A farewell to the North Suburban Conference
A farewell to the North Suburban Conference
When Chisago Lakes and North Branch joined the North Suburban Conference a decade ago, it was to bring stability to the athletic departments and start competing against similarly sized opponents. Now, the two schools will officially make the move again, this time from the North Suburban Conference to the Mississippi 8 Conference, searching for some of the same things they were looking for 10 years ago. On June 30, the North Suburban Conference will officially dissolve and Chisago Lakes and North Branch will be members of the Mississipi 8 Conference (which will now feature 10 schools, but no official name change has been announced).
The switch -- which was signaled when North Branch and Chisago Lakes met in a season-ending track meet on May 23, comes on the heels of both NB and CL looking for better competitive balance -- the North Suburban gap between the top teams and bottom teams was just too wide -- and because some of the private school dominance by Totino-Grace and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Also, the East-West alignment of the divisions will alleviate some of the travel concerns. The one curveball is in football, where the conference also features Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld, and both North Branch and Chisago Lakes take a trip up to Duluth this year during the pigskin season. While the move is highly anticipated, the bonds forged in the North Suburban Conference will be missed by some.
“For me and I should assume for all of us, it is always about relationships, not plays or championships,” Chisago Lakes baseball coach Pat Collins said. “I will miss the coaches and the sanity in the face of competition.” But for this writer, I specifically remember a North Suburban Conference game that seemed to embody what the group of schools was all about. It was the season opener to the 2010 football season and North Branch had traveled down to St. Louis Park on a Thursday night. The Vikings had promise that year, led by Scott Bossard and Zack Smith, and their offense was worth the price of admission alone. The problem was, so was St. Louis Park’s. The teams traded scores throughout the game until it moved into overtime. The game eventually went into three overtimes, with each team throwing the proverbial knockout punch only to have the other team gather themselves, dust off the cobwebs and throw a haymaker of their own. Mind you, these were two teams that had combined for four wins the previous season, but that didn’t matter to them.
They were swinging for the fences in the first game of the new year to start undefeated. In the end, it came down to a two-point conversion. With the Vikes down 44-42, they were stuffed at the goal line and SLP walked away with the grueling win. The St. Louis Park players instantly began celebrating near their sideline while most North Branch players sulked back to theirs. But Bossard, who was the Vikings’ quarterback, sat on his knees, dejected, at a loss for any movement until a couple of St. Louis Park players noticed him and helped him up, commending him for a tough-as-nails performance. These kids from opposite ends of the spectrum -- one a southwest suburb and one a northeast suburb -- put everything out on that field and when it was done, they helped pick each other up, and that was a marvelous thing to see in the North Suburban. Although new rivalries will form and old rivalries will be re-ignited in the Mississippi 8 Conference, the experiences and memories from the NSC will never be replaced.
Collins had some anecdotes of his own from his time in the NSC. “I really enjoyed talking with my old friend, Ned Thompson, from Totino Grace. Ned is in his 44th year of teaching and coaching baseball at Totino and is a class act. We would meet at home plate before the game and share stories before it. What a wonderful man,” Collins expressed. “I also recall Ryan Collins -- who was the Benilde baseball coach at the time -- telling one of his players that I was his older brother, (no relation) and I responded with better looking older brother. “I asked Ryan if we could hit wiffle balls into their fence and he asked if we wanted to use their batting cages. I said ‘Sure, do you let everyone use the cages?’ ‘No,’ he replied ‘just the teams we respect.’”
Some of the long-tenured coaches have been around for one of these conference switches before, and some of them will be going into this blind. North Branch football Head Coach Nick Nitti played and coached in the North Suburban long before the Vikings or Wildcats were even a part of the fold. "While at Mounds View, I recall the great rivalries we had with Blaine, Anoka and Coon Rapids back in the mid 80's. Coaching brings back memories of our run of four conference titles in a row while I was coaching at Mounds View in the late 80's and early 90's," Nitti said. "I also fondly recall the great games we had while I was coaching at Spring Lake Park in the mid 90's. We won four conference titles and had some great games with Cambridge and Totino Grace during that run. I also fondly recall my two years at Fridley and winning the first conference title for them in over twenty years during the 2009-2010 season. Winning three conference games last year at North Branch was certainly an exciting time. I am sad to see the conference go by the way side.
"I am very excited by our move to the Mississippi 8 and developing some good rivalries with some of our new conference opponents."
But, change isn’t a bad thing, and most of the teams are willing to embrace the new and keep things positive. New relationships will be made in the Mississippi 8, and it’s only a matter of time before the memories will be made, also. “I will miss the NSC as I missed the old Rum River,” Collins said. “As we join the Mississippi 8, I look forward to seeing new ballparks and meeting new coaches and players on other teams as well as my own.”