Unfair? Some co-ops push limits

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Associationís cooperative program was established in 1982.

By allowing two or more high schools to combine to form a team in a sport when one does not have enough athletes to run the sport on its own, the WIAA afforded every athlete the chance to compete.

A total of 437 boys and girls co-op teams competed in the last calendar year, including 191 during the winter sports schedule.

So where does the co-op program stand 30 years after it began?

It depends on what sport youíre talking about.

The co-op concept has worked wonders for Brodhead/Judaís football program. The Cardinals have made a state-record 20 consecutive playoff appearances thanks to the handful of Juda players that contribute year in and year out.

The Janesville Bluebirds, the cityís high school boys hockey program, have also taken advantage of the co-op option. Coach John Mauermannís program has made three state appearances and has allowed Janesville Parker players a chance to skate. Craig could typically field a team each year, but Parker has lacked the numbers to support its own team.

Some teams, however, have stretched the co-opís boundaries to the limit. Gymnastics and girls golf have seen some of the most blatant abuses.

Currently, the top two teams in gymnastics in Division 1 are the co-op teams Burlington/Badger/Catholic Central/Wilmot and Franklin/Muskego/Oak Creek/Whitnall. Burlingtonís co-op team has a combined enrollment of 4,005 at its member schools. Franklinís co-op teamís numbers are even more startling, with a combined enrollment of 5,944. Thatís more than 4,000 students than attend Parker or Craig.

ďBeing able to co-op has had a huge impact on our sport,Ē Parker gymnastics coach Cathy Lehmann said. ďAnd when you combine that opportunity with club participation and open enrollment, it really puts us (Parker and Craig) at a disadvantage.

ďPeople always ask me why Parker and Craig donít combine as a co-op, and the answer is simple. We both have the numbers to have our own teams, and if we did combine, thatís going to limit the number of girls that can compete. And thatís what high school sports is all about.Ē

Although the co-op initiative has its advantages, it also has drawbacks for some teams. Co-op teams cannot cut players or limit how many compete. That means if 30 gymnasts from Franklin want to compete, but only three from Muskego, five from Oak Creek and six from Whitnall are interested, you have to find practice time and competition time for 44 athletes on the same team.

So what can the WIAA do about the dominance of certain co-op teams in a few sports? Probably not much. The advent of the open enrollment policy for student-athletes, along with the year-round devotion to club teams, has made life difficult for those schools competing against the Division 1 co-op programs. Wisconsinís inter-district public school open enrollment program allows parents to apply for their children to attend school districts other than the one in which they reside. Schools involved in any WIAA co-op agreement must be in the same geographical area and combine for at least two years, but there is no combined enrollment cutoff for those participating. Thatís why Franklinís gymnastics co-op, with a combined enrollment of close to 6,000, is allowed and thriving.

ďKids know going into high school what programs they want to be a part of, and because of open enrollment, they now have that choice,Ē Lehmann said. ďBut I donít think youíre going to see any changes, at least not in gymnastics.

ďWe just have to adjust our goals now. Instead of making state as a team, our primary goal, we now know that we have no chance to get through based on the co-op teams in our sectional. And thatís sad because our girls work just as hard.Ē

Other news, notes and observations as we hit the halfway point of the high school winter sports season:

-- Miltonís fab fouróMiltonís wrestling team probably doesnít have the depth to knock off seemingly invincible Wisconsin Rapids for the Division 1 team title, but the Red Hawks do feature four fabulous seniors.

John Wells, Landon Shea, Garrett Whitehead and Ian Johnson came into the program as heralded freshmen. Theyíve done nothing but impress since then. Wells, a state champion in 2010, is the top-ranked wrestler at 113 pounds. Johnson, the defending state champion at 171 pounds, is top-ranked at 182 this season. Whitehead, a runner-up a year ago at state, is ranked second at 132. Shea is ranked fifth at 126.

-- Milton swimmers also making a splashóNot to be outdone by the grapplers, Miltonís boys swim team is also making waves. Junior Spencer Mattox has the top time in Division 2 in the 100 breaststroke, and teammate Brandon Benson is second in the 100 butterfly. Miltonís 200 medley relay team is ranked third.

-- East Troy as good as advertisedóEast Troyís boys basketball team was expected to make a run at a Division 3 title, and the Trojans have not disappointed. Led by Army recruit Tanner Plomb, the Trojans are 9-1, with impressive wins over Division 1 powerhouses Racine Horlick and Milwaukee Riverside.

-- Memorial looks to repeatóThe more things change, the more they stay the same. Madison Memorialís boys basketball has been the dominant program in the state the last decade, and the defending state champion Spartans are unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in Division 1 at the midway point of this season. Among Memorialís 10 wins are three wins against Michigan teams at the Motor City Roundball Classic in Detroit.

Last updated: 7:20 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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