Rivalry games, the ones where teams’ records don’t matter, where players are reminded of tradition, where the victors hoist a traveling trophy before their cheering student section, are disappearing from the high school football landscape.
Call it the unintended consequences of adding a seventh class in 2012 and killing conferences in favor of the district scheduling model in 2015. But some teams are scheduling opponents with parity and playoff positioning in mind, not pomp and circumstance.
Perhaps no game on Friday’s slate better reflects changing times than Apple Valley hosting Park of Cottage Grove. The Class 5A programs are budding rivals playing a game with section playoff implications. The host Eagles have ended the Wolfpack’s past two seasons.
Apple Valley, meanwhile, plays none of its fellow School District 196 programs Eagan, Eastview (located in Apple Valley) and Rosemount. Those teams reside in Class 6A because of larger enrollments. The Eagles are one of several metro-area programs with schedules that leave alumni perplexed.
“I told the kids on Monday that this is a rivalry game even if they don’t see it that way,” Apple Valley coach Chad Clendening said. “Park is a team in our district, so that’s a rivalry to me.”
Wolfpack coach Darin Glazier values parity and a good experience over rivalries. Park languished near the bottom of the Suburban East Conference, posting just one winning record in the conference in 10 seasons before district scheduling brought relief in 2015.
“That was the shot in the arm we needed,” said Glazier, whose teams haven’t played fellow District 833 schools East Ridge and Woodbury since 2014. “The state the program was in, there were no more rivalries. Apple Valley has beaten us two years in a row, but those were healthy battles for us.”
Andover also jettisoned surrounding rival communities Anoka and Blaine — 6A programs — for one that better suited its Class 5A status. And while drives to play unfamiliar opponents such as Alexandria, Chisago Lakes and Cambridge-Isanti are measured in many miles rather than a few minutes, the trade-off hasn’t hurt the experience.
“Football is an event, it’s not a 26-game season,” Andover coach Rich Wilkie said. “You build up all week to one opportunity, and the kids just want to get out and compete.”
Two additional programs, Minneapolis North and St. Michael-Albertville, made changes to reflect their growth. Class 1A champions last fall, North moved up to 2A. St. Michael-Albertville won the Class 5A title in 2015 and now resides in 6A.
North coach Charles Adams expressed concern about only playing one other Minneapolis team, South, this season and not natural rival Minneapolis Henry. The two schools, which last competed for the North Side Championship in 2014, sit less than 4 miles apart.
“It doesn’t benefit us as a city not to play our own city schools,” Adams said.
St. Michael-Albertville coach Jared Essler said losing nearby rivals Buffalo, Elk River, Monticello and Rogers threatened to quell the electricity those games generated among fans whether home or away. To his relief, Essler said a similar atmosphere existed in games this season at Blaine and at home against Champlin Park.
“We felt we might be giving something up but at this point, I don’t think we’ve given anything up,” Essler said. “Just the name recognition of some of these programs is enough. Our Homecoming game is against Totino-Grace. You don’t need anything to hype that game up any more.”
Change breeds an opportunity to renew or begin rivalries. Andover closes the regular season against St. Francis, which the Huskies beat in the playoffs the past two seasons. Minneapolis North plays Columbia Heights and players know one another from 7-on-7 passing leagues. And Apple Valley will see Bloomington Jefferson, a long ago Lake Conference opponent, more often.
Friday’s games include St. Paul schools Central and Highland Park playing for the Musket while Lake-ville South and North faceoff for the Big Cat trophy. But traditional rivalries are becoming more scarce.
“It’s not as much about rivalries anymore,” Glazier said. “It’s about beating the teams we need to beat to get to the next level.”