Watch for a series of posts about Minnesota's high school basketball conferences. A little history lesson, you might say.
I'll start with the conference that occupies my old stomping grounds--the once but no longer mighty Big Nine. Nothing could exemplify the hard times that have befallen the Big Nine like Austin's (recently reversed) 23-game losing streak in football. Once upon a time, Austin beat everybody in everything. The Packers were a regular participant in the baseball and basketball state tournaments in the 1940s and 1950s. Their 26 basketball tournaments remains #2 all-time, their 19 baseball tournaments remains tied for 1st. Their 17 golf tournaments is #6. They won basketball titles in 1935, 1946 and 1958, baseball titles in 1954 and 1964, a pair of swimming titles in 1945 and 1946,wrestling in 1945, cross-country and golf in 1967, and tennis in 1969.
And yet, Red Wing, with 4 state basketball titles, Rochester with 2, and Albert Lea with 1, not to mention Mankato, always gave Austin all it could handle. Well, except that losing to Austin finally compelled the one-time powerhouse Red Wing to finally leave the Big Nine in the 1970s. I mean, Packers, indeed. It seemed that whenever a great athlete emerged at one of the small towns in southeastern Minnesota, his father would mysteriously end up with a job at the Hormel Meat-Packing plant and the son would be an Austin Packer.
No more. No more Austin Packers dynasty, no more Big Nine dynasty.
In the multi-class era, among the boys, there have been just 3 state titles in more than 40 years--Owatonna in 1989 and 1990 and Mankato East in 2006. Austin in 1972 and 1981 made it to the finals, as did Red Wing (no longer, again, a Big Nine member) in 2002.
Among the girls, Coco and Kelly Miller carried Rochester Mayo to 4 tournament appearances and titles in 1995 and 1997. Otherwise only Mankato East in 1987 managed to win a girls title. Mayo, East and Owatonna have lost in the finals.
Putting together a conference consisting of "large" Greater MN schools is tough. Your county seats vary widely in population and school enrollments. In the Big Nine, the variance is from Mankato East at 784 and Albert Lea at 796 all the way up to almost twice as much at Rochester Mayo with 1,506 and Owatonna with 1,442. There just aren't a lot of "big" schools in Greater MN.
No wonder the Albert Lea boys have struggled with 51 wins and 159 losses over the past 7 years, and just 1 tournament appearance in almost 80 years (in 2005). Among the girls, Faribault is the yardstick for futility at 51-155. But the Mankato East boys have competed well enough at 119-93 and 6 tournament appearances since the Mankato split into East and West 30 years ago.
The Big Nine today:
AAAA in basketball
Rochester Mayo enrollment 1,506 boys 101-114 girls 110-105
Owatonna 1,442 boys 160-63 girls 127-75
Rochester John Marshall 1,391 boys 66-127 girls 104-108
Rochester Century 1,275 boys 95-122 girls 110-100
AAA in basketball
Mankato West 1,007 boys 158-65 girls 98-101
Winona 997 boys 135-79 girls 70-122
Austin 979 boys 95-110 girls 90-115
Faribault 946 boys 69-148 girls 51-155
Albert Lea 796 boys 51-159 girls 68-115
Mankato East 784 boys 119-93 girls 86-127
Total boys 1,045-1,180 girls 914-1,123
Average enrollment is a little over 1,100
Considering these teams would be a cumulative .500 in the conference, I figure the boys were about 320-450 in non-conference play, the girls more like an execrable 200-400.
Among the boys, both Mankatos and Winona are ahead of the larger Rochester schools. Among the girls, the pecking order is pretty much the same as the enrollment numbers.
But cumulatively, this is a pretty bad collection of basketball teams, more the girls than the boys, but the boys, too.
So the question is this. Tradition be damned. Are there better rivalries that the Big Nine schools, especially the smaller ones, might consider going forward? Who would be the candidates?
Two obvious candidates are the former Big Nine members Northfield and Red Wing, who left to join the Missota in the 1970s. There they now face Chanhassan, Chaska, Farmington, Holy Angels, New Prague and Shakopee. Average enrollment is 1,250, a little bigger than the Big Nine, with a range from 741 (Holy Angels) to over 1,700 (Shakopee), pretty much the same as the Big Nine (except just a tiny bit smaller on the small end and a bit bigger on the big end).
