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June 27, 2019

In this Aug. 18, 2017 file photo the Hayward Hurricanes play the Lakeland Thunderbirds in a non-conference high school football game at River Valley Bank Field in Minocqua. Hayward will join the Great Northern Conference for football only, beginning in 2020, under a statewide football conference realignment plan approved by the WIAA Tuesday, April 16. (Dean Hall/Lakeland Times)
In this Aug. 18, 2017 file photo the Hayward Hurricanes play the Lakeland Thunderbirds in a non-conference high school football game at River Valley Bank Field in Minocqua. Hayward will join the Great Northern Conference for football only, beginning in 2020, under a statewide football conference realignment plan approved by the WIAA Tuesday, April 16. (Dean Hall/Lakeland Times)
4/20/2019 7:33:00 AM
Hayward addition eases GNC's football scheduling challenges

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor

Four years ago, facing a Week 6 bye in its schedule, the Rhinelander High School football team took a rare week off. A year later the Hodags filled that void by playing two-time defending WIAA Division 5 state champion Amherst and were promptly blown out at home, 64-0.

Neither solution was perfect, but it was the challenge facing the Hodags as they looked to find someone to play during the middle of the season when they had a bye in the seven-team Great Northern Conference.

According to new RHS football coach Aaron Kraemer and activities director Brian Paulson, those concerns are alleviated not only for the GNC, but statewide, now that the WIAA Board of Control has officially approved the creation of football-only conferences beginning in 2020.

The teams Rhinelander will face on Friday nights will not change much. Hayward/Lac Courte Oreilles joins the seven pre-existing GNC members to form an eight-team conference. Logistically, however, the Hurricanes' addition makes setting a schedule significantly easier.

That's because the plan, crafted by a joint task force of the WIAA and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association, recreated virtually every conference in the state, making each league seven or eight teams. Conferences with seven teams were partnered with a companion seven-team conference to create natural crossover games. What that means is every school in the state will have its weeks 3-9 filled with conference play, leaving only the first two weeks to fill for non-conference play.

"Trying to schedule teams during that (conference) bye week - no matter where you are across the state - is difficult as you're trying to matchup like opponents and you're trying to matchup byes in different weeks," Paulson said. "Some conferences were locked and didn't have a bye."

As a result of the change, the Hodags' 2020 football schedule is already set, Paulson noted. The team will take on Tomahawk and Wausau East in the first two weeks of the season before beginning GNC play.

"That will be exciting to have our conference set for athletic directors so they know who we're going to be playing on a week-in, week-out basis," added Kraemer. "That's one less team we've got to look for when it comes to our season schedule."

Because crossover games for seven-team conferences will count on the conference win-loss record, it also simplifies the playoff qualification formula across the state. The magic number is four conference wins to become playoff eligible for every school that sponsors 11-man football in the state (though some 3-4 teams in conference play may get in the postseason if fewer than 224 teams have winning conference records). Previously, teams needed a .500 record or better in conference play to qualify for the WIAA playoffs. For 10-team conferences, that meant a 5-4 record. For seven-team conferences, like the GNC, 3-3 in league play sufficed.

"It just makes us more viable as a conference and puts us up to the same standard as those other conferences in Wisconsin," Kraemer said.

As for what Hayward's addition does to the balance of power in the Great Northern Conference, that remains to be seen. The Hurricanes have had almost exactly a .500 record (20-19) over the last four seasons, with three trips to Level 1 of the WIAA playoffs as a member of the Heart of North Conference. In that time, Hayward has played six games against GNC opponents, going 3-3 in those games. Hayward was 2-1 against Ashland from 2015-17 and 1-2 against Lakeland from 2016-18.

"We've gotten a chance to see who they are and what they provide. I think they'll be able to fit into our conference and do their best to compete, just like every other team in the conference," Kraemer said, "It's exciting to have them in. We welcome them with open arms into the conference and we're excited to add that last piece to the puzzle."

According to the WIAA, 15 schools filed concerns or appeals to the WIAA about the plan between the time first consideration of the plan was approved on March 1 and Tuesday's final approval. Hayward was one of those schools with enrollment size and travel being the primary issues.

