alternative option.
“It was a blindside that gave us only nine school days to respond with an alternate plan that was due into the WIAA office by noon on January 4,” he wrote. “Keep in mind that a committee of 17 school administrators had months to work on potential options.”
“Portage was never notified that they were being considered in a plan that would impact us, therefore we were denied a due process opportunity to submit a reaction to the realignment for the record,” Carlson added in his statement, co-signed by Portage District Administrator Josh Sween and Portage High School Principal Oran Nehls.
“The lack of transparency shown by the WIAA was unacceptable and goes against the intentions of the process that has been presented to member schools.”
While the proposal, which was unanimously rejected by the Badger Conference as a whole and will fully be voted on March 5, impacts football only, Carlson highlighted how the Badger Conference’s restructuring for all other sports will take effect in August.
The conference will continue a geographical alignment but shift from a North/South designation to East/West, with two “quad groupings” within each 8-team division.
“We made this move based on geography, school size, and ways to increase competitive equity,” Carlson said, noting Portage, Baraboo, Reedsburg and Sauk Prairie will comprise the North Division in the Badger West Conference.
For Carlson, Portage is a “natural fit” with Baraboo and Reedsburg. The T-Birds and Warriors have squared off on the gridiron since at least 1909, while the Beavers and T-Birds have a combined 133 meetings and Portage and Reedsburg have faced off 108 times.
Despite those differences, Langkamp wrote he was “grateful to have teamed with athletic directors from our two biggest rivals on the playing field.”
“The time and work that Ed Carlson (Portage) and Bryan Yager (Reedsburg) have committed to advocating for their schools and communities is commendable,” he added.
While it doesn’t look like those rivalries will continue from a conference perspective, Carlson said he isn’t giving up.
“Hopefully the Task Force will adjust their proposal before sending it to the Board of Control for review. If they don’t modify it, you can bet that Portage will appeal the decision and fight it at the next level,” Carlson wrote. “There are certain things out of our control, but we are going to do everything in our power to fight for what we believe is a fair solution.”
Blue Devils, Bulldogs also affected
Portage isn’t the only school that would see its football-only conference shift should the WIAA approve the proposals on March 5. Pardeeville filed its own realignment proposal alongside Horicon/Hustisford after playing this past year in the Eastern Suburban Conference.
The Bulldogs, which had the lowest enrollment in the eight-team league 220 students, would move back to the Trailways Conference, replacing Beaver Dam Wayland. Meanwhile, the MarshFalcons would fill the void left by Pardeeville, shifting to the Eastern Suburban from the Capitol.
The departure of Husticon, plus Watertown Luther Prep heading to the Midwest Classic Conference, would create two new spots to fill in the Capitol Conference alongside Lodi.
The Blue Devils, who will participate in the upcoming alternative spring season, would gain Madison Edgewood and New Glarus/Monticello as new foes for the 2022-23 campaign should the proposal pass.
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.