The North Bend Eagle


East Husker Conference expands to ensure survival

by Nathan Arneal
Published 2/1/12

Conference realignment has been a hot topic over the past year. Locally, most of that is a result of Nebraska jumping from the Big 12 to the Big Ten and rumors of several other schools switching leagues, some of which turned out to be true.

East Husker moves westClick here to see a map of the newly expanded East Husker Conference.

But conference expansion isn’t just for colleges anymore.

At a January 19 meeting of the executive council of the East Husker Conference, four new schools were admitted, pushing the EHC’s membership to 14 schools.

“This is a watershed time for our conference,” North Bend Central superintendent Dan Endorf said. “It came down to long-term viability of the conference. The concern was that we’re a 10-team conference that could become five or six in a hurry.”

The addition of the new schools, Twin River, Humphrey, Howells-Dodge and Leigh-Clarkson, is the first change to the EHC’s lineup since the addition of Stanton in 2001. Leigh and Clarkson will actually remain separate high schools, but they will combine their athletic programs in what is known as a co-op.

When expansion discussions began a year-and-a-half ago, conference officials felt the EHC was in danger of collapsing.

At the time, Scribner-Snyder had a deal to merge with West Point-Beemer. Several of the smaller schools in the northeastern section of the conference were looking at co-ops, mergers, or joining other conferences with more schools similar to their size.

“Just to preserve the conference we thought we better look at expanding so that we can take care of some of the attrition that might happen,” Joe Peitzmeier said. He is the superintendant at Oakland-Craig and the secretary of the East Husker Conference.

Endorf said competitive balance was also becoming an issue in the EHC, where schools span four of the six NSAA size classifications, from Class C-1 down to D-2.

“The bigger schools wanted JV and freshman games for basketball and volleyball,” Endorf said. “And you have smaller schools, like Lyons-Decatur who was over here (at NBC) the other night, who can’t play a whole game of JV basketball. So the larger schools were looking for more opportunities for their kids. The smaller schools were looking for co-ops. We realized that we better hurry up and grow because we know we are going to get smaller as a conference.”

The East Husker superintendents drew a 50-mile circle around West Point, which is centrally located among the EHC schools, and invited schools in that radius to a meeting to gauge interest. Invitations went out to 14 schools.

Meanwhile, in the Cornhusker Conference

Just to the west of the East Husker is the Cornhusker Conference (no relation), which is primarily made up of Class D schools.

What their counterparts to the east feared might be soon happen to the East Husker was already happening to the Cornhusker.

Fullerton was leaving for another conference. Howells and Dodge, two Cornhusker members, were merging and looking at the East Husker. Another two members, Leigh and Clarkson, were talking about co-oping, as were other member schools.

What had been a 10-team conference was suddenly looking like it would be down to six or fewer.

“We were looking at the possibility of expanding the Cornhusker Conference when another one of our schools dropped out and went with a different conference,” said superintendant Mike Montgomery of Leigh. “So then it was decided to look around and see what other conferences are around.”

Dodge-Howells was the first to make the leap, applying for EHC membership in October 2011 and being accepted in November.

Soon fellow Cornhusker Conference schools Humphrey and the co-op of Leigh and Clarkson followed suit.

“Contact had been made early in the fall with the East Husker, so we just pursued that,” Montgomery said. “Now we’ve been accepted to the conference, and we’re very happy about that.”

Twin River, which had just been accepted into the Cornhusker Conference within the past year, suddenly found itself looking for another new home. With its high school in Genoa, Twin River sits outside the 50-mile radius of West Point and was not included among the original 14 schools contacted by the EHC. Nonetheless, the Titans applied for East Husker membership and were accepts along with the other Cornhusker schools.

Twin River, a Class C-2 school, is the only one of the new schools not in Class D. Endorf thinks the Titans will be a great addition to the East Husker, especially for NBC.

“Twin River, on paper, is pretty much a mirror image of North Bend Central,” he said. “I think they will become a very healthy rival for us because of our location, because of our size and because they seem to have a very rural feel to them like we do.”

Increased distances an acceptable inconvenience

The newly expanded East Husker Conference now pushes much farther west that it did before, creating longer trips for schools on its eastern edge. While a few longer trips per year will be an inconvenience, conference superintendents agreed is was a necessary burden to bear.

