It looks like the River Falls football team will be putting on a lot of miles beginning with the 2020 season, and head coach David Crail isn't happy about it.
The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association released its final recommendation for a football-only conference realignment plan last week that would move the Wildcats out of the Big Rivers Conference and into the Mississippi Valley Conference beginning with the 2020 season. The WIAA Board of Control is expected to approve the plan at its March 1 meeting.
"I'm not happy about it at all," Crail said. " It's not good for our program at any level. It's not good for the student-athletes who have to leave school early, and it's not good for our program in general."
River Falls currently plays in the Big Rivers Conference, which includes Hudson, Eau Claire Memorial, Eau Claire North, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, Rice Lake and Superior. Their longest road trip is 350 miles round trip to Superior, which they only make every other season. Their shortest is 30 miles to Hudson and back. The others range from 90 to 170 miles total.
Under the WFCA plan, New Richmond would replace River Falls in the BRC and the Wildcats would move to the Mississippi Valley Conference along with Holmen, La Crosse Central, La Crosse Logan, Tomah, Onalaska, Sparta and West Salem, meaning four to five round trips a season totalling 200 to 300 miles.
"From a community aspect it's horrible," Crail said. "You get people who travel to all your games to support you, now we're going to ask them, four or five times a year, to drop everything and travel two-and-a-half hours each way, which we didn't have to do in the past. Every other year we'd go to Superior, now we're doing that trip five times a year. It doesn't make any sense to me."
Crail said the school has been against the plan since it was first proposed back in August and has been appealing to the WFCA ever since.
"I've written a letter, Rollie's (activities director Rollie Hall) written a letter, our school board's written a letter and the conference has written a letter, and they've ignored every single one," he said. "I'm not in favor of anyone leaving the conference and we have the support of the conference athletic directors from every school. We want the conference to remain as is. But they're saying somebody has to move, it just shouldn't have been us."
The WFCA wants to move New Richmond out of the Middle Border Conference due to its growing enrollment. But Crail said River Falls shouldn't pay the price.
"They say that they have to do something with New Richmond because they're growing. Well, if you look at other conferences, other conferences have an enrollment disparity that is significant," he said. "If you have to move New Richmond, move them. They're the ones you're saying you have to move, so move them."
Crail said there's also another option-moving Menomonie.
"That's not a direction that we wanted to go, but if it's based on enrollment and its based on travel distance, Menomonie is smaller than we are and Menomonie is closer to every Mississippi Valley school," he said. "They do not want to move Menomonie, and it's because of the competitive history of Menomonie, period. Great for Menomonie that they have historically done very well, and Joe (La Buda) has built a fantastic program over there and done a really great job. But River Falls is being moved because the 10 years prior to this year River Falls wasn't competitive. And they saw it as an easy move; one they thought we would be in favor of because of the competitive equity, and we're not. No one's said that, but it's obvious."
Crail also doesn't buy the WFCA's argument that the move will only apply to varsity level teams.
"If you think about it, the Big Rivers Conference teams, and the other teams in our area, will have full JV schedules with their conference teams, so how are we supposed to put a JV schedule together with local teams when they're already going to have full schedules with their conference?" he noted. "We have to travel with our lower level teams, there's just no way around it. Now you're going to have kids, some who play JV and varsity, who are going to travel over 1,800 miles in a season. You can't tell me that makes any sense."
Another consequence of the plan is the impact it has on rivalries, including River Falls and Hudson, who have been playing for the Little Brown Jug since 1953, and whose rivalry dates back to 1927. But Crail said he's determined to keep Hudson on the schedule as one of the Cats' two nonconference games.
Crail said the Wildcats can appeal the decision again in two years, but for now it seems certain the WIAA Board of Control will approve it on March 1.
"It will pass," he said. "I guarantee it will pass."