Big schools in a class by themselves

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2012 - 9:25 PM

 The creation of Class 6A should revive state dreams for the next-largest schools.

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Quarterback Mark Handberg and Edina, which already opened its season with a 28-14 victory over Holy Angels, are in the new Class 6A.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Not long removed from the fight, former Blaine football coach Shannon Gerrety knows the uphill battle toward a high school football championship most big-school programs endure.

At the top are heavyweights Eden Prairie and Wayzata, with the largest enrollments -- more than 3,000 students each -- and unprecedented staying power. At least one reached the Class 5A championship game in 10 of the past 12 seasons, winning a combined eight titles.

But this season the addition of a seventh class, 6A, for the state's biggest schools rekindles legitimate state tournament excitement for hundreds of players in programs that, while proud, were overmatched.

"It is another trophy, but there is such a disparity in school sizes," said Gerrety, whose 2008 Bengals knocked out Eden Prairie before falling to Wayzata in the Prep Bowl. "Those teams that were at the bottom of enrollment in 5A now have a chance."

This season, which begins Thursday and Friday for most teams, marks the state tournament's second expansion since the five-class format began in 1972. A sixth class was added in 1997.

The new Class 6A includes the state's largest 32 teams by enrollment, with all but three -- Brainerd, Cretin-Derham Hall and Minneapolis South -- coming from the metro area suburbs.

The 22 schools no longer in the highest class make up almost half of the new 48-school Class 5A. Most will find the move liberating considering only five of them reached the large-school state tournament in the past five years.

"6A really was done to deal with the disparity between the smaller schools and larger schools in 5A," said Kevin Merkle, Minnesota State High School League board member and head of the football task force.

While lower classes are finding more opportunity for advancing in postseason play through parity, Class 6A remains a class dominated by a few teams. When the Bengals took their best shot in 2008, they also defeated Cretin-Derham Hall, another perennial power, after upsetting the Eagles.

"The top programs still have a chance if the stars align right," said Gerrety, now in his first year as Blaine's activities director. His football team is in 6A. "We proved that in 2008. But no one really does it year in and year out."

No school represents the disparity better than Minneapolis South, which is challenged by socioeconomic concerns most 6A schools do not face. Coach Lenny Sedlock, whose team was in a section with Eden Prairie and Minnetonka last season, tried running an end around. He unsuccessfully petitioned for membership in the affluent Lake Conference in hopes of elevating his program.

Sedlock said of his Tigers' 6A placement, "I don't think it was right. But I'm too old to be complaining about that stuff."

Merkle said putting South in 6A was strictly a numbers game:

"We use size as the objective criteria but it's only one piece [of a program's strength]. Now more and more it's becoming their economic wherewithal."

Class 6A will employ a unique postseason structure. The top four seeded teams in a section play the bottom four in the section quarterfinals. Instead of then playing each other as winners in other classes do, the final four teams will cross over to play teams from another section to produce the final eight teams making up the state tournament field.

Last year Eden Prairie beat Minnetonka in the section final and advanced to the state tournament. Crossing over sections after the first round this year means those power programs do not have to meet until state.

Skippers coach Dave Nelson, who has gone 1-9 against Eden Prairie, dismissed talk of him exerting influence on the football task force that recommended the change.

"Would I rather have this playoff system than the other one?" Nelson said. "Yeah, I would. But it's not going to be a piece of cake."

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