“There was a lot of discussion about geography,” Endorf said. “Tekamah-Herman to Twin River is 106 miles, and Tekamah-Herman didn’t bat an eye. They said, ‘We understand. We don’t like driving 106 miles, but you look at the way the education landscape is changing with consolidations, mergers and co-ops, schools are going to have to travel farther than they have in the past.’ So Tekamah-Herman was willing to make that trip.”

Montgomery pointed out that all distance is relative.

“We figured that for Leigh-Clarkson, 69 miles would be about the farthest we will travel,” Montgomery said. “That’s good for us. I spent a lot of years out west in the panhandle. Our closest game trip was 54 miles, so this is not too bad down here.”

North Bend Central, once the southwestern outpost of the East Husker, now becomes much more centrally located, though still on the southern edge. The new schools will make little difference to the length of NBC’s road trips. The average distance between North Bend and the current EHC schools is 41.3 miles. The addition of the four new members will only slightly increase that figure to 41.7 miles.

Details to come

The details of how the expanded East Husker Conference will work have yet to be hammered out.

The addition of the four schools does not change the fact that school size varies greatly among EHC members.

On one end of the spectrum, West Point-Beemer averages 63 students per class. That’s about than four times larger than the 16 students per class in the smallest school in the conference, Lyons-Decatur.

What is likely to happen is that the East Husker will be broken into two divisions based on size.

“We thought by growing we could fortify the smaller groups so they had enough competition and wouldn’t have to play the full JV games and provide a more competitive balance for those smaller teams,” Endorf said. “At the same time it’s allowed the larger teams to be able to compete at the level they desire to compete at. So we came up with the plan of a big school-small school division within a much larger conference.”

While nothing has been decided for sure yet, it is likely that conference championships would be determined individually within each division. This means the EHC would crown a small-school champion and a big-school champion.

Schools would be required to play the teams in their division, while games against the other division would be encouraged, though optional.

This means NBC could continue playing local rival Scribner-Snyder, even though the two schools would be in opposite divisions. However, some of the more distant schools in the smaller division, like Lyons-Decatur or Pender, might be dropped from the Tigers’ schedule.

Only conference games within each team’s division would count in the divisional standings.

However, conference tournaments would be another story. There, all 14 schools will likely be thrown into the same mix, with seedings determined by a vote of EHC coaches.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of going to a divisional tournament,” said Peitzmeier, the Oakland-Craig superintendent. “If you do that, you might as well just break up into two conferences.”

The superintendents have given a set of guidelines to the activities directors of the conference. The AD’s are scheduled to meet Feb. 6 to start figuring out how competition will best work for each sport.

Football will obviously not be affected at all, since the NSAA dictates the districts and the scheduling for that sport. Wrestling will see only minor changes. Howells is the only one of the new schools with a wrestling team, though the Bobcats have traditionally been among Class D’s best programs. Twin River co-ops wrestling with Columbus Lakeview, and will likely continue competing in the Lakeview’s Central Conference.

The expansion will also affect activities the EHC sponsors, such as speech and one-acts. There the East Husker could be adding five schools, since Leigh and Clarkson are likely to maintain their own separate activity programs. Endorf said he thinks the addition of more competition will make those programs better.

“Think of our speech contest and our one-acts,” he said. “I see those to be even more competitive than they are right now. Our honor bands will include the best of the best from four or five other schools. I think that brings more excitement and more talent to an already talented group of kids.”

Excitement, stability ahead

The superintendents of the East Husker think the changes and additions will lead to long-term stability for the East Husker Conference.

“We didn’t want to end like the Cornhusker Conference,” Endorf said. “We wanted to grow, not shrink. I am thrilled. I am exited those schools are coming here. It doesn’t mean we’re going to play each one of them, but it means schools in our conference will. It will lead to health for the overall wellbeing of the EHC.”

At Leigh, Montgomery says his students and staff are excited about the double challenge of not only forming a new team in their co-op with Clarkson, but seeing new teams in the EHC

“I think everybody’s excited about it,” Montgomery said. “They know that they’re going to see some new competition, and they’re going to see some old competition.”

Just like college conference realignment heated back up in the summer of 2011 after the big waves of 2010, the EHC may not be done either. Adding a couple more schools would allow the conference to even out its divisions at eight schools each.

“Our goal is 16 without a doubt,” Peitzmeier said. “Right now for 2012-13 we’re closed because we have to get going in getting stuff ready. But if one or two more schools would apply that fit the criteria of that (50-mile radius) circle, I think we’d let them in.”

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