High school football games become tougher to scheduleby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's high school football champions will be crowned this weekend during the state tournament that starts Friday at the Metrodome.
As important as the big games will be, the upcoming off season could be even more important for dozens of teams who struggle with a growing problem in high school football -- scheduling games.
Duluth Central's season ended last month with a loss in the second round of the playoffs. But head coach Chris Vold has little time to rest. He still hasn't filled his schedule for next year.
"It's tiring. You go around and around and around, for discussion after disucssion. There's no easy answer," he said.
The problem is Duluth Central isn't in a conference. It used to be, but the conference folded after too many teams joined other conferences. Conference membership guarantees a set of opponents for teams.
Vold says he's left scrambling for leftovers, to the point where his team played a game this year in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, about a five-hour bus ride one way.
In the end, Duluth Central played just six games this year, which is two short of a normal regular season.
"Parents call me, upset that we have a bye here, a bye there. It's not intentional. We just can't find games that match up with our schedule," said Vold. "That's really frustrating for us as coaches, to hear people gripe that we don't have a full schedule. Believe me, we'd love to have a full schedule."
Vold says some factors playing a role in the situation is declining enrollment, and consolidation among schools.
His own school consolidated this year. The Duluth school district is closing Denfeld High, so students from that school are now attending Central. Vold says that made his school look too big to some potential opponents who didn't want to be blown out.
As demographics change, schools are realigning themselves to find opponents that match up better in terms of size, even if that means doing away with longtime rivalries.
In the Twin Cities metro area, Wayzata -- which is playing for a state championship this weekend -- only had six regular season games, but considered going to Florida for a game. Powerhouse Eden Prairie opened its season in Canada.
The Minnesota High School League, which regulates high school sports, has been studying the issue.
"There's no perfect solution out there. We've talked to other states out there, as well, and this is not an uncommon problem," said Kevin Merkle, associate director of the league.
Merkle says it's still a minority, but there are a significant number of schools that struggle with scheduling -- both big and small, and scattered geographically. More than ever, he says, there are very strong and very weak teams who should probably never play each other.
"They may play them in basketball or hockey or volleyball because they have more games, and if they get blown out one or two games it's not as big of a deal," said Merkle. "But in football, you can only play once a week."
One partial fix that's been approved for next year is called "zero week." That means teams struggling to find opponents will be able to schedule a game a week before the state-mandated season opener. The high school league is expected to finalize the details of the plan next week.
Merkle says the downside of zero week is that it will make summer even shorter for students and coaches. It will also require them to entirely stop practicing during a required bye week later in the season.
Merkle says zero week is a "Band-aid solution" that won't fix the entire problem, which is why the high school league will also discuss other options that could also be acted upon this winter.
One option being considered would be to get rid of all conferences in football, and schedule games according to the sections schools are in -- to ensure more guaranteed games for more teams.
Sections differ from conferences in that they're determined at the state level and based on enrollment. Conferences have traditionally been more closely aligned around geography.
Drawbacks could include more travel for some teams, and the possible loss of some great rivalries if current conferences and sections don't align.
Merkle says he thinks more schools are warming to section scheduling, but that proposal has no definite timeline.
- Morning Edition, 11/26/2010, 7:20 a.m.