Should the Royals change conferences?

September 28, 2009

by Aaron Schultz

There has been talk about it for a few years, even if it hasn’t been official.

That talk has centered around whether the Watertown-Mayer Royals should change conferences.

Most of what I have heard over the past few years has been secondhand, from a parent or two, or just a community member.

The Royals are in one of the toughest conferences in the state, the Wright County Conference.

Over the past several years, the WCC has changed more than it has stayed the same.

When I first starting covering the WCC, I was working at the Enterprise Dispatch reporting on the Dassel-Cokato Chargers. That was 10 years ago now.

Back then, the WCC included the likes of Becker and St. Michael-Albertville.

I still remember working at the McLeod County Chronicle in Glencoe, and covering the Glencoe-Silver Lake Panthers’ football team as they hosted STMA.

The Knights had a big, tall kid playing middle linebacker by the name of Matt Spaeth.

Spaeth went on to star for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, and now is a member of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, playing tight end.

Well, Becker and STMA both left the conference, starting a brand new conference called the Mississippi 8 with the likes of Buffalo, Rogers, Monticello, and a few others.

With them out, Litchfield was one of the schools to take their place.

Then, for several years, the conference was made up of Glencoe-Silver Lake, Dassel-Cokato, Waconia, Litchfield, Watertown-Mayer, Delano, and Annandale.

Mound-Westonka and Orono joined the conference a few years back, making the WCC a nine-school conference, which is what it is today.

Over the years, many of the schools in the WCC have grown rapidly in enrollment, with Waconia leading the way with 895 students in grades 9-12.

Meanwhile, the Royals sit with 499 students in grades 9-12 – that is a pretty big difference.

In fact, Watertown-Mayer is the smallest school in terms of enrollment.

To go along with being the smallest school in the conference, the Royals have not enjoyed the type of success they would like in terms of the WCC.

During the 2008-09 school year, and three sports seasons, the Royals’ highest finish in the WCC was fourth, which was in volleyball and boys’ basketball.

That doesn’t include sports like swimming, where Watertown-Mayer is paired with Delano.

If things are tough now, wait until next year, when the Hutchinson Tigers join the ranks of the WCC.

Hutchinson has an enrollment of 791 students, which will make it the third-largest school in the conference, behind Waconia and Orono (866).

Although looking at the top schools in term of enrollment in the WCC may have you thinking, why are the Royals in such a big conference, many of the schools are close to W-M in numbers.

Litchfield is the second smallest school with an enrollment of 504, while Annandale, Dassel-Cokato, and Glencoe-Silver Lake are all with in 100 students of W-M.

Looking at the numbers and the success, or lack of, achieved competing in the WCC, arguments can be made either way – stay in the WCC or look for a new home.

Well, a neighboring conference came knocking on the Royals’ door this fall.

The Minnesota River Conference extended an invitation to Watertown-Mayer to join the conference starting the 2011-12 school year.

The topic was brought up at the W-M school board meeting Sept. 22, and was discussed, in length, according to the Carver County News.

In that story, it stated that Watertown-Mayer didn’t need to make a decision until September 2010, so there will be plenty of time to decide.

The Minnesota River Conference (MRC) would seem to be a good fit for the Royals, as it includes a number of smaller schools.

In fact, as the MRC stands today, the Royals would be the second-largest school in the conference, behind Holy Family, which has an enrollment of 586.

Jordan (451) and Belle Plaine (442) are two of the schools in the conference that are the closest in enrollment to Watertown-Mayer.

Also in the MRC is Mayer Lutheran, which is the smallest school in the conference with an enrollment of 224.

On paper, it seems like this is a move that would make a lot of sense for Watertown-Mayer at this time.

The MRC has a long tradition of very strong sports teams in all seasons, and would present the Royals with challenges, yet a better opportunity of competing year-in and year-out for conference championships.

The Royals would also be able to have strong rivals already in place with Mayer Lutheran and Norwood Young America, teams they play in non-conference action.

One negative would be additional travel, but that would be minimal.

Another negative would be losing long-standing rivalries the Royals have with many of the teams in the WCC.

The last real negative I can find against the Royals moving may not come up for five years, but it could happen.

What if Watertown-Mayer’s enrollment explodes in the next five years, and they are the biggest school in the MRC, by far.

If that would be the case, would the MRC look to get them out? And then what?

Of course, that is very hypothetical, but it did cross my mind.

I do have one more little wrinkle that I am going to throw in since I was just told about it.

Apparently, Holy Family has sent a formal letter to the WCC asking to be let into that conference.

Hmm, that makes all of this even more interesting to me.

Are the Fire getting pressure from the MRC to move on since its enrollment is 130 students higher than the second largest school, which is Jordan?

Is this the reason that the MRC extended the offer to Watertown-Mayer?

Maybe the MRC is attempting to trade Holy Family for the Royals.

I don’t know about all of this, but I think it is very interesting, and should make for some fun conversations over the course of the next year.

One thing I can say, I don’t think the WCC will allow Holy Family in unless a school, like Watertown-Mayer, moves on.

The WCC just added Hutchinson to make it an even 10 teams, and I don’t think the school athletic directors would enjoy attempting to make out schedules for an 11-team conference.

Again, this is all in the future, but it should be fun to see how it all shakes out.

Maybe start a new conference

Back in December of 2008, I wrote a column talking about the chances of starting a new conference with schools from the area.

I called it the Crow River Conference, and while I didn’t include Watertown-Mayer, at that time, in the conference, maybe it would work, now.

If you are interested in taking a look back at that column, go to www.herald-journal.com and click on sports.

From there, you can see my photo with a link to my past columns.

It was printed Dec. 8, 2008 with a headline that read, “What about a change in conferences?”

Vic will be missed

I heard some very sad news this past Tuesday from Don Gutzke, who swung by my office during his visit to the Herald Journal.

Don informed me that Vic Gruenhagen passed away early that morning due to complications from cancer.

While I haven’t any specific stories of Vic, I do know that there are many out there.

Personally, I remember going to Memorial Park in Howard Lake to watch Orphan games, or play against them, and always seeing Vic in the stands.

If Vic wasn’t there yet, you always knew when he was pulling in, since his car had that big tire tied to the top.

I talked to Vic many times over the years at the ballpark, and while I can’t recall any particular conversation I had with him, I do remember always walking away with a smile.

As the years go by, we lose more and more guys like Vic, who are always at the park and enjoy the game of baseball.

Vic, and people like him, will never be replaced, but will always be remembered.

I would like to send out my sympathies to the entire Gruenhagen family.

Vic, enjoy your seat at the baseball field in the sky.