S o much about Maple Grove and Osseo clash, from the former's glitzy The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes to the latter's quaint downtown.

And now, youth football represents the philosophical differences of these neighboring communities. In March, the Osseo-Maple Grove Football Association (OMGFA) saw more than half its membership leave to form the Maple Grove Youth Football Association (MGYFA).

In the past, football players from those communities grew up playing together from second grade to eighth grade. Then they joined the high school programs at either Maple Grove or Osseo. Both schools reside in District 279, along with Park Center.

The new Maple Grove organization believes the split reflects the desires of a football community that wants a stronger youth program aligned with a specific high school, said board chair Pat Ross and director of football operations Hugh Wells.

But Tony Rios, president of the Osseo-Maple Grove organization, said the split has caused an unnecessary divide in the community.

The split should add an interesting flavor to the varsity programs' game at 5 p.m. Friday at Osseo High School -- a matchup already known for its provincialism.

Despite the recent split, youth football will be celebrated at the game. Rios said all youth football players wearing their jerseys, whether members of either organization, get in free. The same policy existed at Maple Grove's varsity home opener in September.

It is one of the few things both sides agree on. Maple Grove varsity coach Matt Lombardi and Osseo head coach Derrin Lamker summed up the position of their respective sides.

"I like the idea of kids in the community feeling like they belong to a high school," Lombardi said. "It gets them excited for the future."

Said Lamker, "I really thought what we had before the split was good for the community."

Why they split

When Craig Hansen, the only football coach in Maple Grove's 15-year history, stepped down after last season, the school held meetings with football stakeholders to gain feedback. One of their priorities was a stronger community-based youth model to better serve the high school.

The idea of dividing the programs is nothing new. Rios acknowledged that the Osseo-Maple Grove board had talked about separating Osseo-bound kids from Maple Grove-bound kids as seventh- and eighth-graders but "never thought about doing so at the elementary level."

By March, MGYFA announced that its defection was imminent. On April 5, OMGFA members voted 138 to 76 to prohibit MGYFA from taking a percentage of money or equipment.

The new youth program would start with zero dollars but plenty of players. Ross said 65 percent of the 877 players last season were Maple Grove residents and 35 percent were from Osseo. Rios said he "never researched it. I never took the attitude of a split community."

Two groups look ahead

About 570 players signed up with the new Maple Grove group this fall. Next year, Ross said, the association hopes to attract 700. Non-Maple Grove residents can join for an additional $50 provided their community does not offer youth football.

The outlook is more sobering for the legacy group. Rios said 392 kids signed up this season, less than the 450 he hoped to see but still enough to field four teams per grade level. The association had eight teams per grade level in 2010. Rios said he makes "no projection" about next fall's numbers, but "hopes to maintain at least four teams per grade."

The new group aligned itself with the Lake Minnetonka Athletic Association and will play teams from communities such as Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata. OMGFA was invited to join the league but Rios said, "My board thought it was a bad idea because we've got a good thing in our community."

Ross said the MGYFA's vision is to align the youth program of Maple Grove with the high school, thereby getting more good athletes out for football and improving the attachment to, and strength of, the varsity program.

"I got an e-mail that said, 'My fourth grader doesn't care about what high school he's going to,'" Ross said. "That's what I'm trying to fix."

Opposing Roth's view, Rios said, "My personal belief is that sixth-grade players have nothing to do with a high school championship."

Rios said the Osseo-Maple Grove association has not changed its philosophy after the split.

"We didn't become the Osseo football program," Rios said. "Wherever you come from, wherever you decide to go to school, if you want to come play football with us we're not going to say no to you, because we are a community football program."

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574