Northfield (AAAA) 1,173 boys 82-123 girls 106-104
Red Wing (AAA) 809 boys 94-121 girls 129-91
Other Southeastern/South Central Minnesota cities
AAAA in basketball
Farmington (Missota) 1,565 boys 82-133 girls 93-120
Hastings (Suburban East Conference) 1,452 boys 72-146 girls 45-179
Shakopee (Missota) 1,736 boys 168-58 girls 94-121
Prior Lake (South Suburban) 2,154 boys 96-119 girls 107-104
AAA in basketball
Kasson-Mantorville 568 boys 87-115 girls 103-108
New Prague (Missota) 1,111 boys 138-84 girls 169-58
Waseca (South Central) 522 boys 70-126 girls 104-96
New Ulm (South Central) 589 boys 48-150 girls 59-129
Marshall (Southwest) 699 boys 151-71 girls 153-75
Marshall is, of course, not an option (too far away) but is included to show just how big a net you have to cast to find possible AAAA and AAA opponents for these southeastern teams. Unless, of course, you go into the metro area. But then the competition just gets tougher, not easier.
Maybe someday one of Rochester's bedrooms (Kasson-Mantorville? Byron? St. Charles?) will become large enough to join the Big Nine but none of them is there right now.
When Northfield and Red Wing left the Big Nine, the Missota is where they decided to go. Also members of the Missota are Farmington, New Prague and Shakopee, listed above, plus Chaska, Chanhassan and Holy Angels, who are presumed not to be a fit with Big Nine teams. Chaska has recently split into Chaska and Chanhassan and so both are smaller than Chaska used to be, but they are growing communities and once the housing market returns to a more normal status, they will grow and grow and grow too big for the Big Nine. Holy Angels is too metro, and not a small town team, so I don't see them fitting. Shakopee is too big, and too good.
And by the way, break up the Wright County Conference
I mean, of the 11 basketball members, only 2.5 are actually located in Wright County--Annandale, Delano and Cokato (but not Dassel of Dassel-Cokato). Among the rest, Litchfield and New London-Spicer are located in a more northerly direction, while Glencoe and Hutchinson are more southerly, and Mound, Orono, Waconia and Holy Family Catholic (located in Victoria) are in the metro area. South of Wright County is southern Minnesota, where maybe you could scrounge up another Big Nine candidate.
Hutchinson (Wright County) 762 boys 96-119 girls 108-104 Probably too far away
Waconia (Wright) 996 boys 175-49 girls A stretch geographically but not as much as Hutch
Glencoe (Wright) 513 boys 112-101 girls 86-124 Too small
What to Do?
Well, there just aren't many natural rivals, based on enrollment and location, that the Big Nine schools could gravitate toward. But let's just say that, in light of the terrible struggles of the smaller (AAA) schools, we wanted to realign conference relationships. What could we do?
You've got Owatonna and the 3 Rochesters. You could add Northfield, a former Big Nine member who is struggling in the Missota. You could add Farmington, which is struggling in the Missota. Hastings, which is struggling big time in the Suburban East.
Here you've got Albert Lea, Austin, Faribault, Mankato East, Mankato West and Winona. To make a full conference you could add former member Red Wing. You could add New Prague, which has thrived in the Missota and would thrive in the Big Nine. But then what to do with Albert Lea, who has struggled so desperately in the Big Nine. If they left to join the South Central, you could add Waconia, though they're pretty much at the edge geographically and will probably get bigger in time. Hutchinson would be a stretch, both geographically and competitively.
So here's where I end up.
Big Division (1,000+ enrollment)
Rochester John Marshall
Nine Division (less than 1,000 enrollment)
The Big Division would be a terrific conference, giving Northfield, Farmington and Hastings a chance to be more competitive than they are in their current affiliation, and giving Owatonna a better, more competitive environment than the current Big Nine.
The smaller group is a bit problematic, mainly in that Waconia is a stretch geographically and has no tradition of playing any of the other teams in the division. Still, this grouping is more Waconia's size than the Wright County, which ranges down to as small as 500 enrollment, about half Waconia's size. Waconia-New Prague at least would be a great rivalry. Waconia-Mankato could be a great rivalry. And speaking of New Prague, they would become the dominant team in the new Big Nine overnight. New Prague and Faribault is a natural rivalry.
I suppose people would object to splitting Mankato East and Mankato West. You would devise a scheduling scheme that would allow them to play every year. Maybe (in football) they play 8 games, 7 within the division and 1 cross-over.
Mankato East vs. Mankato West
Rochester John Marshall vs. Austin
Rochester Mayo vs. Winona
Rochester Century vs. Albert Lea
Owatonna vs. Faribault
Northfield vs. New Prague
Waconia vs. Farmington
Hastings vs. Red Wing
Yeah, it will never happen. The Big Nine would have to admit how stale and boring they've become. Schools from outside would have to want to join, and why would they? The Big Nine is not attractive, and some of them are a stretch geographically. But in basketball, at least, almost every one of the 16 schools in "the new Big Nine" would benefit competitively, with a better competitive set based on enrollment. Some would get some great new rivalries. A nice fantasy.