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High school league ruling may dictate conference decision [UPDATED]

Published 10:49am Tuesday, December 4, 2012 Updated 11:09am Tuesday, December 4, 2012

By Darla Ellingson
Daily Journal
Declining enrollment in Fergus Falls is prompting school officials to consider changing from the Central Lakes Conference to the Heart O’ Lakes Conference for sports. The School Board fielded public input Monday night on the issue. But a Minnesota High School League vote Wednesday could change everything.
“The league board is going to vote on changing to sections,” said Athletic Coach Gary Schuler. “It would really be the best scenario for us all around for most sports.”
In section play, teams play other teams closest to them geographically. Fergus Falls has six schools in its section, so it would pick up games with the next closest section to complete a full season.
Section play keeps teams close to home, but Schuler acknowledges it will be a tough sell around the state.
“Teams in some parts of Minnesota like the conference they are in and don’t want to change,” said Schuler.
If the state vote keeps sports in conferences, the Fergus Falls School District has an option. The district has been invited to change from the Central Lakes Conference to the Heart O’ Lakes Conference.
“Our enrollment in the upper grades was 730 last year, 705 this year, and in five years we’re expecting to be down to the 500,” said School Superintendent Jerry Ness. “We are playing teams north and south rather than big and small, so we’re going up against schools twice our size.”
“I’m torn — there is a mystique about playing in the CLC,” said Perry Reinertson. “But how can we compete with Moorhead, Bemidji and Brainerd?”
“It’s not about win or lose but the safety of our kids,” said Schuler. “It’s pretty dangerous if we are able to field 40 kids while Brainerd can field 75 kids. We try and get the top players off the field to give them a break, but the drop off in playing level is so severe with fewer players, it’s difficult.”
Heart O’ Lakes Conference officials have already voted 10-4 to allow Fergus Falls into its big school league. It would mean the Otters would go up against schools closer in size including Perham, Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids, Crookston and Thief River Falls. Travel time to games is about equal, according to Schuler.
The league prefers to keep the conference schools an even number, so Barnesville would potentially be joining the Heart O’ Lakes with Fergus Falls. It’s also an all or none decision — all sports would have to change to the Heart O’ Lakes conference, not just football. Fergus Falls required to give the league a 14-month notification.
“What happens if we keep sitting on it?” said assistant football coach Steve Olson.
“Heart O’ Lakes would probably let Staples leave, Barnesville will go in on their own, and we’d lose the chance,” said Schuler.
“In May of 2013 we need to complete a decision,” said Ness. “Then we would start in the Heart O’ Lakes 14 months out from there.”
Schuler said he felt Wednesday’s MSHSL Board of Directors meeting in Sauk Rapids that will determine whether sectional play will move forward will crystallize the situation.

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