As much as the picture for high school football playoffs for 2014 cleared up Thursday, the outlook for playing football in 2015 couldn’t be more unsettled.
The Minnesota State High School League approved plans to host the 2014 Prep Bowl at TCF Bank Stadium and host semifinal games at various sites while construction of the Vikings stadium takes place. The championship games will be played a week before their usual Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.
But in 2015, even the way teams would be scheduled during the regular season is up for debate, prompted by pressure from two legislators who fielded complaints from constituents about high school teams traveling out of state to play football.
The league has found support for creating scheduling groups primarily based on geography but also enrollment. The plan would keep schools from either having to schedule games with out-of-state teams or missing a Friday night under the lights. Pros and cons were laid out at Thursday’s board meeting and action is expected at an upcoming meeting in hopes of implementation for the 2015 schedule.
The playoffs for 2015 have their own issues. A late Labor Day and a Gopher home football game on the traditional Prep Bowl weekend have created a one-time scheduling headache. To solve it, the league has discussed the possibility of closing off section playoffs to 35 to 40 percent of the state’s teams, playing three games before the traditional start of school or reducing the regular season to seven games.
Shrinking the section tournament could mean no post-season play for as many as 140 schools, from 9-man teams through Class 5A. This is the preferred option for the MSHSL Board and activities directors, said associate director Kevin Merkle, head of football scheduling. Merkle noted “not a lot of pushback” from actitivies directors on shrinking the section playoffs at recent area meetings throughout the state.
Merkle acknowledged, however, “the coaches don’t like it and would do whatever they could to avoid it.”
The 32 teams in Class 6A, home to the state’s largest schools, which play fewer games to advance to state, would not be affected.
The board voted to table any action on the 2015 football schedule until its December meeting.
The 2015 playoff problems should go away starting in 2016, when the new Vikings stadium is in place to house the Prep Bowl.
Concerns about the regular season schedule emerged in a bill introduced during the 2013 Legislature by Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. The bill demanded that the MSHSL, an independent organization, provide schools a full eight-game regular season schedule against teams located in Minnesota.
The problem has been especially acute for the five schools that now comprise the Lake Conference in the west metro area: Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata.
In the past five years, those schools have traveled to Iowa, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin or even Winnipeg to find games. To secure enough games in 2010, Eden Prairie and Wayzata paid a combined $3,500 to entice in-state schools to play them.
This fall Eden Prairie and Wayzata, the state’s largest schools and winners of seven of the past eight Prep Bowl championships, will play just seven regular season games.
“The high school league has been aware of the problems and refused to do anything about it,” said Hann, whose sons were Eden Prairie football players. He said he and Bonoff, a former Hopkins football mom whose district includes the Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata schools, “introduced the bill as a way of saying, ‘If they aren’t going to do it, we’ll do it.’ ”
Merkle said under statewide football scheduling groups, schools would be put in groups of at least 14 or 16, based primarily on geography but with some consideration for enrollment. Schools within those groups could schedule games based on competitive balance or long-standing rivalries.
Scheduling groups offer more flexibility than section scheduling, a proposal the board voted down in 2011.
That year the league created Zero Week, a three-year experiment to allow teams to play one week before the majority of teams in the state.
The scheduling groups started taking shape in December. At recent meetings with groups of activities directors throughout the state more than 80 percent favored scheduling groups over section scheduling by a show of hands, Merkle said.
Merkle plans to present specific information on scheduling groups at December’s league board meeting and bring the issue for a vote at January’s meeting.