At this point one thing is certain concerning Minneota/Lincoln HI football: the Vikings and Rebels not play football together in 2014. The fate of the co-op for the upcoming 2013 season, however, remains in limbo.
The Minneota School Board voted 5-2 on Tuesday to dissolve its football partnership with Lincoln HI, citing concerns regarding student safety in light of the Vikings being bumped from Class A to Class AA during the latest round of competitive section reclassification by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL).
Minneota athletic director Harlen Ulrich told the Minneota Mascot that the move to AA would significantly increase the risk of injury for the players, especially during playoffs.
"My No. 1 concern is the safety of our kids," Ulrich told the Mascot in early April. "We are not that big. If we get into the playoffs we could play three games in 13 days and probably play 15 kids to the 22 or more of other teams."
Vikings head football coach Chad Johnston said the decision to split up the co-op was not easy for the Minneota board, but not altogether unexpected.
"I know it was a very difficult decision for our board and it was a difficult decision for our staff to go one way," he said. "Obviously we had the last couple of years to work with those kids from Lincoln HI and they did some great things for us. In the best of both worlds we would have been able to have those kids and stay in Class A; but we just thought in the future with the number of kids coming over from Lincoln HI going down, we didn't know if it was still in our best interest to be forced to play AA ball for the next few years down the road.
"It didn't surprise me, I guess," Johnston added. "There were definitely some concerns from our board because we have a working relationship with Lincoln HI in some other areas and they did not want to cause any tension that would hurt any future collaborations, whether it is within school or sports. It was a difficult decision, it was a difficult choice to make."
With the co-op already undone for 2014, the decision to play one final season together will be decided by the Lincoln HI School Board. Per MSHSL rules, any school wishing to leave a cooperative program must provide its partner school with at least one year's notice. If, however, the Lincoln HI board also decides to dissolve the union in its next meeting on May 23, the two schools will compete separately starting this fall.
"Right now I think our plans are to expect those guys to be with us for one more year, unless we hear something different before their next board meeting," Johnston said.
Few options exist for Lincoln HI outside of one more year with Minneota. Dwindling turnout led to the Rebels seeking a cooperative three years ago and the numbers have not improved.
"Our numbers had shrunk and we were below 20 kids," Lincoln HI activities director Craig Midtaune said. "When this all started it was getting hard, even at the 9-man level, to get enough quality on the field. Then the travel was getting to be too much. Everything was getting so spread out, when we joined the Pheasant Conference we had a lot of three-hour trips. It was just getting harder to run a program.
"The issue is right now we have two classes of boys and then we are lean for a few years, as far as what has been participating in (Minneota's) younger program," he added. "They were looking more for the future than the present."
According to Midtaune, there are two options for the Rebels that do not include the Minneota.
"One of our options will be seeing if there is another partner that would be willing to work with us," he said. "It's hard to tell with our elementary classes right now. If you look down the line, maybe we need to start with a young program and see if we can build something back."
Staying with Minneota favors the Lincoln HI seniors for 2013-14, who would have one more year of football. Included in that group are two important contributors for the Vikings: running back Jeff Gladis was selected to the Independent all-area team last season after rushing for 1,349 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Jordan Beck should replace graduating tight end Isaac Josephson (Minneota's leading receiver last season).
The one-year extension is not so kind to the rest of the Lincoln HI players, including playmaker Nathan Pavek and stout lineman Jordan Twedt, who could be forced to open enroll at another school if they wish to continue playing football.
Johnston is in favor of the one-year extension.
"Maybe it will allow those kids a better transition period, maybe it will allow them more time to find another option for those kids," he said. "Again, I think it's a good thing. We don't want to leave these kids high and dry. We've invested time in them and they've invested time in us.
"You kind of feel for some of those younger kids," Johnston added. "Unless they find that option of another school district taking them in, which I'm guessing most of the districts in the area are in the same position as us, some of those kids are going to have to make a tough decision of whether to give up football or be forced to open enroll in a school district other than their own."
As Johnston previously alluded to, in a perfect world for the Vikings, Minneota and Lincoln HI would have stayed together and remained in Class A to compete against familiar and similar-sized programs like Dawson-Boyd and Canby.
Unfortunately the combined enrollment for Minneota and Lincoln HI is 205 - one student over the cutoff for Class A. As a result, the Vikings were moved from Section 5A to Section 5AA, where they could face schools like Paynesville, Yellow Medicine East and Sauk Centre in the playoffs.
Football is not the only sport in which Minneota and Lincoln HI compete together. The two schools compete cooperatively in baseball as well, while forming a three-school union with Canby for cross country, softball and track.
Midtaune said he expects those co-ops to remain intact and little change to take place in the working relationship between the schools, despite the decision to break up the football partnership.
"I don't foresee that things are going to change that way," he said. "We're going to continue working on programs wherever we can. We're small schools so the communication needs to stay open between us."
Minneota and Lincoln HI had an overall record of 17-5 in their first two years as a co-op, reaching the Section 5A finals both years and falling to Dawson-Boyd both times.