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Cottage Grove’s Park High among schools considering athletic conference switch

Yeah, sure, winning isn’t everything. But enough is enough.

Park High School in Cottage Grove is considering switching athletic conferences after spending years being pounded by bigger schools with wealthier students.

Winning more games would boost participation and increase morale, said Park athletics director Phil Kuemmel.

“In all sports, kids should have balance,” said Kuemmel. “We want to legitimately know we have a chance to win.”

That concern for competitiveness is echoing around the metro area, said Dave Stead, director of the Minnesota State High School League.

Park High School and others are in the midst of a major reshuffling, Stead said, working toward the goal of making teams within conferences more evenly

matched. “This is the most change we have seen in 20 years,” he said.

The changes made by a few conferences have increased the opportunities for change metrowide, he said, describing it as “a domino effect.”

Many have already decided to make the switch.

In the west metro, the five-school Lake Conference is expected to dissolve next spring.

Schools in the largely east metro Classic Suburban Conference voted this spring to dissolve, saying that St. Thomas Academy had become too dominant. Most of them will form a new conference effective fall 2014 — without St. Thomas.

The new conference, as yet unnamed, will include Hastings, Simley (Inver Grove Heights), Sibley (Mendota Heights), Hill-Murray, North (North St. Paul), South St. Paul, Tartan (Oakdale) and Mahtomedi high schools.

That raises the possibility for Park to join the new conference.

Park’s current conference, the Suburban East, includes Woodbury, East Ridge (Woodbury), Hastings, Cretin-Derham Hall, Forest Lake, Mounds View, Roseville, Stillwater and White Bear Lake high schools. Hastings decided last month to join the new conference that Park is also considering.

Kuemmel said Park is an 1,800-student school, playing against 2,600-student Stillwater and 2,300-student White Bear Lake. More students usually means better teams, he said.

Size matters — but money does, too.

Kuemmel said children from wealthy families tend to be better athletes.

Money means families can afford summer camps, clinics and extra training.

“If you take a spring break in Florida and play golf, you are going to be a better golfer,” he said.

Wealthier households also are more likely to be two-parent households — which means children are more likely to get rides to practices and games.

“Any kid can come out and be part of a team,” said Kuemmel. “But in terms of being competitive, sports takes money and time.”

At Park, about 24 percent of students have household incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. At the other schools in the conference, Kuemmel said, that percentage is 10 to 15.

As a result, said Kuemmel, Park often is crushed by its opponents.

In the past three seasons, the football team has won one game. The boys basketball team has won one game in the past two or three years, Kuemmel said.

Every athlete should experience losing, he said — but not hopelessness.

“We don’t want them to think, ‘Here we go playing that giant school again, and with no chance to compete,’ ” Kuemmel said.

When that happens, athletes quit. Because of a lack of players, Kuemmel said, the school has had no junior varsity football team for the past two years.

The high school league’s Snead said that football, more than any other sport, is driving the changes.

That’s because football has only eight games in an ordinary season. When a team is outmatched in its conference, he said, the seasons can be particularly painful.

“If you are near the bottom, you will struggle all year long,” Stead said.

Basketball teams, in contrast, play more than 20 games in a season, plus nonconference games that may provide chances to win.

Stead said an increasing number of schools are addressing the issue of competitiveness.

“More and more people are thinking this way,” Stead said. “It’s a positive for kids.”

Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him at twitter.com/BshawPP.

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