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Football scheduling an issue at MSHSL board of directors meeting

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MOORHEAD -- Minnesota State High School League associate director Kevin Merkle has some words for people thinking his proposed plan for 2015 was to rid Minnesota high school football of conferences.

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"They are missing the point," Merkle said.

At the MSHSL Board of Director's first meeting of the 2013-14 school year Tuesday, Merkle presented a plan in which groups of up to 16 schools would be formed based on geography. Rivalries and enrollment would determine schedules within each group.

"It isn't about conferences," Merkle said. "It's about making sure that schools can get a football schedule. The issue of people being able to get a full football schedule has just been a hot topic for a number of years. It just keeps getting worse. We have schools that either don't get a full schedule, or if they do, it's just really hard."

Merkle hasn't thrown out the idea of playing section football, but he feels his plan doesn't restrict schools as much in scheduling.

"People have brought up that we should play section football, which means you play teams in your section, and that is an option that is still on the table, but that creates more challenges," Merkle said. "We think that this model might be better because it doesn't cause some of the same problems as section football. It still allows schools a lot of flexibility and input on how they want to schedule within that group."

Barnesville is joining the Heart O'Lakes Conference in 2014 for football. For teams like the Trojans, who are surrounded by towns relatively the same size and schools with the same enrollment, not much would change.

"Football is football," Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand said. "There's towns that are close to each other where the kids know each other. That develops your rivalry, not so much conference championships. No matter what, kids are going to go out there and fight their hardest regardless of who they are playing."

This doesn't mean the idea doesn't have its flaws.

"The problem would be a town like Marshall," Strand said. "There isn't a town comparable to Marshall down there, so the small schools in the area would get stuck playing Marshall. The biggest thing I would see is kids working hard and wanting to be on all-conference teams and they want to have banners on the wall that say they are conference champions."

Merkle says there's no reason for teams to eliminate conference champions or all-conference teams.

"The idea is if you're in a section with let's say 16 schools, you can divide it into two groups of eight and still have a conference champion," Merkle said. "They can decide on their own if they want to have conference champions and still have all-conference. In fact, that's what we'd expect."

Merkle said football is the main factor for constant conference shuffling among all sports.

"If you really want to look at it, it really preserves conferences. Merkle said. "What it would do is people wouldn't play football within the same conference that they do other sports. One of the reasons we have all the shuffling of conferences is because of football. They want to align themselves in a conference where they can be competitive in football. It's a lot easier to have conference alignments in basketball and hockey and baseball and so on, but football drives it, right or wrong."

Merkle pointed to the newly split Central Lakes Conference that Bemidji and Moorhead joined for the 2013 season as a model for his plan.

"There might be a group of 10 or a group of 16 that could be in two divisions and all be in one conference," Merkle said. "There's a lot of different models that could be used once we get further down the road. For schools like Moorhead, it may not change at all. It's very similar to the kind of concept that schools like Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Brainerd and Alexandria are already in."

Tuesday was the first time the detailed idea was presented to the MSHSL board. It will be discussed among coaches at the football advisory board in September. Merkle says he will also give athletic directors and the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association a chance to look at it. He's hoping for a decision to be made on it in early January.

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

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