Members of the Marshall Public School Board decided Monday to accept an invitation from the Wright County Conference to join the league for football only, a move that would commence with the 2014 season.
The Marshall school district must now respond in writing, acknowledging their acceptance of the invitation, and the Wright County Conference will have a vote of approval at its next meeting, which Marshall High School Activities Director Bruce Remme said will be held in early January. Remme said the Marshall school district fully anticipates the Wright County Conference to approve the move.
Marshall will remain a member of the Southwest Conference in all other sports.
The Tiger football team has dominated the Southwest Conference over the past two seasons, going a perfect 12-0 with an average margin of victory of nearly 40 points per game. Marshall is the only Class AAAA football program in the seven-team Southwest Conference. There are two Class AAA programs (Redwood Valley and Worthington) and four Class AA programs (Jackson County Central, Luverne, Windom Area and Pipestone Area). With declining enrollments at some other schools within the SWC in recent years, Marshall administrators felt it would be best to join a football conference that contains schools of comparable size to have a more competitive schedule.
"For most sports, the Southwest Conference teams are section opponents for us. Volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics, baseball, softball, golf, hockey ... section opponents are built right into the Southwest Conference and we feel like geographically and competitiveness-wise, the Southwest Conference is a good fit," Remme said. "Football is different, and this would provide us an opportunity to get games on our regular season schedule that we otherwise wouldn't have. We have a chance in other sports where you have a larger number of games where you can schedule non-conference games with section opponents, like in basketball. In football you don't have that opportunity because there are only eight football games."
The Wright County Conference currently has 11 teams, including one Class AAAAA team (Waconia), seven Class AAAA teams (Glencoe-Silver Lake, Dassel-Cokato, Hutchinson, Holy Family Catholic, Delano, Orono and Mound-Westonka) and three Class AAA programs (Annandale, New London-Spicer and Litchfield).
The teams aren't just bigger in the Wright County Conference, they're also some of the elite teams in the state. Hutchinson went undefeated in 2012 and won the Class AAAA state title, defeating Holy Family Catholic 67-7 in the championship game. Annandale advanced to the semifinals of the Class AAA state tournament, and beat fellow conference member New London-Spicer to get there.
Marshall is familiar with a couple of the Wright County teams, having played Hutchinson multiple years in the Section 2AAAA tournament and losing to Glencoe-Silver Lake in the semifinals of this year's section tournament.
The Tigers have become used to dominating conference opponents the past couple of years. If accepted into the Wright County Conference, the level of competition will certainly be higher for Marshall, which would likely lead to more losses, but would also help the team better prepare for the competition it will see in the postseason.
"The speed of the game is going to be a little bit more what we're used to, that's what we want to see, and I think that's going to help us down the road in the playoffs," Marshall head football coach Terry Bahlmann said. "I'm sure it's going to take a little time for us to adapt, but it's going to be exciting for us."
If accepted, Marshall would join the WCC West Division along with Annandale, Dassel-Cokato, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Litchfield and New London-Spicer. In addition to playing games against those five teams, the Tigers would also play three games against teams from the WCC East, which includes Delano, Holy Family Catholic (located in Victoria), Hutchinson, Mound-Westonka, Orono and Waconia.
Road trips will be longer for the Tigers in their new conference, with the average distance to the different Wright County schools measuring close to 120 miles one way, compared to an average of about 63 miles to current Southwest Conference schools. Bahlmann said the Tigers have experienced those long trips before, having played Mankato East and Fairmont for their non-conference games the past two seasons.
The Wright County Conference initially offered Marshall the opportunity to be a scheduling partner to balance out their conference schedule, but the Tigers wouldn't have been allowed to compete for a conference championship or have all-conference players. Marshall declined the offer due to the caveats, and the WCC came back with the offer to join as a full member in football in the fall.
Remme said he had been in discussions with the Southwest Conference to make sure everyone would be comfortable with Marshall's move to the WCC in football. He said it just became finalized last week at a Southwest Conference meeting that the schools decided the move would be good for everyone.
Bahlmann said the move will not only help Marshall by giving them more games against similar-sized programs, something that is weighted into the formula that helps determine section seeding, but also help the SWC programs.
"The last two years we've been undefeated in the regular season and have only been able to become a No. 3 seed. That's a little bit frustrating to us," he said. "Also, this helps us schedule-wise. It fills out our schedule and also helps to balance out the Southwest Conference to the South Central Conference, so they can be a fit to play each other throughout their schedules."
Remme said Marshall is thankful for the invitation to join the Wright County Conference in football, but is satisfied with its Southwest Conference affiliation in other sports. Marshall would be the only football-only member of the Wright County Conference.