The St. Michael-Albertville school district recently received news that the Northwest Suburban Conference for athletics and fine arts denied their application to join. The school board voted to apply earlier this year, when they and district leaders agreed that STMA had outgrown the Mississippi 8 Conference.
The Northwest Suburban Conference had been the school board’s first choice for their next move, but now they have turned their sights toward a likely application to join the Lake Conference in time for the 2019 school year. The conference currently includes Edina, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Wayzata and Minnetonka.
“Nothing official has happened,” said Activities Director Keith Cornell. “I expect that a decision will be made here very shortly, maybe even this week, as to whether or not we send in our application, which at this point I’d say we’re leaning pretty heavily toward doing.”
Why Was STMA Denied from NWSC
Rogers and Buffalo also applied to join the NWSC, but they accepted only Rogers. Cornell thought Rogers most likely gained favor over STMA and Buffalo due to Rogers being part of the same school district as Elk River, a current member school.
When Cornell and school board chair, Drew Scherber, asked the NWSC why they denied STMA’s application, they were told that there was an overall feeling among member schools that STMA did not look like them.
The district provided the conference a sheet of statistics on who STMA is: demographics, percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and opportunities they offer. As a whole, Cornell said the NWSC didn’t feel STMA matched most of the 14 member schools, even though they matched a couple schools very closely.
Scherber said that Buffalo does not yet know what their next move will be after being denied by the NWSC. He said they did not seem interested in applying to the Lake Conference.
Some Athletic Coaches Nervous About Lake Conference
Cornell feels that STMA will fit in well with the Lake Conference in many activities, but concerns remain about some activities not being ready for Lake conference competition. The Lake Conference includes a line-up of well-funded, perennial powerhouse schools, many with highly developed club teams that give their athletes opportunities to compete at high levels. For example, Cornell said the Lake Conference has all four of the top swimming and diving teams in the state, and he said they basically run the sport.
“I think there’s just a nervousness about how we will continue to grow our programs if we get, quite frankly, beat up pretty good,” he said. “We’re not used to that in this community.”
Cornell said he has gotten assurance from Lake Conference members that they will work with STMA to make sure the district feels comfortable if they decide to apply.
As an example of what the conference may mean by “working” with STMA, Cornell said that conference schools typically play each other twice per season, but Hopkins’ hockey program currently has an exemption from that rule since they are working to rebuild. In tennis, another sport where there are fears of mismatches between STMA and some Lake Conference teams, there may be an option to play single rounds versus double.
Benefits of the Lake Conference
Since the Lake Conference is currently quite small, Scherber said this would give teams plenty of room in their schedule to compete against natural rivalries and teams from their section, none of which are in the Lake Conference.
Scherber also said that teams need to win their sections to compete at state level, not their conferences, so the conference change won’t reduce STMA’s chances of entering state-level competition.
“This will challenge us in some activities, but we will be successful in a lot of other activities,” Scherber said. “With Mississippi 8 we are successful at everything, and I’m not sure that actually makes you better.”
Other Movements Brewing
District leaders said they have heard that other schools already applied to join the Mississippi 8 conference with the knowledge that Rogers, Buffalo and STMA applied elsewhere. The new applicants are smaller schools than STMA, making Mississippi 8 even more of a misfit.
Meanwhile, Irondale announced its intention to leave the NWSC.
The school board gave Cornell permission to apply to the Lake Conference if he felt comfortable doing so after meeting with them. Cornell met with Lake athletic directors last week for a question and answer session, where both sides asked questions and discussed details.
Cornell said STMA is a school that finds challenges and goes head-on to meet them.
“People are used to success, and success is probably going to look a little different,” Cornell said. “I don’t know if we want to judge success in our activities program only based on winning and losing. Hopefully it’s about a lot more than that.”
NWCT will provide updates when available.