Many coaches for a new league homeRed Wing is an outlier in the Missota Conference and many of the Wingers’ coaches believe the conference’s heightened metro bent places their teams at a competitive disadvantage.
By: Ryan Nilsson, The Republican Eagle
The addition of Chanhassen and Chaska high schools to the Missota Conference in the fall of 2010 will give the league a Lake Conference Lite feel — and not just because the two newest members are coming from the talent-rich metro conference.
Chanhassen, Chaska, Prior Lake and Shakopee are all burgeoning southwest suburbs of Minneapolis. It was suggested that a fifth Missota member, Farmington, partner with seven Lake schools to form the Dakota County Conference. And Holy Angels, a private school located in the first-ring suburb of Richfield, can draw students from anywhere in the metro area.
Red Wing — along with New Prague and Northfield — is an outlier and many of the Wingers’ coaches believe the conference’s heightened metro bent places their teams at a competitive disadvantage.
In football “it’s like the Gophers joining the SEC,” girls basketball coach Kraig Ulveling said.
Football was one of four fall sports, along with boys soccer, girls soccer and volleyball in which Red Wing did not win a conference contest in 2008.
A number of coaches said it comes down to geography. As outstate Minnesota residents, Red Wing athletes do not have easy access to the offseason clubs and training facilities in the metro area.
The Midwest Volleyball Warehouse, an eight-court facility in Burnsville, Minn., and the Northern Lights Juniors volleyball club that calls it home are examples of the disparity.
Prior Lake High School is four miles to the southwest. Shakopee and Farmington high schools are less than 15 miles from the warehouse. Red Wing is 52 miles away.
Red Wing junior Lauren Boldt played for the Northern Lights club after her injury-shortened 2008 season concluded. She was just the second Red Wing athlete to play for Northern Lights since its inception in 1993, according to volleyball coach Neal Newman.
“We have a Red Wing (Junior Olympics) offseason program, but it’s nothing compared to what these metro schools do,” Newman said.
For the Wingers to flourish, several of the Red Wing coaches interviewed for this story said the school’s top athletes need to play three sports. With a 2009-10 enrollment of 833 — which is 1,170 less than Prior Lake, the Missota’s largest member — Red Wing can’t afford to have its athletes specialize, according to the coaches.
That’s not the case at metro schools.
“In Lakeville kids really zero in on one sport, maybe two,” girls hockey coach Scott Haley said of athletes in his hometown.
Gene Petersen, the former boys and girls swimming and diving coach, felt the enrollment inequality among Missota schools could be detrimental to Red Wing.
“It can be a bad thing because having no ‘easy’ meets is mentally and physically tiring on any athlete,” Petersen said in an e-mail. “We can hold our own against the bigger schools but it can come at a price.”
Opposition to Red Wing’s current conference home isn’t unanimous. Haley said it’s advantageous for his program to play in the Missota Conference right now. He guided the Wingers to a third-place finish at the 2009 Class A state tournament and gave the tough competition in the Missota credit for some of his team’s success.
There are benefits to playing girls golf in the Missota, too. Red Wing, New Prague and Northfield have made the Missota the most top-heavy conference in the state the past few years, according to coach Mark Herzog.
Playing alongside such quality competition has aided in the development of Red Wing’s golfers.
“We’ve had a lot of young kids that haven’t necessarily grown up playing golf from the ages eight, nine, 10, 11, 12. They just kind of started in seventh grade and I think their maturation was quicker the last couple years because they were playing with such good players from New Prague and Northfield,” Herzog said. “I think that was very helpful to them.”
Red Wing finished second at the last two Class AA state golf meets.
A strong conference hasn’t been a requisite for success, though. The Wingers won three consecutive large-school state titles starting in 2001 when the Missota “wasn’t very good,” according to Herzog.
Haley, however, qualified his opinion about the Missota.
“Five, six years from now we might not want to be there,” Haley said. “Three years ago I would have liked to be in the Big 9.”
The Big 9 has been floated as an alternative to the Missota.
The 10-member conference consists of three Rochester schools, two Mankato schools and public schools in large southern Minnesota towns like Austin and Winona.
Baseball coach Jim Bohmbach is a proponent of the move and not just because Red Wing was a member of the conference when he was a Wingers athlete.
“If we played in the Big 9 we’d be familiar with the teams in the section,” Bohmbach said. “We’d know where we stand a little bit better.”
Newman already has an idea of where the volleyball program would rank in the Big 9. Last year his team beat conference members Winona and Rochester Century and he speculated the Wingers would have finished in the middle of the pack.
Newman and many of his Red Wing colleagues said the Big 9 could afford the chance to play against similar schools. Athletes at most of those schools can’t drive 10 minutes for top-tier training in the offseason. Three-sport athletes are more the norm. The high school is a central part of community life.
Not every coach interviewed viewed the Big 9 as a perfect fit; however, most agree a move out of the Missota would be in the school’s best interest.
“I have to think of the total picture here, I’m not just thinking hockey,” boys hockey coach George Nemanich said. “In hockey to stay in the Missota would be great. It’s a decent conference and everybody’s close. ... But on the other hand you take a look at the whole picture of all of our sports. These schools are getting bigger in the conference and we’re not able to compete as well.”