PREP SPORTS: So long, Southwest Conference

MARSHALL – The Marshall Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously 6-0 to withdraw from the Southwest Conference and join the Big South Conference at its regular meeting Monday.

The Big South Conference will be a high school league for competition in activities and athletics that has been discussed by officials from the Southwest and South Central conferences for several months. It will include 13 school districts and will become active during the 2014-15 school year.

The school districts involved with this merger include Jackson County Central, Luverne, Marshall, Pipestone Area, Redwood Valley, Windom Area and Worthington from the SWC; and Blue Earth Area, Fairmont, New Ulm, St. James Area, St. Peter and Waseca from the SCC.

MPS Superintendent Klint Willert said bringing stability to both conferences was important.

“Things tend to change over time and that is what’s happening as we transition from the Southwest Conference, with its long and storied history, to the new Big South Conference,” Willert said. “This was all brought on by a few different factors and, I think, one of the biggest ones was, by working together, we can ensure stability in scheduling events to create more opportunities for our students. That is what this conference is creating.”

“The discussion for the Big South started last spring,” Marshall High School Director of Activities and Athletics Bruce Remme said. “I have to give credit to the superintendent of all 13 school districts because they are the ones who set the wheels in motion for the Big South to be developed. This stemmed from the desire to bring stability to both conferences and to expand some opportunities for the students in all of the school districts.”

Although the SWC has served Marshall well for the last seven decades, the Tigers, who have 678 students, have the largest enrollment in the league by a wide margin.

From the standpoint of competitive balance in a sport such as football, where the size of an enrollment can have a huge effect, the MHS population is more than three times bigger than Windom Area, which has 222 students. The enrollments at Pipestone Area (293), Jackson Country Central (305), Luverne (308) and Redwood Valley (318) are all less than half the size of Marshall.

Worthington, which has 558 students, is the only current SWC school with a population that is even comparable to MHS. Yet, the Trojans trail the Tigers by 120 students.

“The Southwest Conference has been our home for 70 years, it’s been a good home for us and we value the relationship that we have had with this conference,” Remme said. “We have had built great rivalries and traditions in the Southwest Conference. But anytime you move onto something new, you’re going to miss some rivalries and traditions. However, the schools of the Southwest Conference are joining the Big South and we will the unique opportunity to keep a lot the rivalries and traditions intact.”

There is a different situation in the SCC, where New Ulm (523), Waseca (500), Fairmont (492) and St. Peter (482) are all separated by a margin of 41 students. However, enrollments at Blue Earth Area (318) and St. James Area (272) are both significantly lower.

Remme talked about the positive aspects of joining the Big South.

“I see a lot of pros for our students in an expanded conference,” Remme said. “With a larger number of school districts, we’re going to have opportunities for staging larger events, specifically things like track meets, cross country meets, golf meets, wrestling tournaments and gymnastics tournaments. In a lot of those kinds of sports, students compete more as individuals. This is going to allow these students to be a part of a large conference tournament, which will be very exciting.”

The positive opportunities also include non-athletic activities.

“We will have more opportunities in the area of fine arts,” Remme said. “A Big South Speech Tournament is already in development. This will give our students a chance to be a part of a conference tournament and for them to be recognized as an all-conference performer. This is something that we currently don’t offer in the Southwest Conference.”

Remme also said there are drawbacks.

“Some people are going to look at this and say drawbacks are going to be travel and geography. It could be a potential downfall,” Remme said. “It’s certainly a valid argument. When you look at the geography from Waseca and Blue Earth in the far east and Pipestone, Luverne and Marshall in the far west, it certainly covers a lot of miles. However, with the structures that the Big South has in place for the activities, I think we have done a good job in trying to minimize some of the travel concerns and the longer trips that will take place are being scheduled for a Friday night or a Saturday.”

Remme said many sports will have divisions based on geography that will look very similar to the current Southwest Conference. Some of the sports that will be separated this way include volleyball, boys and girls basketball; and wrestling, which will have dual-team divisions and a large conference tournament right before the start of the postseason.

Remme said the moved to an expanded conference will help Marshall play section opponents in regular season games.

“Some of the teams coming to the Big South from the South Central are already opponents we face in section tournaments in sports like football, volleyball, baseball and wrestling,” Remme said. “Waseca and New Ulm are section opponents that we did not have on our football schedule, but they will be conference opponents next year. One of the goals of scheduling games in any sport is to play section opponents during the regular season.”

The Big South Conference will have a large-school division of six schools and a small-school division of seven schools in football. The top six enrollments include Marshall (678), Worthington (558), New Ulm (523), Waseca (500), Fairmont (492) and St. Peter (482). The bottom seven enrollments consist of Blue Earth Area (318), Redwood Valley (318), Luverne (308), Jackson County Central (305), Pipestone Area (293), St. James Area (272) and Windom Area (222).

“Marshall started looking at conference options a few years ago with football, in particular. That is what prompted our interest in joint the Wright County Conference,” Willert said. “When that opportunity fell through and the conversation was going on with the Big South, we knew that we had to focus on what is best for all of our students.”

The Big South also creates an opening on the Tigers’ football schedule in 2014.

“With an odd number of teams in (the) football (divisions) for the large schools, there will be some bye weeks in the conference schedule,” Remme said. “Marshall is one of the large schools and we have an opening on our schedule. We are currently in discussions to fill that opening.

Remme said he has received impute from Marshall’s coaching staff and that some new ideas may be implemented for the Big South in the future.

“Our coaches have shared with me some excitement about moving to the Big South,” Remme said. “We’re excited about forming some new rivalries and some new partnerships with the chance to see additional competitions that we have not seen before.”

Willert said Big South officials have entertained the idea of creating a traveling trophy that is put up for grabs when the trophy-holding school plays against a conference opponent.

“High school athletics is all about creating experiences for communities and kids and that is why we are excited about this process,” Willert said. “When people look at the schedule, they will see some of the games at the end of the season will feature contests between the first-place teams, the second-place teams, the third-place teams and down the line in both divisions. They won’t have a location identified on the calendar, but they will be held open to crossover into divisional opportunities that we become great matchups.”

Willert is excited for Marshall’s involvement in the Big South.

“This is what we believe is the best option,” Willert said. “We are keeping our current conference together in most sports and expanding it with the South Central in football, which will allow us to play Class 4A schools that were not previously on our schedule. On the other hand, the volleyball rivalry between Marshall and Jackson County Central is still intact. That is important because our kids and communities have come to expect things like it.”

Willert said all of the Southwest and South Central conference school district boards are expected to vote to withdraw from their current leagues and join the Big South by Dec. 1. At that time, a conference president will be elected.

The Big South’s bylaws and constitution have already been prepared and will become active next fall.