Ashland graph

The WIAA turned a blind eye to every current member of the Heart O’North when it decided last week to add Ashland to the high school sports conference.

Representatives from all nine HON schools, as well as St. Croix Falls—which will join the league next school year—asked the WIAA Board of Control to deny the Oredockers’ request.

School officials’ misgivings were shared with the WIAA, and many of them printed in this newspaper in a feature story published last month. Some of those reservations were put more bluntly than others, but they all had merit and were all unmistakably against Ashland’s proposal.

The WIAA approved 11 realignment requests last week. The organization noted “nine received unanimous approval from all schools directly impacted by the request.”

That not even being close to the same situation here, the News-Shield asked WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson a number of questions. To his credit, he answered them all.

Does the WIAA have historical precedent for approving the addition of a school to a conference, where no current member of the conference supports the request?

“The WIAA’s history of conference realignment is a very, very, long one,” Anderson wrote. “Since members themselves have repeatedly rejected the opportunity to ‘take back’ conference realignment, I would say, ‘Yes,’ there have been other, realignment decisions in our history where there has been little to no support and substantial opposition—including lawsuits taken to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals—which have both supported the membership-given authority for the board to make conference realignment decisions.”

Anderson noted that the HON has no course to appeal the WIAA’s decision (short of litigation).

“The new, peer-reviewed realignment process (built by members, reviewed by members) has the board of control as making the final decision, yes or no,” he wrote. “There have been opportunities for appeal built into the new process—but that review is done by the realignment task force. The board’s options in this process are approve, deny or remand.

“But within this response, of course, there is opportunity for all members in the region to develop a new, better plan—and any plan that has 100-percent support can be fast-tracked to the board for consideration. Or this dimension of conference realignment will be re-visited by the task force in two years, so schools in the region can certainly seek to develop new, better realignment proposals for consideration in two years.”

Every HON school did protest Ashland’s addition to the conference before the task force advanced Ashland’s approval in February. Despite traveling to Stevens Point to share their reservations, each school was only allowed three minutes to address the task force. Sounds more like a task farce. HON schools again wasted their time, effort and capital to travel to Madison before the board of control’s final decision.

For now, HON schools are between a rock and a hard place. They could band together to force litigation, but that would likely be another waste of limited resources.

Schools could make smaller protests, like not adding Ashland’s logo to HON gym walls. Fans could show their feelings at games. However, those solutions would harm Ashland students who, like members of 10 HON schools, have been put in the middle of a precarious situation at no fault of their own.

A more notable protest would be a refusal to travel to Ashland. However, the WIAA has a long list of possible penalties ready for that, including suspension of membership, denial of participation in postseason tournaments and momentary fines.

Just how much harm are HON schools willing to inflict on their student athletes and athletic departments just to prove a point? My guess, for now, is that they will begrudgingly accept the WIAA’s decision. However, the long-term ramifications could be dire for the HON.

Ashland will become the largest school in the Heart O’North when it joins in the school year of 2021–22. With an enrollment of 651, it is nearly three times the size of Chetek-Weyerhaeuser (234).

Hayward, with an enrollment of 580, is currently the biggest HON member by a wide margin. Ashland is 12-percent bigger than Hayward and 10-percent smaller than Rice Lake.

According to Anderson, other schools have been placed in conferences with much smaller members. He cited a recent realignment that moved “significantly larger” Green Bay schools into a league with smaller schools. He also noted a history of moving smaller schools with strong athletic programs into larger conferences.

“Again, conference realignment has been going on in this organization a long, long time,” Anderson said. “And in that time, there have been many configurations tried and have ‘worked’ and many that have been tried and changed. As schools and communities change, grow, retract, no conference affiliation has been a life sentence to this point in our membership’s history.”

Still, the WIAA’s decision brings the HON more questions than it answers. Will the addition of Ashland break apart one of the region’s proudest, longest-standing conferences? How do you schedule for an 11-team league? Can you play a 20-game baseball or softball schedule, especially when adding games in Ashland, where winters hang on even longer?

Ashland suggested an answer is to split the conference into north/south divisions. That’s a rather bold suggestion by a school that blindsided its new conference, working around the HON, instead of with it, to force its way in.

If the league goes to north/south divisions, how do you name a conference champion? There will be years when the best three basketball teams, for example, are all in one division. It would be unfair for those teams to all play each other twice, while the other division only faced those teams once.

Or does Ashland suggest that games between Cumberland and Bloomer, for instance, just wouldn’t count toward the league standings—decades of school rivalry history thrown out the window to placate Ashland’s wishes?

Some HON schools play series that date to the 1930s. Having those rivalries disrupted in order to bring in a new team that no HON member wants would be a shame.

