For a time, the St. Michael-Albertville school district fit perfectly into the Mississippi 8 conference for athletics and activities. But two decades of nonstop growth in STMA has led to a significant size difference between this district and most other Mississippi 8 schools, and the district’s leaders say it has given STMA an unfair advantage in the conference.
The school board met with STMA athletic/activity coaches and advisors last night for a work session, where high school activities director, Keith Cornell, said they have unanimous agreement that STMA has outgrown the Mississippi 8 conference. Cornell said they would like to take steps to leave Mississippi 8 in time for the 2019-2020 school year.
“70-some percent of conference championships have been won by STMA teams in the past five years,” Cornell said. “The general consensus is that the Mississippi 8 has been great for us, but we’ve probably outgrown it and it’s time to look a different direction.”
According to the Minnesota State High School League’s numbers, STMA High School is significantly larger than any other Mississippi 8 school besides Buffalo and Rogers. The state high school league’s official enrollment numbers differ from actual student enrollment because they adjust according to a district’s number of free and reduced lunch students, who do not participate in conference athletics and activities at the same rate as other students.
By their formula, STMA High School’s enrollment is 1,804 students. Buffalo is fairly close at 1,725 and Rogers has 1,472, but three conference schools (Princeton, Big Lake and North Branch) each have well under 1,000 students and another four (St. Francis, Cambridge-Isanti, Monticello and Chisago Lakes) have between 1,000-1,300.
Northwest Suburban Conference
There are two main options for STMA beyond the Mississippi 8. The large majority of district activity and athletic leaders think the Northwest Suburban Conference would be the best choice for STMA geographically and demographically. This is a large conference, with 14 schools currently involved. STMA already plays many NWSC teams during their non-conference match-ups.
Size-wise, STMA would fall near the middle of the pack in the NWSC. The conference’s largest school, Blaine, has an enrollment of 2,658. Three other schools (Champlin Park, Maple Grove and Anoka) also have enrollments over 2,000, but STMA would be one of many schools in the conference with enrollments between 1,600-1,800 students, including Centennial, Armstrong, Coon Rapids, Andover and Osseo.
Beyond athletics, choral director Joe Osowski said he felt the NWSC would be a huge step up for the choir program with their conference music festival.
“It’s just more developed,” he said of the festival. “They have a budget to hire a national clinician; you’re looking at the best people in the country that can work with your kid. In the state, there’s not really one better.”
Possibility of the Lakes Conference
However, there are a couple snags with the Northwest Suburban Conference. For one, district leaders say there is about a 50/50 chance that the conference will not accept STMA into it. STMA would be larger than nine of the current member schools and would upset the even number of teams they now have. Athletic coaches’ biggest worry about this conference is that they won’t have much wiggle room in their season to schedule non-conference games with natural rivals like Buffalo since there are so many conference teams.
Board chair Drew Scherber made a case that STMA should look into joining the Lakes Conference, which is a small, 5-school conference that is on the lookout for additional schools. These large schools are perennial powerhouses with a lot of cash to go around their programs: Wayzata (3,120 students), Minnetonka (3,044), Eden Prairie (2,804), Edina (2,626) and Hopkins (1,883).
Scherber said he felt the STMA community is more similar to the Lake Conference communities than Northwest Suburban Conference, and he liked the idea of a smaller conference. However, Cornell said a large majority of high school coaches favor NWSC over the Lake for STMA’s next move.
“I’ll be honest that I’m not sure our community or our board is ready for the Lake,” Cornell said.
“I know some of our coaches and teams would like to go to the Lake Conference, but in general our coaches know not all of our teams are ready to be part of the Lake Conference,” former activities director Brian Benson said. “When we put all of that together, I believe that the Northwest Suburban is the logical next step for us.”
Cornell said a conference change would likely not affect middle school athletics and activities. Many of the schools in the NWSC do not offer middle school sports, and Cornell said they value working with nearby schools to find competition for the popular middle school programs.
Cornell plans to send a letter to the Northwest Suburban Conference to request acceptance for 2019-2020, and he said they would take action on the request in March or April. Cornell will follow up when he receives word on their decision.
“I think they can take us or leave us,” Cornell said. “It’s absolutely not going to be unanimous, and it might be a no.”
If NWSC does turn them down, STMA leaders agreed they will consider the Lake Conference, since all athletic and activity leaders involved feel that moving to one of these two conferences would be better than staying in Mississippi 8 past 2019.
“Selfishly, it would be easier for me to stay,” Cornell said of Mississippi 8. “They’re great people to work with, they are great schools all around. But when you look at the totality of everything, making a move just seems right for us.”