The main question with the venerable Central Lakes is, What the hell is Little Falls thinking? A member of the Central Lakes for many years, the Flyers bolted last year to join the--are you ready for this?--the Granite Ridge. It traded a long-standing rivalry with Brainerd for Mora. Rocori for Foley. Willmar for Zimmerman. St. Cloud Apollo and St. Cloud Tech for Milaca!
What they accomplished was to get a much easier conference schedule. The Central Lakes continues with 2 4A schools and 7 in 3A. The Granite Ridge has 2 3As--well, 3 now including Little Falls--and 4 2As.
Remaining in the Central Lakes are:
Central Lakes--Class AAAA
Brainerd total enrollment 1,685 boys W-L (past 8 years) 84-126 girls W-L (past 8 years) 98-110
St. Cloud Tech 1,241 boys 153-77 girls 149-74
Central Lakes--Class AAA
Alexandria total enrollment 1,126 boys 91-107 girls 133-83
Fergus Falls 730 boys 58-145 girls 157-63
Rocori 742 boys 161-78 girls 44-167
Sartell-St. Stephen 962 boys 79-129 girls 140-83
Sauk Rapids-Rice 1,078 boys 38-172 girls 35-173
St. Cloud Apollo 1,031 boys 159-70 girls 70-144
Willmar 994 boys 152-70 girls 141-69
Little Falls (AAA) 654 boys 124-96 girls 75-136
The Big Nine of the North
The Central Lakes is sort of like the Big Nine of the North, encompassing as it does many of the largest schools north of the Twin Cities. The Big Nine ranges from about 800 to about 1,600, the Central Lakes from 700 to 1,700.
The pecking order among the schools has little or nothing to do with enrollment, however. The Brainerd boys and girls both underperform, as do the Sartell and Sauk Rapids and Alexandria boys and the Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud Apollo girls.
On the other side of the coin, the Sartell, Fergus and Willmar girls over-perform, as do the Rocori and Apollo boys.
The Little Falls boys performed pretty well over recent years, but their girls struggled. But if anybody should have been looking for an easier schedule, it would be Sauk Rapids, not the Flyers.
But now having 9 members, who might you add to get to 10 or 12 or 16?
Other obvious candidates
Moorhead 1,356 boys 123-82 girls 107-100
Duluth East 1,345 boys 164-72 girls 136-85
Bemidji 1,145 boys 107-113 girls 115-83
Grand Rapids 947 boys 160-76 girls 141-82
Detroit Lakes (Mid-State) 737 boys 111-103 girls 132-84
Add all 5 (plus Little Falls) and you've got 15 good programs. Well 15 potentially good programs. These 5 here are all good enough to translate. All of them except Sauk Rapids has a successful boys or girls program.
But of course there's a reason why these schools don't belong to the Central Lakes already. For Little Falls and DL, I suspect it's competitive balance (too small). For Moorhead, it's competitive balance (too big, too good). For Grand Rapids and Duluth East, it's geography. They're a ways off, and the Iron Range and Duluth conferences always made more sense. But all of them are independents now, and they mostly play each other anyway.
The less obvious candidates
Hibbing (Iron Range) 634
Thief River Falls (NWC) 550
East Grand Forks (Mid-State) 514
Virginia (Iron Range) 460
Staples-Motley (Mid-State) 372
Crookston (NWC) 365
Chisholm (Iron Range) 159
It turns out that most of the cities and towns and schools that come to mind are smaller than the Central Lakes schools and smaller than you might think.
And so, the thrilling conclusion...
Getting to 10: add Detroit Lakes.
Getting to 12: DL, bring Little Falls back, and/or Moorhead and Bemidji.
Getting to 16: All of the above plus Duluth East and Grand Rapids. Then add Thief or Hibbing depending on whether you prefer to expand east or west. I guess I would take Hibbing just because they're bigger. And keep in mind that Hibbing is much larger its fellows on the Iron Range. So then you've got 2 great divisions, IMO.
Central Lakes West
The challenge is getting DL and Little Falls to join, DL right now being an 800 pound gorilla in the Mid-State and Little Falls having just bolted.
Central Lakes East
St. Cloud Apollo
St. Cloud Tech
Here the challenge is getting Hibbing to commit to a fair amount of travel (Duluth East already roams the state quite widely including a lot of games vs. metro teams).
Or as I've suggested for a "new Big Nine," you could do it by enrollment.
Central Division (Big)
St. Cloud Tech
St. Cloud Apollo
Based on recent history, Sauk Rapids (both boys and girls), the Alex boys, and the Apollo girls would be a bit overmatched. And there's some big travel times in there but, hey, Duluth East played Bemidji, Grand Rapids and Rocori last year anyway.
Lakes Division (Small)
Maybe you could swap out Sauk and Grand Rapids for better competitive balance. And then there's the cross-over rivalries:
Duluth East vs. Hibbing
Grand Rapids vs. Bemidji
Alex vs. DL
Brainerd vs. Little Falls
Sauk vs. Sartell
St. Cloud Tech vs. Rocori
Moorhead vs. Fergus
Apollo vs. Willmar
But, in Conclusion...
This is another fantasy that's not going to happen. DL and Little Falls don't belong to the Central Lakes now for a reason. Duluth East has become more oriented toward the Twin Cities metro than to the north central and northwestern town teams. Hibbing's traditional rivals are home on the range, though the Iron Range conference has certainly fallen on hard enough times. Oh, well.