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Area high school football coaches react to new realignment

A decision that coaches, players and parents had been anticipating for several months became official on Wednesday as the North Dakota High School Activities Association revealed its 2017-18 football realignment plan.

A decision that coaches, players and parents had been anticipating for several months became official on Wednesday as the North Dakota High School Activities Association revealed its 2017-18 football realignment plan.

Some of the changes were long expected: Jamestown and Devils Lake moved down from Class 3A to Class 2A; and Class 2A changes from a two-region, 16-team league to one statewide 10-team conference.

Region 4 of Class 1A will have a new look as it adds Beulah and Dickinson Trinity from Class 2A, and Bowman County moves up from 9-man’s Region 5.

As far as John Odermann and his Titans are concerned, their new region seems like a good fit.

“It’s kind of the old Badlands Conference. These are the teams I grew up seeing Trinity playing, with exception of Garrison-Max and Southern McLean,” Odermann said. “It looks like Region 7 in football form, and I’m excited to play in the region.”

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Dickinson High is relatively unaffected by the new football plan. With Jamestown leaving the West Region of Class 3A, the Midgets will have six region games and three non-region games.

“Last year (2015) was Legacy’s first year as a varsity program,” head coach John Tuchscherer said, “and before Legacy came in, that was the kind of schedule we had.”

Dickinson High, however, is the rare school in southwest North Dakota that is not drastically affected by the new plan.

Classifications are based on schools’ male enrollments for current grades 7-10.

Watford City head coach Justin Johnsrud, whose team stayed at the Class 2A level, had anticipated the possibility of five-team regions at the 2A level, but that would have made it difficult to fill a nine-game schedule. Because that classification is just 10 teams in one league, the region’s nine other teams will fill the schedule each year.

“With regions, we could have kept our game with Sidney (Mont.), maybe a game with Williston,” he said. “Now that it’s a 10-team (league), there’s no concern about filling the schedule, but the concern is the travel.”

The Wolves’ average distance from their opponents is 303 miles away. The closest is Bismarck St. Mary’s (183 miles) and the furthest is Wahpeton (425 miles).

“Our region was kind enough to schedule home and away alternating weeks so we’re not on the road two weeks in a row. So we only miss a full day of school every other week,” Johnsrud said.

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If Dickinson Trinity had stayed in its co-op with New England, the Titans would have found themselves in a similar arrangement - with a male enrollment number that would have bumped them into Class 2A.

“You look at what Watford City has to do, and we would have been the next furthest team west, and it wouldn't have made sense for travel and money,” Odermann said. “The (new) travel is great, but I wouldn’t say that the NDHSAA got it right. We would have loved to see double-A stay status quo. I think that was a good league, and maybe we wouldn't be losing those New England guys that we love coaching.”

Some area coaches hesitated to call the realignment a success because the reclassification for some schools could produce unbeneficial reactionary moves for other schools.

Bowman County head coach Greg Yale - whose team made the 9-man playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade this season - said he understood the NDHSAA’s desire for competitive balance, but he believes the organization went about it in the wrong way.

“We’ve been slowly building on being able to be competitive with these (9-man schools) for the last four, five years or so,” Yale said. “We’ve tried - myself and coach (Travis) Hager, the former head coach - for a long time here to develop a program and develop some stability. We’ve been slowly chipping away at that process, and now it seems like at the time when we’re maybe able to reap the rewards of some of that work, they pull the rug out from under us and move us up a division.”

Bowman County’s adjusted enrollment was figured to be 69.01. Bismarck Shiloh Christian, which has an enrollment of 68.39, went 8-0 this season and earned a bye in the 9-man playoffs. Shiloh won’t move to Class 1A next season.

In the same vein, Beulah (105.79 enrollment) won the 2015 Class 2A state championship and moves to Bowman County’s level.

The balance of the league just seems off, Yale said.

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“We’re going to be traveling a lot more now, and it doesn’t make any sense that you take a potential state championship contender in Beulah, drop them down a classification, and you take us that won four games this year and you put that team in the higher classification,” Yale said. “I’m sure that some of those big schools in that Class A division aren’t looking forward to playing us, and some of the community members here aren’t looking forward to playing them because they want competitive games.

“But fairness comes down to a lot of things.”

Killdeer, after extensive consideration of joining the 9-man level, chose to “opt up” and remain in Class 1A. If Killdeer had chosen the 9-man route, it would have been placed in Region 6 along with teams in the northwest part of the state.

“The feel of the town, I think we were kind of 50-50 there,” Cowboys head coach Lou Dobitz said. “There’s some tradition in that we’ve never been a 9-man school, some people didn’t want to. But other people didn’t want to have to play against big schools every week.

“The difference maker for us was the fact that we would have had to travel much more with that 9-man region. We also feel we can compete even though it’s a tougher thing for us because we don’t have as many kids as every other school in the region.”

Region 5 in 9-man has long been considered one of the state’s most competitive, and Mott-Regent head coach Ron Benson doesn’t believe that changes with the additions of Shiloh Christian and Central McLean.

“It’s going to be quite a region,” Benson said. “We’re thankful that New England will be coming our way. We hope we get a bunch of kids that’ll help.”

Looking at other classifications, Benson said he noticed how movement of other teams shifted the landscape in high school football.

“Just think of the travel Trinity would have had in double-A. They were in a tough spot there,” he said. “Watford’s got to go out east for all those games next year. That’s crazy.”

Johnsrud pointed out how difficult it would be for parents to drive across the state to see their sons play. Odermann said some football players throughout the state will be spending more time out of the classrooms than others. Yale voiced his concerns that the competitiveness may not be of equal standing across all regions or all classes.

All told, it becomes clear that coaches believe what is good for one school may not be what’s best for another.

“I guess no matter how you do the plan, it’s tough do to,” Benson said. “I don’t know what the best thing is. What can you say? It’s just the way it is.”

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