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Eric Peterson, Published August 28 2009

North Dakota class shuffle leads to fewer conference football games

North Dakota Class 3A football schools won’t play a conference opponent this fall until the midpoint of the regular season.

“To be honest, it doesn’t bother me a bit because we have a month of preseason,” said West Fargo coach Jay Gibson, whose teams opens its season tonight at Mandan. “We have four games and none of them count. You can take a little extra time, you can take a chance maybe playing a guy you consider a backup or a No. 2.”

It’s going to be a different football season. While there has been division realignment in the past, this is the most significant team movement in Class 3A since the state moved from three to four classes in 1997.

The Eastern Dakota Conference and Western Dakota Association are at six teams each under the new system that will be in place for the next two seasons.

Teams like West Fargo, Fargo South and Fargo North will play four nonconference and five EDC games this season.

Three longtime Class 3A teams – Wahpeton, Fargo Shanley and Bismarck St. Mary’s – are now in Class 2A. Wahpeton and Shanley are playing in the same region with teams like Fargo Oak Grove, Central Cass, Lisbon, Valley City and Kindred. Jamestown will be in the EDC for one season after spending the past 12 in the WDA.

“It’s unknown,” Shanley coach Steve Laqua said. “There are a lot of new places and a lot of new faces that we’ve got to take on. … We’re going to miss not having some of those games where we’ve built up rivalries in the past. But that’s OK. Change is fine. That just leaves us open to start new ones.”

For more than a decade, Class 3A schools have usually played two out of conference games before starting conference play.

“With this many nonconference games, it really changes your thought process of the nonconference games,” South coach Kevin Feeney said. “It’s going to be a different strategy. I’m going to be interested to see what other coaches do and how they treat them.

“If anything, it puts more of an emphasis on each conference game.”

South, which opens its season tonight at Bismarck Century, doesn’t play its first EDC game until Sept. 25 at West Fargo.

Wahpeton coach Mike McCall has mixed feelings with his team moving into Class 2A. Despite being one of the lower enrollments in Class 3A, the Huskies were a perennial playoff team.

“Yes, everybody looked at us as the little school, they looked at us as the underdog, but we never saw ourselves that way,” said McCall, whose team opens the season tonight at St. Mary’s.

“When we went out on Friday nights in 3A, we went out and expected to win. … Our expectations haven’t changed. Now, we’re the big guy with the targets on the back.”

McCall said Wahpeton will most likely see its enrollment drop below 400 students in grades 9-12 in the next few years.

In that respect, the move to 2A makes sense.

“I have mixed feelings about it I really do,” McCall said. “We’re going to enjoy where we are now. … We’re kind of looking forward to the new opportunities and the new challenges.”

Lisbon returns to Class 2A after playing in 1A the previous two seasons. The Broncos will get a chance to play against a number of new teams with Bismarck St. Mary’s, Wahpeton and Shanley on their schedule.

“We’re excited, but there is a certain amount of trepidation involved here,” Lisbon coach Robert Bubach said. “These are top quality football schools and they are coming to play us and we have to see what happens. It’s going to be tough, but I also understand where the high school activities association is coming from.”

South and West Fargo have around 1,000 for their male enrollments, while Wahpeton is around 200. Those numbers are from projections on the North Dakota High School Activities Association football plan for 2009-2010. Lisbon is projected at just over 100 male students, one of the smaller male enrollments in 2A.

“There is no other way to do it,” Gibson said. They had to do something. In football, it’s not fair. In basketball, you pick five guys, you might be able to compete. But in football it’s a numbers game.

“There is always going to be the haves and the have nots. You just have to draw the lines somewhere.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com