My best guess is that you’ll see other conference realignment proposals come from dissatisfied HON schools. Maybe Hayward, Ashland, Northwestern and Rice Lake will look for partners for a bigger, northern conference.

St. Croix Falls, which might not have joined the league at all had it known Ashland was thinking of joining, might start looking to depart before it joins.

Ladysmith, already a small HON school, could look to the east. Even smaller Chetek-Weyerhaeuser might be pushed toward the Lakeland.

Bloomer wouldn’t be the biggest school in Cloverbelt West (enrollment of 377 versus 431 for Altoona), and would save thousands of miles of travel with the longest trip of 50 miles to Thorp. Bloomer will travel 141 miles to Ashland; St. Croix Falls will ride the bus 143 miles to play a school twice its size.

Did the WIAA Board of Control take into account that Ashland’s arrival might result in other schools departing the Heart O’North?

“I believe that those suggestions were included in the documentation that was submitted on behalf of HON members, but no board members mentioned that in their comments,” Anderson wrote. “There were some remarks shared by the group that there may well likely need to be some broader, more encompassing realignment within the entire area.”

St. Croix Falls pointed out that long travel is more of a hardship for smaller schools that have smaller transportation budgets and fewer students. According to St. Croix Falls, it will have to cancel AP English and calculus when its girls’ basketball team leaves before 1 p.m. for Ashland, as half of each class will be on the bus.

Chetek-Weyerhaeuser Superintendent Mark Johnson made the following point to the WIAA to no avail: “Our students and families will not arrive back at our school until after 11:30 p.m. (after traveling to Ashland). Then our students need to drive home from the school upon their return. Our district is over 285 square miles and encompasses four counties. We have students living as far as 40 minutes from school.

“When you are deciding on this issue, please ask yourself if you’d want your own 16-year-old child driving home after midnight, in the winter, on a school night and then ask them to get right back on the road to school by 7 a.m. for a full day of school.”

An isolated history

I spent last weekend in Ashland for a youth hockey tournament. It’s a very nice town with a proud history. Much of downtown has been restored, with murals celebrating Ashland’s history.

There is a wonderful, free visitor center/museum that my family visited twice while killing time between games. The center documents the region’s history in mining, logging and commercial fishing.

While the mining industry is largely gone, the virgin timber long since cleared and the Lake Superior commercial fishing industry is a shadow of its former self—a reoccurring theme in the museum still rings true. Ashland is an isolated community.

The loneliness of logging camps, miners, frontier farmers and the solitude of commercial vessels fighting—and sometimes losing—the perils that Lake Superior offers is well documented in the museum. So are the hardships that fell on those pioneer families.

It’s a history Ashland rightfully celebrates. But it’s also a history that Ashland shouldn’t get to push off on the Heart O’North.

A weekend in Ashland made it obvious that it is not a Heart O’North town. It has more pizza joints than Barron has restaurants—and Barron is a relatively large HON community. With a population of 8,209 in an otherwise remote area, and resting on the south shore of the world’s largest freshwater lake, Ashland has long traveled to play like-sized schools.

That fact isn’t new. Ashland’s high school’s mascot was created as a nod to those who loaded iron ore from the Gogebic Range, which crosses into the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, onto boats that are bound for ports around the world. It seems understandable that its basketball team might have to drive to Rhinelander or Eagle River (Lakeland) for an away game.

Those schools are closer to Ashland in both school size and location than most HON schools. They’re part of the Great Northern Conference, where Ashland would be a much better fit. Ashland approached the GNC about joining but changed its mind after some negative reaction. Apparently, 100-percent negative reaction from the HON with a chance to play smaller schools didn’t have the same effect.

The WIAA Realignment Task Force noted that Ashland has no history of dominance over the Heart O’North. However, it seems unlikely that Ashland has played enough games, in enough sports, against St. Croix Falls, Bloomer, Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, Cameron, Cumberland and/or Barron to compile sufficient historical data.

Ashland did make a pitch to the WIAA that its enrollment is overstated when it comes to sports, as the area has a local religious organization that doesn’t allow for sports participation.

Anderson said he didn’t “recall any of the board (members) citing that as a reason for their position.”

I hope that is correct. Barron schools celebrate a diverse student population, but a large Somali population is at times partially responsible for moving Barron up a division in the postseason, despite few, if any, Somali girls playing varsity sports.

That being the case, would the WIAA allow Barron to compete in a smaller division for volleyball, girls’ basketball or softball?

It won’t and it shouldn’t. There are too many schools with like stories. WIAA staff would be consumed with petitions, all of which would be impossible to approve without having negative consequences for other schools.

Much like the petition Ashland submitted with little notice and no support from the Heart O’North—and the WIAA approved.