WIAA discusses economic hardships

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September 10, 2009
— Declining enrollment in the high schools and a downtrodden economy were the key players in Wednesday’s spirited Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association area meeting.

Although many topics were discussed—including adding a division in basketball and transitioning to district play in football—much of the talk centered around surviving the economic hardships and creating a fair playing field for schools where enrollment has plummeted.

“The matters at hand are robust,” said new WIAA executive director Dave Anderson, who was presiding over his first area meeting. “And these are issues that are not going to go away.

“It’s time to get our arms around this elephant in the room, and that’s a challenge. But it’s a challenge that all of us—administrators, coaches, board members—are going to work at resolving.”

The “elephant” Anderson referred to is more like a herd. Several prominent issues figure to dominate the landscape of Wisconsin high school sports the next couple of years.

Foremost at Wednesday’s meeting was the WIAA’s proposal to move some private schools up a division in basketball for the postseason. The proposal also could include adding a fifth division for the state tournament, but the majority of discussion centered on private schools such as Madison Edgewood, Racine St. Catherine’s, Wisconsin Lutheran and Milwaukee Lutheran being bumped up a division.

That didn’t sit well with Milwaukee Lutheran principal Paul Bahr.

Bahr believes the proposal is aimed at one school—Racine St. Catherine’s. The Angels have won three of the last four Division 3 boys state titles, preceded by Division 2 in 2005.

“If you have to address that issue with one school, do so. But don’t include all of us in with that,” Bahr said.

“The public’s perception is that the private schools dominate the state basketball tournament, and that’s not reality. In the last five years, there has been one boys Division 1 private school in the state tournament out of 40, and one girls team out of 40.

“And if you’re going to look at St. Catherine’s for the boys, take a look at Oostburg or Amherst or Monroe for the girls. They’ve all been to state in at least three of the last five years, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about that.”

There are 65 non-public schools in the state, and 30 of them would be bumped up a division in basketball based on WIAA criteria. The biggest criterion is the home base from which schools can attract students. Schools in the Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine and Madison areas obviously have a bigger base than those in rural areas.

“We want to create competitive equity and equal opportunity,” WIAA associate director Deb Hauser said of the overall plan. “And there is definitely an enrollment disparity, especially in Division 1.

“The perception is that private schools give scholarships and recruit. And most people I talk to tell me that’s what gives them an advantage. That’s the perception.”

And if there’s a need for change, the basketball proposal got 27-12 approval in a straw vote among those attending this area meeting.

Meanwhile, switching football from its current conference format to a eight-school districts designed for playoff qualifying was the other hot topic.

Although a disparity in enrollment among current conference schools is a big part of the WIAA’s district scheduling proposal for football, Anderson said there’s an even bigger issue. That centers on the “hidden epidemic” concerning concussions.

As it stands, schools that qualify for the postseason play a regular-season finale on Wednesday or Thursday, then compete Tuesday in the first round of the playoffs and Saturday in the second round. That’s three games in nine or 10 days. Too many, according to Anderson.

“You can say what’s the big deal? We’ve been playing under this format for years,” Anderson said. “But that was before the Prague or Geneva studies started uncovering the effects of concussions, and how often times they go unnoticed.

“By going to district play, we eliminate that Tuesday game.”

Many aspects of the current system would remain in place. Schools would keep a nine-game schedule, and postseason play would involve seven divisions.

Week one would be an open date (nonconference), followed by seven district games. Week nine would be a playoff game for the top four finishers in each district, while the other four schools would end their season by playing a ninth game against on a team with the same record from another district.

More importantly, 75 percent of the member schools would be traveling only 10-12 miles more on a weekly basis to an away game. That percentage is significantly higher than most opponents of the district plan had anticipated.

Travel expenses and a loss of longtime rivalries were the biggest concerns raised, along with the fact that a school currently one of the largest schools in its division could become one of the smallest in the new division.

“There’s probably too much planning yet to be done to get this in place by 2010,” Hauser said. “2011 is probably more realistic.”

And for starters, the district plan received 30-12 approval in Wednesday’s straw vote.

Dean Sanders, the WIAA District 6 president from Lake Mills, endorses the proposal.

“Across the state, we’re seeing schools say to us, ‘we can’t compete in our conference,’ ” Sanders said. “They may only have six schools, or they can’t get anyone to travel in, say, week eight for a nonconference game, or any number of things that have to be addressed.

“By going to a district-type schedule and getting schools to play on the same level as their opponent, we can hopefully quell some of those problems.”

At this point, observers are merely advised to stay tuned. Things may have just begun to get interesting.

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