Desktop Sportsman - 12/30/09The final Desktop Sportsman column for 2009.
By: Sean Scallon, Pierce County Herald
The chair that George Washington sat in while he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia back in 1787 has a famous carving of a half sun on the back.
Is the sun rising or setting?
It all depends on your viewpoint, whether you are a person who believes in the glass half-full or half empty.
So is the sun rising or setting on prep sports in Wisconsin?
When the decade began, the air was full of promise. The old WISAA (Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association) would be disbanded and its brought into the WIAA. Now there would be no separate public or private school champions. It would be all as one now, everyone competing for the same titles. Now college recruiters could better judge talent instead of guessing at the level of competition. Now the average, casual fan would take more interest in prep sports. And the old recruiting argument against the privates would be moot because now public schools could recruit kids from their areas to play at nearby schools too if kids and parents did mind the travel.
The change took place in 2002. Almost eight years later, at the start of a new decade, here’s what high school sports in Wisconsin is looking forward to:
— An entirely new format for football which eliminates traditional conferences in favor of regional groupings.
— Another division in boys and girls basketball. And if you thought four divisions watered down the tournament in 1991, get ready for five.
— Potential multipliers being put on private schools to bump them up a division, particularly if they come from metro areas.
There is an overlying factor over the public-private disputes since the merger: Wisconsin, like much of the U.S., is a state split between its rural and urban areas and this split has spilled over into high school athletics.
It was taken for granted, once classes and divisions were brought to prep sports in the early 1970s, that certain classes would be for the large schools a.k.a. those in big cities, and certain classes would be for little schools a.k.a those in small towns and rural areas. That’s how things worked. You had your champion, and I had mine in whatever sport was competing whether it was football, basketball, baseball or golf, it didn’t matter.
But what turned out not to matter was the number of kids in the private schools. You could be small, like say Racine St. Catherine’s or Chippewa Falls McDonell but because you were in a metro area, you had a wide pick of students more so than a school of similar size but in a smaller town. The most stark example of this came in the 2006 state boys’ basketball tournament when Racine St. Catherine’s walloped Westby in the Division 3 final 68-29. They both might have been Division 3 schools but the number that really mattered was Racine, population roughly 90,000 and Westby, population 2,500 and it showed. St. Catherine’s had several collegiate prospects on their team and had beaten the giant public schools in town (to the point where they would no longer schedule them). Someone asked Westby head coach Bob Constalie during the postgame press conference what is what like being the best public school team in Division 3? He poleitly declined to answer, but the truth is it’s good for a silver ball sometimes.
Or look at the way McDonnell blitzed through the Division 7 football playoffs this year. It had a very predictable feel to it. The Macks had talented athletes and size but they could also pull students from parishes from as far north as Cameron and Chetek up Hwy. 53. One got the impression of them that they were pretty good if they played well but often times they played below that potential (committing numerous turnovers and penalties) because they knew as a team that no matter how many mistakes they made they would win out in the end because they were bigger and faster than the public schools they faced (with exception being the bigger public schools they played in the Marawood Conference like Edgar and Stratford.). Once they faced a private school team that matched up with them like Burlington Catholic Central, they were beaten soundly.
So is the solution having the private schools play up one division, or having bigger public schools to match up with them on equal terms? Also overlaying the split between rural and urban is how the baby bust of the 1990s decimated rural populations across the state along with long-term economic decline of such parts that has robbed these areas of the middle class jobs that are the taxpaying base of any school district. The dreaded “C” word, consolidation, is already has taken place in the Park Falls area and is close to taking place between Weyerhaeuser and Chetek. Who knows who’s next? But before people think of the tax windfall they’ll save if school districts combined, travel through all the towns in Wisconsin that use to have schools in them and were once school districts and ask yourself if they are wealthier and better off than before because they shed their schools. The last thing state officials want to see is a vicious cycle where schools districts dissolve due to economic problems and yet the jobs that are lost because of consolidation only add to said problems.
The are other issues that are facing the prep sports in Wisconsin and the WIAA such as the rise of club sports that could potentially be taking away all the best athletes in search of better competition, athletic fees limiting access to competition for students without means, exclusive rights agreements for event coverage, off-season regulations for contacts with coaches and so forth. But these are secondary or issues that more of a potential to be worked than cultural and economic division that the WIAA simply can’t pass a new rule to fix.