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Minnesota ushers in district scheduling in prep football this season

Ready or not, here comes district football. The new format for high school teams does away with traditional conferences in favor of districts organized by geography, with similar-sized programs further categorized into color-coded sub-districts. ...

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Duluth East player Ben Hooghkirk and his fellow teammates push up against the pads on a hitting sled during football practice Thursday at Duluth East High School. At right is Caleb Ankrum, who currently has an injury but was there to help out. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Ready or not, here comes district football.
The new format for high school teams does away with traditional conferences in favor of districts organized by geography, with similar-sized programs further categorized into color-coded sub-districts.
The reason?
To remedy many of the scheduling headaches of years past.
Depending on who you ask, the new setup is either a blessing or a boondoggle.
At places like Grand Rapids and Duluth Denfeld, optimism and a restoration of local rivalries replaces incessant travel to faraway foes. Both are in the 26-team Northeast District.
Second-year Thunderhawks coach Greg Spahn won’t miss seeing the likes of Willmar or Alexandria on the docket. In Spahn’s debut season, Grand Rapids was outscored 399-75 by eight regular-season opponents, the bulk of which were unfamiliar.
“It created some apathy within the program because it’s hard to get fired up for those games,” Spahn said. “It was tough to generate excitement.”
Consistently playing big-time programs from around the state has wreaked havoc on the Thunderhawks’ win-loss column; they are 2-26 since the start of 2012.
This time around, though, despite being bumped up from Class AAAA to Class AAAAA, they are back to a more conventional schedule. Grand Rapids opens against North Branch and also plays Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, Proctor, Cloquet, Hibbing, Hermantown, Denfeld and Pine City.
“It’s a big change, but it solves a lot of scheduling problems for a lot of teams, and we were one of them,” said Spahn, whose Thunderhawks visited Bemidji, St. Cloud, Sartell and Fergus Falls in 2014.
Likewise for the Hunters, who struggled during three years of being miscast in the mighty Mississippi 8 Conference. Denfeld returns to a slate that looks like it originated during the days of the North Country Conference. Hello, Cloquet and Hermantown; goodbye, Big Lake and Monticello.
Hunters coach Frank Huie said the district setup creates a “more competitive situation” for his club.
“For us personally, there are absolutely no negatives,” Huie said. “I think this is for the greater good, and selfishly it’s better for us.”
Denfeld’s season-opening opponent Saturday is singing a different tune. Rather than be placed in the Northeast alongside the Hunters and other Northland mainstays, Duluth East is stuck in the North Central. The Greyhounds will travel more than 1,100 miles for four road games. And while East also was happy to bid farewell to the Mississippi 8, its district is rife with many of the same schools.
The Greyhounds were able to cross over and play Denfeld thanks to Grand Rapids and North Branch doing the same.
“It was a major disappointment from the beginning,” East coach Joe Hietala said. “We feel like there’s a lot of good rivalries (locally) - between East and Hermantown, East and Cloquet, obviously Denfeld, Grand Rapids - and the (Minnesota State High School League) puts us in a district where we don’t have any opportunity to play those teams.”
Hietala then softened his stance a bit, saying the North Central will force improvement upon the Greyhounds.
“Our challenge now is we have to get ourselves capable of being competitive against these teams we play,” he said. “If we can, I think we’re going to produce some pretty good football.”

DISTRICT SCHEDULING SIMPLIFIED
The basics:

  • There are 18 districts, each with between 12-28 schools.
  • Teams’ schedules are comprised almost exclusively of district opponents, though interdistrict or cross-district scheduling is allowed. To do so requires cooperation from others. In order for Denfeld and East to meet, they had to find two schools willing to cross over so there weren’t an odd number of remaining squads in their respective leagues for Week 1. Grand Rapids (Northeast) and North Branch (North Central) agreed.
  • Districts are broken down into sub-districts, many of which are named for colors. In the Northeast, there are teams ranging from Class A to Class AAAAA. Thus, the sub-districts are made up of schools similar in size. The Northeast Red counts Grand Rapids, Class AAAA outfits Denfeld, Cloquet, Hermantown and Hibbing and Class AAA Proctor. Everybody plays everybody in their sub-group, with the remainder of schedules filled out within the larger district and based on preference (Esko and Cloquet pairing up, for instance).
  • There no longer are football-only conferences.
  • Districts will be re-evaluated every two years.
  • Section playoffs are not impacted.
  • The district format surfaced as a way to alleviate scheduling woes, which were more pronounced - though not exclusive to - Twin Cities-area programs. Some of the metro behemoths had difficulties finding eight opponents and often had to barnstorm the Midwest - and even Canada - in search of games.

“Eden Prairie and Wayzata - nobody wanted to play them,” Esko coach Bill Hudspith said. Consequently, the MSHSL introduced district scheduling.
Locally, Grand Rapids, with no conference affiliation, faced a similar dilemma. And Denfeld and East were becoming intimately familiar with Interstate 35. The Hunters go from the second-smallest member of the Mississippi 8 to the second-largest in the Northeast.
“Without the state stepping in, look at what the alternative was,” Huie said. “We had schools from Duluth playing Kingsford, Michigan. We had schools from central Minnesota playing North Dakota and South Dakota schools. We had schools playing Iowa schools.”

CHANGE HAS SUPPORTERS
Change rarely is greeted without a few rumblings. And district scheduling is a big change.
There’s no more Sea-Range Conference, no more Polar League (for football). Some schedule-making freedom has been lost. And there’s a perception that the new setup is here simply because a few metro schools complained.
Hudspith recalled a couple seasons where his Eskomos had to play powers St. Croix Lutheran or Holy Family Catholic just to get eight contests.
“And we did OK, but in the real world sometimes you go against Goliath, and you have to get used to that,” Hudspith said. “For some reason, everybody had to change for those few schools down south.
“I didn’t know if we had a real problem up here as far as scheduling, and why we would have to change, but evidently somebody did.”
Still, Hudspith is willing to give the new approach a try and hopes, eventually, it “will be a positive change.”
For many, it already is.
That includes fans in the Northland, who will be treated to a cadre of local matchups that haven’t existed of late.
“I think you’re going to get some really good local football,” Proctor coach Derek Parendo said. “Proctor and Denfeld, that’s going to be fun to watch, and Cloquet-Denfeld, you’re going to get some of those rivalries. Hibbing and Grand Rapids will be playing each other. I think it’s going to help with some of these schools that are close but haven’t been able to play each other for various reasons.”
Huie wondered why Denfeld would play Cloquet, Hermantown and Proctor in every other sport, but not on the gridiron. His players didn’t grow up competing against kids from St. Francis or Princeton; there are no rivalries there, no bragging rights. It became a tough sell.
“For us not to be playing against those schools was just shameful because of local interest, and people identify with those teams we play in each and every other sport,” Huie said.
Talk to many local coaches, and they agree the district format is a good thing. It streamlines scheduling and helps to create competitive balance.
Parendo, who could gripe about Proctor being the only Class AAA school in its sub-district and thus facing a formidable eight-pack of opponents that includes Grand Rapids, Denfeld and Cloquet, instead is embracing the tall task.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing the bigger schools,” he said.
At East, Hietala said despite stringent lobbying to get in the Northeast, the Greyhounds will try to emulate the strengths of their North Central opponents and reach their level. At this point, it is what it is. He doesn’t necessarily agree with the placement, but “the chips fell where they fell, so now it’s up to us to make the most of the situation.”

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