Eight of the metro area’s most athletically successful high schools — all of them Catholic — plan to meet this month to discuss forming their own conference, a response in part to wider conference migration and the difficulty some are having finding the right competitive fit.
DeLaSalle President Barry Lieske, who said the Islanders are fast outgrowing their conference, said seven additional schools — Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Cretin-Derham Hall, Hill-Murray, Holy Angels, Holy Family of Victoria, St. Thomas Academy and Totino-Grace — have “interest in joining in a preliminary conversation” about forming a new conference.
“We have so much similarity in how we operate,’’ Lieske said Wednesday. “And there looks like wholesale interest in having that conversation. I’m not even sure an all-Catholic school conference would be a likely outcome. But it could be, I guess.”
Reaction Wednesday from those schools ranged from interest and curiosity to polite but firm resistance. Catholic high schools were banded together in competition apart from Minnesota’s public schools until the mid-1970s. The last metro-area conference of Catholic schools disbanded in the 1980s.
Such an alliance would combine schools that, in 2011-12 and so far this school year, have won 13 state team championships, including titles in high-profile sports such as football (Totino-Grace), boys’ hockey (St. Thomas Academy) and boys’ and girls’ basketball (DeLaSalle).
But those schools have been criticized for having an unfair advantage, especially at tournament time, when they play public school teams that can’t match the private schools’ ability to attract top student-athletes from across the metro area.
Lieske cited the growth of DeLaSalle, which competes in the Tri-Metro Conference, the St. Paul City Conference asking Cretin-Derham Hall to leave about a decade ago, and the recent vote by public schools to oust St. Thomas Academy from the Classic Suburban Conference as reasons to consider a new alliance.
“I think there are raw feelings there,” Lieske said.
Presidents and activities directors from the eight schools plan to meet on May 16.
St. Thomas Academy Headmaster Thomas Mich said he is “more than happy, even a little excited to explore other options. But we’re not trying to run from the Classic Suburban Conference.”
Holy Family president Kathie Brown said her 13-year-old school, while happy with its situation in the Wright County Conference, is interested to take part in a broader conversation because she can relate to St. Thomas Academy’s situation.
“It was very difficult to be invited into a conference initially,” Brown said. “It continues to be a challenge to be welcome. Because we’ve been successful at a very early age, I think the challenges have been even larger than we anticipated. That’s another great reason to at least start these conversations.”
Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Totino-Grace face uncertain futures after the North Suburban Conference announced it was dissolving after the 2013-14 school year. Both schools have sought better competitive fits for their flagship sports. Totino-Grace football moved to the Northwest Suburban Conference last fall while the Red Knights’ boys’ hockey program played an independent schedule this past season.
Benilde-St. Margaret’s has applied to join the newly formed Metro West Conference and been denied entry to the Classic Suburban. Activities director Jerry Pettinger said he is “interested in talking more’’ about an all-Catholic conference approach but believes that “we can all still get along’’ in mixed conferences as well.
Holy Angels also is looking for a new conference after several schools announced they would be leaving the Missota Conference.
Said Lieske, “With all this change going on around us, is this an important time in history to have our own conversation on where we will most likely land? … Sometimes, if you don’t plan, then your future is determined by others.”
Hill-Murray activities director Bill Lechner, who also coaches boys’ hockey and baseball, is skeptical that an all-Catholic school conference would solve more problems than it would create. Hill-Murray competes in the Classic Suburban and voted for keeping St. Thomas in the conference.
“You take all the Catholic schools and there are a lot of not-good fits athletically,” Lechner said. “We’re fine where we’re at. We will listen to be polite. But we’re not interested.”
Many of those same schools were aligned 40 years ago in what was then called the Central Catholic Conference. Including schools from outside the metro area as well, they competed for state titles outside the purview of the Minnesota State High School League until they were accepted by the high school league as members in 1974.
A few of those schools, including Totino-Grace, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Holy Angels, were aligned with other smaller Catholic schools in the Twin Cities-based Don Bosco Conference in the 1980s.
Dave Stead, high school league executive director, said he had not heard of the idea of a Catholic school conference until Wednesday. He said the search for competitive fit is not unique to private schools.
“Conferences are having issues throughout the metro area,’’ he said. “I don’t know if it’s football or changes in school sizes and clientele.”