MARSHALL - Left as the lone Class AAAA team in the Southwest Conference, the Marshall school district is exploring its options to move the Marshall Tigers football team into a more suitable situation.
Looking for a conference with schools more comparable in size, Marshall is gathering information for a possible move to the Wright County Conference in a football-only capacity, with the rest of the school's sports staying in the Southwest Conference.
"The Wright County Conference talked to us and said, 'We're looking at different options since we're currently at 11 teams,'" said Marshall High School Athletic Director Bruce Remme. "They simply asked, 'You're in an odd-numbered conference, we also know you're the largest school in there. Would you ever be interested in a football-only affiliation with the Wright County?'
"As we look at what we can do to help address the scheduling difficulty, as well as the classification difficulty, that's an option we need to explore," Remme added. "Whether anything will come out of it or not is yet to be seen."
According to the Minnesota State High School League, Marshall High School has an enrollment of 699 students, while the rest of the seven-team Southwest Conference averages 418.5 students, with Worthington (563) serving as the second-biggest school. The other schools in the conference include: Redwood Valley (353), Jackson County Central (310), Luverne (310), Windom (247) and Pipestone (287).
The teams in the Wright County Conference include: Hutchinson, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Dassel-Cokato, Litchfield, Waconia, New London-Spicer, Annandale, Delano, Mound-Westonka, Orono and Holy Family Catholic.
During Monday's school board meeting, Marshall Public School Superintendent Klint Willert said no invitation has currently been extended for Marshall to join the Wright County Conference, but the school should explore the option in order for the football team to play more section opponents.
"The Wright County Conference would be a much better fit for us," Willert said. "We're not the same Southwest Conference as we used to be, and that is very pronounced in football."
In section seeding, including the QRF rankings that were instituted for Section 2AAAA in 2011, wins against teams from smaller classes are weighed differently than wins within a team's own class. In 2011, the Tigers found themselves as one of three undefeated teams in Section 2AAAA with Hutchinson and Mankato West. With only one Class AAAA teams on its schedule (Mankato East), Marshall was placed as the third seed, costing the team a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the semifinals. The Tigers were knocked out of the section playoffs in a 42-28 loss to No. 2 seed Hutchinson.
With seven Class AAAA teams and one Class AAAAA team currently in the Wright County Conference, Tigers head football coach Terry Bahlmann believes if his team wants to move to the next level, a move to a bigger conference is a necessity.
"We're unique being a AAAA in a conference with AA and AAA schools," Bahlmann said. "And the way competition goes in the section, playing all AAAA schools, we want to be able to face some of those schools in the year and see that level of play with the big schools. Those opportunities present themselves in the Wright County.
"It really came to a head this year when we go undefeated and the best we can get is a three seed in our section. ... The size of schools we were playing hurt us in the seeding."
Both Remme and Bahlmann agree that section football would be the most suitable solution for the Tigers. But with section football on the state's back-burner, the Wright County Conference offers a better option than the status quo.
"If ever there was a case for the state to move to section football, Marshall is the prime example," Remme said. "We would love for the state to move to section football and we've advocated for that whenever we've had a chance to. At the current time, the state does not appear interested in making that move."
Potentially leaving some of the conference rivalries is a concern for Bahlmann, but with school enrollment dropping, being the lone AAAA school in the Southwest Conference could become problematic.
"We got excellent rivalries in the Southwest Conference and we have some good competition in there most years," Bahlmann said. "Traditions are hard to break, but as some of their enrollments start declining, they'll keep declining further and further."
Bahlmann added, "One of our concerns is one of these schools will end up in Class A, and you really can't play a Class AAAA against a Class A. Some of the other coaches in the conference have said we're getting bigger than them. Right now, we got 34 seniors for next year, and I'm not sure some of the schools will have that many out."
For now, the Tigers will continue to explore their options while the Wright County Conference debates on expanding.
"We're waiting to hear back from them on whether or not they're going to pursue a 12th member," Remme said. "If they are, then that is when we need to make a decision on if we want to make that formal application."
News reporter Jenny Kirk contributed to this article