February 16, 2012 at 8:33 a.m.
With some uncertainty on the horizon in the North Suburban Conference, Chisago Lakes and North Branch may be looking at a simultaneous switch to the Mississippi 8 Conference for the 2013-14 school year.
There are a number of factors that the schools are considering as the talk of a switch begins to heat up.
The plan would involve five schools, one leaving the M8C and four joining. As it stands, the Mississippi 8 currently has seven schools; Cambridge-Isanti, Rogers, Monticello, St. Michael-Albertville, Buffalo, Big Lake and Becker. Becker is moving to the Granite City Conference, leaving the M8C at six schools.
The conference would extend invitations to North Branch, Chisago Lakes, St. Francis and Princeton to join and put it at 10 teams, which is the most logical for scheduling and competitive purposes.
As for the North Suburban Conference, there is a great amount of uncertainty surrounding its future. Totino-Grace is already switching conferences in football. Benilde-St. Margaret’s wants to in hockey. Columbia Heights has talked of moving to a less competitive conference in football. According to CL Activities Director Perry Aadland, St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale Cooper have invitations to join a different conference. If St. Francis left to join the new M8C but North Branch and Chisago Lakes stayed put, they could be looking at a drastically different looking North Suburban, which they’ve called home since 2003.
Aadland noted that every year, there is some informal talk among AD’s about moving conferences, but this one is actually moving forward. Aadland brought the proposal to High School Principal Dave Ertl, who started talking with the other principals involved in the move. “Each pro and con can weigh differently, and the list of them is ever-changing,” Ertl said.
Travel distance and cost
As of now, North Branch and Chisago Lakes are the only schools to the Northeast of the suburbs that are in the North Suburban Conference. In fact, only one other school is even more than a couple miles north of I-694, and that’s St. Francis, which is straight west of Chisago Lakes on Highway 65.
The other schools that make up the conference are Irondale, Fridley, Totino-Grace, Spring Lake Park, Columbia Heights, Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Robbinsdale garet’s, Robbinsdale Cooper and St. Louis Park.
The farthest schools from Chisago Lakes are Benilde, Cooper and St. Louis Park, which are all between 44-49 miles away. The rest are between 29-37 miles away creating an average of 35.95 miles for CL away games in the conference (that includes North Branch, which is 13 miles away.)
For North Branch, the drive is a hint longer. Their average distance to travel to each conference away game is 38.37 miles.
For the new Mississippi 8 Conference, both schools would see an increased travel load. Chisago Lakes’ average drive for away games would be boosted by almost 12 miles each way to 47.33 miles, including trips to Buffalo, Monticello, St. Michael and Big Lake, which are all in excess of 61 miles.
For North Branch, the change would be a little more subtle. Their average would boost just under two miles to 40.1 miles each way because of their more western location.
Using hypothetical numbers, if a school bus is averaging 10 miles per gallon and gas is $3.40 per gallon, each round trip, on average, will cost $8.02 more for Chisago Lakes and $1.36 more for North Branch.
Chisago Lakes had close to 100 away games within the North Suburban Conference in 2010-11 among all the sports combined, which would end up being around $800 extra per year in gas alone. At North Branch, the extra cost would be in the $140 range.
As the North Suburban sits now, it features a wide array of competition. In football, teams in the conference range from Class AAAAA (St. Francis, Totino-Grace and Irondale) to Class AAA (Columbia Heights).
With Totino-Grace and Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the NSC features two private schools while the M8C would have none. Not surprisingly, BSM and TG are at or near the top of the standings in a lot of the major sports. Of the 22 conference titles up for grabs in 2010-11, Totino and Benilde combined for 15 of them.
On the other end of the spectrum, Columbia Heights finished last or second to last in 11 of their 15 sports, including winless seasons in football, girls basketball, boys soccer, girls soccer, boys tennis, girls tennis, volleyball and gymnastics.
In almost all of the sports, the gulf in competitive balance would be narrowed in the Mississippi 8 Conference. Outside of wrestling and gymnastics, their really isn’t a single, traditional dominant school, and there really isn’t a proverbial doormat that doesn’t win in anything. Each school has some strengths and some weaknesses, much like Chisago Lakes and North Branch.
The sports that would be negatively affected the most are wrestling and gymnastics. North Branch won the NSC title in wrestling in 2010 and Chisago Lakes won it in 2011. With a move to the M8C, Cambridge-Isanti and St. Michael-Albertville are two Class AAA, state-ranked schools that won’t be budging from the top of the standings anytime soon.
In gymnastics, Chisago Lakes or North Branch has finished second for the last four years, and they’ve never been too far behind St. Francis. With a move to the M8C, not only would St. Francis be coming along anyway, they would then have to compete against Cambridge-Isanti, one of the best Class AA teams in the state, and Big Lake, one of the top Class A teams.
Both programs at both schools would essentially be going from competing for a conference title to middle-of-the-pack status in the short term at least.
But, without the stifling presence of Totino-Grace or Benilde-St. Margaret’s, competitions like volleyball, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls hockey would likely be on a much more level playing field when it comes to conference titles.
Why make the move?
With the uncertainty surrounding the North Suburban Conference, and some schools already making the jump in certain sports, the Mississippi 8 move could bring stability and logical scheduling -- according to Aadland, scheduling for 11 teams is not an easy task. Old rivalries -- CL and NB shared the Rum River Conference with Princeton and Cambridge-Isanti for decades -- would be rekindled.
The main problem in all of the talk is the new costs that come along with it. Although they may not be staggering numbers, in a time when the school is continually cutting its budget every year, every penny counts and has to be considered carefully.
One of the chief detractors in a recent school board discussion was Board Chairman Mark Leigh, who is also the head coach of Chisago Lakes’ boys soccer team. “The Mississippi 8 is the opposite way and is just too far for us to drive,” he said.
But, the dollars could go south if Chisago Lakes or North Branch decided not to make the move, and the other schools did. “We don’t want to react to other schools,” CL Superintendent Mike McLoughlin said. “We want to control our own fate. The board has to do what’s best for the kids.”
The principals, AD’s and superintendents will continue to talk amongst themselves, and if one domino falls into place, more may follow.
The schools haven’t gotten a formal invite yet, but CL High School Principal Dave Ertl said the M8C has already given them a deadline to make a decision, so formality seems to be a given.
As of now, it seems like it could be a waiting game as there is so much uncertainty around the future of both conferences.