The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association introduced cooperative team programs in 1982 to provide more opportunities for student-athletes and potentially increase participation.
Many schools have taken advantage of the various co-op programs, with football the biggest benefactor because of the number of players needed to field a varsity team.
Co-op programs heavily influence gymnastics, too. The Division 1 and Division 2 landscape is littered with co-op programs, because so many schools don’t have enough participants to field a team of their own.
And with large conglomerates of schools joining together, especially in the Milwaukee metro area, co-op programs are dominating at the state level. The Franklin/Muskego/Oak Creek/Whitnall co-op team has won seven of the last eight Division 1 state team titles. Waukesha West/North/South co-op has won the second-most team D1 titles with seven.
Those days are numbered. Changes are on the horizon for next season.
The WIAA announced in June that, based on a recommendation from the Wisconsin Gymnastics Coaches Association, the co-op format for the sport will change dramatically starting with the 2019-’20 season. Only two schools will be allowed per co-op. Three or more schools will be allowed only if the combined enrollment for those three schools does not surpass the enrollment of the largest Division 1 or Division 2 school participating in gymnastics.
“I think people misunderstand why we’re doing this,” said Stephanie Hauser, the WIAA’s assistant director of the executive staff. “It has nothing to do with the competitive side of things or to level the playing field. This was a decision made strictly to grow numbers in the sport and get more girls to go out.
“We’ve seen a steady decline in numbers over the years, so we’re not standing still and doing nothing about it. We want to continue to try and grow the sport, and we feel like this is the best way to do it.”
Schools currently taking part in co-op programs have until April 1 to decide their status for next season. If schools decide to stay with their current co-op affiliation and the combined enrollment exceeds that of the largest participating school, that particular co-op won’t be allowed to compete at the state team tournament in Wisconsin Rapids. Individuals on those teams, however, can still compete in the state individual tournament.
“We’re hoping that a city like Kenosha, which now has one combined team, will be able to now have two,” Hauser said. “And if that happens, that hopefully creates opportunities for girls that may not have gone out for gymnastics otherwise.
“As of right now, it looks like we would have seven Division 1 co-op programs (next season). In Division 2, we just don’t have enough athletes, so you’ll still see many co-op programs with more than two schools involved.”
Jean Welch is in her 30th season as Janesville Craig’s gymnastics coach. She has also served on the WGCA board and was involved in many meetings with the WIAA where downsizing the co-op program was talked about.
Craig and Janesville Parker have enough girls to field their own teams, but when it comes to sectional competition in Division 1, they are forced to go up against co-op powerhouses such as Franklin/Muskego/Oak Creek/Whitnall and Burlington/Badger/Catholic Central/Wilmot. Welch believes she’s had teams good enough to qualify for the state team tournament within the last 10 years, but the co-op teams are too tough to overcome.
“I certainly understand why certain schools have gotten together to form a co-op,” Welch said. “It’s tough to find coaches or practice facilities. But what’s frustrating is that most of the schools that are now a co-op don’t even practice together. The girls work out on their own with their club teams.
“But you also have to take into account what’s fair to everybody else. You’re taking the best of the best from some very big schools and putting them on the same team. That’s tough to compete against.”
Welch’s teams have made two state team appearances, in 2000 and 2008, but have been left outside looking in since the large co-op programs started dominating the landscape in 2010. Welch said the problem is much greater as far as co-ops dominating in Division 1 than it is in Division 2.
Those problems will hopefully be solved starting next season.