With an enrollment of 607 students, Hayward was by far the largest school in the Heart of North, based on enrollment - nearly 45 percent larger than the second-largest school in the conference (Barron, 419). The Hurricanes will become the smallest school in the GNC. The GNC's largest school in Merrill (802).

In terms of travel, Hayward would become the longest road trip Rhinelander faces in the GNC. It's a distance of 124 miles and a travel time of 2 hours, 26 minutes between Rhinelander and Hayward high schools, according to Google. That's slightly longer than Rhinelander's trek to Ashland (120 miles, 2:21).

"It's quite a change for them," Paulson said. "They're traveling over here more than we're traveling to them. So I understand their concern."

Antigo, Ashland, Lakeland, Medford, Merrill, Mosinee and Rhinelander round out the GNC for football. Two charter members of the conference -Northland Pines and Tomahawk - have played in other conferences for football since 2010. Under the WIAA's plan, both schools will join the Marinette & Oconto/Northern Lakes/Packerland (MONLPC) West conference with Oconto Falls, Crandon, Niagara/Goodman/Pembine, Coleman, Crivitz and Menomonie Indian.

Annual meeting

Six of seven proposed amendments to the WIAA's constitution, bylaws and rules of eligibility were approved by member schools at the WIAA's annual meeting Wednesday in Stevens Point.

The following constitutional amendments passed:

• Mandate only WIAA members that are in good standing are eligible for the state tournament series;

• Add denying hosting opportunities in WIAA state tournament series to the list of penalties imposed for violating association rules and regulations and

• Mandate a Dec. 1 every even-numbered year as the deadline for football-only conference realignment.

A corresponding bylaw amendment clarifies that football sponsorship declarations, for both 8-player and 11-player programs, must be made by Dec. 1 in even-numbered years for football-only conference realignment consideration.

Two rules of eligibility amendments were passed by the member schools. The first provides unrestricted eligibility to transfer students who have had no previous participation in athletics, regardless if the transfer was made necessary by a total and complete change of residence of the parents. The second creates membership-wide uniformity in the code of conduct requirements for student-athletes charged with a felony. If adopted, the change would declare a student, upon being charged and/or convicted of a felony, ineligible for all participation until the student has satisfied all of the requirements ordered by the court in declaring a sentence served, including probation, community service and any other court orders.

A third eligibility amendment, which sought to restrict eligibility for transfer students with a pre-existing athletics relationship with anyone in the school the student is transferring into for one calendar year, was denied by the membership. It was the so-called "Nicolet" rule after two Sun Prairie basketball players open enrolled at Nicolet prior to the 2018-19 season, helping Nicolet to a WIAA Division 2 state title.

The amendment failed with 150 votes in favor, and 239 against. Paulson said Rhinelander voted in favor of the measure.

"That transfer rule could be a game changer," Paulson told the River News Tuesday night, ahead of the annual meeting. "If it doesn't pass, if Rhinelander makes it down to state, we could be facing a super team, or what people call a super team, transfers who transfer to play with each other, which would obviously be tough."

Paulson added enforcing the proposed amendment would have been challenging for the WIAA.

Co-op approved

The River News on Thursday received confirmation from two WIAA officials that the merger of the Northern Edge and Lakeland girls' hockey co-ops was among the winter sports co-ops approved by the WIAA Board of Control Tuesday for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Rhinelander will be the host school for the new Northern Edge co-op and will be joined by Antigo, Lakeland, Mercer, Three Lakes, Tomahawk and Wabeno.

On Wednesday, Medford activities director Andy Guden, whose small co-op with Rib Lake is the second-smallest girls' hockey program in the state, spoke out against the continuing contraction of the number of girls' hockey programs in the state.

"In the 2015-16 season we had 33 teams. Currently, we have 27, and possibly this next season 26. Co-ops merging with co-ops, I believe, do not grow the sport. These mega co-ops need to be broken up. The larger the co-op becomes, the less sense of community there is with the team," Guden said, speaking during the open forum section at the start of Wednesday's WIAA annual meeting. "It's the easy way for coaches and administration to say we need a co-op in order to have a team and give the girls an opportunity, but I don't see how that's growing the sport when we've lost seven teams in four years."

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at

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