Tracy-Milroy-Balaton football has grown used to making an instant transition from heavyweight to lightweight as the regular season turns to the postseason. Facing mostly Class A schools while going through its regular season schedule in the Little Sioux Conference, the Panthers had to step up to face their Class AA peers once section tournament time arrived.
But consistently one of the smallest schools in Class AA, TMB found it difficult to compete against the bigger squads, and even when they were at their strongest, the Panthers were unable to get past Section 3AA powers Jackson County Central and Luverne to get to the state tournament.
The Panthers will have an extra bounce to their step this season as the latest round of competitive section reclassifications by the Minnesota State High School League has bumped TMB down to Class A for the 2013 season. The school's enrollment of 204 students was right at the Class A cutoff line for football.
TMB co-head coach Derek Flann said he's had his eye on the cutoff line for years and is happy his program is finally on the other side of it - for now.
"Someone has to be the smallest school in each class and somebody gets to be the biggest," Flann said. "Unfortunately you don't have 50 or 60 schools that are all within 20 to 30 kids of each other, you have a wide range across the state and each coach, each school has to deal with the system. You play within it and hope you get lucky that you get to be that big school occasionally. We're happy it's us for a change."
With TMB and Little Sioux Conference newcomer Lac qui Parle Valley (also with an enrollment of 204) among the teams moving down to Class A in 2013, someone has to move up. The co-op of Minneota/Lincoln HI, also a Little Sioux squad, happens to be one of those teams. With a combined enrollment of 205, Minneota/Lincoln HI is one above the Class A cutoff line.
In late April the Minneota School Board voted 5-2 to dissolve its partnership with Lincoln HI for football to try to avoid moving up to Class AA, but on May 23 the Lincoln HI board unanimously voted against dissolving the partnership, meaning the co-op will remain intact for one more season and the perennial Class A power will make the jump to Section 5AA for the playoffs.
Although the change is one the Vikings would obviously prefer not to make, Minneota/Lincoln HI head coach Chad Johnston said his players see the step up as a challenge they feel they can tackle.
"Most of the kids realize we have some good kids from Lincoln HI coming back and (the Minneota kids) realize that will make us a better football team," Johnston said. "As long as we get all those kids back from last year that are supposed to come back, I think they'll be confident. I think they believe we'll be a successful program again this year.
"I think in the back of their mind they might realize that they have to go a little bit harder now because things are stepping up a notch. I think the kids are looking forward to getting another season with Lincoln HI. Part of it is saying, 'Hey, let's go up to AA and try to turn some heads and show people that we're a good, quality program."
Minneota/Lincoln HI has little experience playing opponents in higher classes, so Johnston said it's hard to predict how his team will fare when playoff time arrives. Other than their matchups with TMB in conference play, the Vikings' last meeting with a larger school was in 2011 when they lost to Class AAA Montevideo 27-7.
Once the season begins, Johnston said he and his assistants will have to up their scouting on possible Section 5AA foes, especially defending section champion BOLD. The Warriors ran away with the section last year and went 11-1, losing to eventual state champion Caledonia by two points in the Class AA semifinals.
While BOLD has an enrollment that is just 11 students above the combined enrollment of Minneota and Lincoln HI, TMB was facing schools with over 300 students when the Panthers went up against Luverne and JCC in the 3AA playoffs. Flann said those larger schools had some clear advantages over his squad.
"There are small schools in Class AA that have success," Flann said, "but obviously the difference between Class A and AA is depth and a little bit of size up front and being able to adapt to different things, where Class A teams are stuck with one core group of guys. You get into some of the AA schools and they have some different packages that they can run at you and different combinations, they're a little more complex in terms of schemes. It's tough to win in either class, but there are a lot of different challenges in AA."
Flann added, "I think we had kind of a mental block when we went up against Luverne or Jackson, and that shouldn't be there but you could always tell that it was in the mind of our kids that it would be almost a miracle if we won that game."
TMB is moving down to Section 3A and could face the likes of Adrian, Murray County Central, Red Rock Central, United South Central, Southwestern United and defending section champion St. Clair. TMB went 0-2 against teams from that section last year (MCC and Adrian), and that's a point Flann said he has stressed to his players so they know that moving down a class doesn't mean advancing through the playoffs will be any easier.
"There's not a gimme team in this section, so you still have to go in and be prepared, but hopefully we'll be a little more confident that we have a legitimate chance to win some games," he said.
Minneota/Lincoln HI's switch to Section 5AA means area football fans will be denied the chance to see what could have been a fifth-straight section finals meeting between the Vikings and Dawson-Boyd, who have split the series and each gone on to win a state championship over the past four years. The Blackjacks have won the last two 5A titles, and though the Vikings surely would have been game for another possible rematch, Johnston said prepping for a different opponent in the playoffs is alright with him this season.
"It's actually kind of nice to see some different faces, I won't lie," Johnston said. "We were hoping for a fifth year of the Dawson-Boyd versus Minneota matchup if everything fit into place, and it'll be weird after four years of that matchup that that's not even a possibility.
"Maybe we have to do some extra work to scout some other programs but I think we're excited about seeing some teams that don't know anything about us. You look at somebody like Dawson-Boyd and they've seen us twice every year for how many years now. They know what works and what doesn't work and they know us as well as we do."