River Falls and New Richmond will meet again on the football field after all.
When the WIAA approved its statewide conference realignment plan in March 2019, it sent River Falls to the Mississippi Valley Conference beginning with the 2020 season while moving New Richmond to the Big Rivers Conference to take the Wildcats’ place. It also meant the rivalry between the two area teams that dates to 1931 would come to an end due to nonconference scheduling restrictions.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
After canceling all spring sports in March in response to the pandemic, the WIAA in August approved a delayed start to the 2020 football season with the option for schools to compete in the spring if they chose to do so or were unable to meet local coronavirus guidelines for the fall. The WIAA also relaxed conference rules to achieve scheduling relief, giving River Falls the OK to rejoin the BRC while New Richmond went forward with its move to the BRC as planned.
With Eau Claire Memorial, Eau Claire North and Superior in the BRC, and La Crosse Central and La Crosse Logan in the MVC, opting for the alternate spring football season, that leaves River Falls and New Richmond in a six-team BRC football league for the 2020 fall season along with Hudson, Rice Lake, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie.
River Falls head coach David Crail said considering the circumstances, it made sense for the Wildcats to return to the BRC for another year.
“A lot of it just dealt with what was happening statewide with what the WIAA was trying to organize,” he said. “When they started to have some discussions in regards to a more regional approach with scheduling, and there was some conversations about some of the La Crosse schools not being able to participate in the fall, the idea of us being able to move back into the BRC, which is certainly more regional for us, came to fruition. It really made sense for the dynamic of what’s happening around the state and what we could do to best serve our kids under the conditions.”
New Richmond head coach Reggie Larson said the decision to go ahead with the Tigers’ move to the BRC this season wasn’t as easy.
“You look at geographically, in the Big Rivers, there’s a lot of teams that have to cross a lot of county lines,” he noted. “Had we stayed in the Middle Border we could have been playing teams like Somerset and Baldwin and St. Croix Central, all right in our county. But our administration talked about it long and hard and weighed options, and we eventually decided to stay with the move to the Big Rivers and I think we made the right decision. It’s something I fully support and it’s something our kids are really excited about as well.”
River Falls and New Richmond have a long, shared history on the football field. Both were charter members of the Middle Border Conference and met each season from 1931 to 1988. The series was interrupted in 1989 when River Falls moved into the Big Rivers and resumed when New Richmond was briefly a member of the BRC from 1998 to 2001. After a hiatus in 2002, New Richmond’s first year back in the Middle Border Conference, the two teams met in the season opener for 17 straight years through 2019.
This season the Wildcats and Tigers are scheduled to meet Friday, Oct. 16, in New Richmond. But this won’t be a normal football season. Both teams have five games scheduled against BRC opponents with the hope of adding two more. There’s no guaranteed postseason, and a flare-up of the virus could end the season at any time. Both Larson and Crail said their players aren’t taking anything for granted.
“They watched a group of their friends last spring get their season taken away,” Larson pointed out. “So they understand how fragile this really is. And we talk about, hey you might not be able to go do the campfire with 40 kids. You may not be able to put 20 kids in a basement to go watch some games on Sundays. You might not be able to do the team dinner stuff. They’re putting their social lives on pause a little bit just to make sure we have a season.
"So I give the kids a lot of credit. They’re the ones enforcing our procedures -- make sure you wash your hands, make sure you wear your mask at school. Because they realize how fragile this thing is and how quickly it can come tumbling down if we don’t follow through.”
As a result, Larson said he’s seen an extra level of enthusiasm from his players in the first week or practice.
“They realize, holy cow, I’m lucky to be practicing,” he said. “There’s teams in Wisconsin that aren’t practicing. They realize how privileged we really are to have the opportunity to practice. So it’s really kind of flipped their whole mindset. We’re in a pretty unique situation and we have to make sure we make this last so we have the opportunity to practice and hopefully go out and play as many games as we can.”
Crail said the magnitude of the situation isn’t lost on the Wildcats either.
“They can just look around the country and see, from a high school perspective and a college perspective, kids that love the game and aren’t able to do what they’re doing right now,” he said. “And I do think they’re grateful for the opportunity. I think they understand the difficulty our board had with the decision to allow us to play. I think that they understand that they’ve been given a pretty big responsibility as well in making sure that they conduct themselves in a way that shows the board and our community and our school that they take it seriously. Those facts are not lost on them.”
While many teams take a one-game-at-a-time approach during a normal season, Crail said considering the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, this season will be more day-to-day.
“We told our kids on Day 1 that this is Day 1 of question mark, really,” he said. “We don’t know at any point in time when our season could be done. And those things are completely out of our control. But I think we’ve done a really good job as a coaching staff over the course of the last four years of communicating that message of taking it a day at a time and enjoying the process. That message just becomes louder in times like these. You really do have to just enjoy the moment because it can be taken away from you at any time.”
“We’ve talked a little bit about the postseason and the uncertainty around that; if it happens great, if not, then it’s not going to happen,” he said. “That’s something that’s not in our control, and we want to control what we can control. We can control how hard we go out and practice. We can control the precautions we’re following to make sure we have the best chance to play all of our games. Outside of that, it’s not worth worrying about the other stuff because it’s something that we have no say in.”
One thing the Tigers are looking forward to is playing their first game at the new Tiger stadium on the high school campus, even if attendance will be limited this season due to coronavirus restrictions.
“One of the best things is we don’t have to bus to a home game, even if it was only a five minute drive to the middle school,” Larson said. “Now we get to play a true home game. Our kids, they don’t care who’s in the stands. Our kids love to play football. They want to be successful and they want to go out and have the time of their life with their buddies. The alternative is we might not be playing at all. We’re just grateful we have the opportunity to open that thing up on Sept. 25.”
The Tigers will host Rice Lake in their season opener Sept. 25 while the Wildcats will kick off the season the same night in Chippewa Falls.