Pequot Lakes is changing conferences.
After years in the Mid-State Conference, the Patriots will move to the Granite Ridge Conference starting in 2023-24.
This change will make Pequot Lakes the northernmost Granite Ridge team along with Little Falls, Pierz, Mora, Milaca, Albany, St. Cloud Cathedral, and Foley. In a corresponding move, Zimmerman will leave Granite Ridge for the Mississippi 8 Conference.
When Pequot Lakes operations director Byron Westrich took over in 2020, he was concerned about the size of the Mid-State and whether it would stay together.
“Because of our size as a school and some other schools, I started planting the seeds of some local conferences that we might seek to bring about change,” he said. “In December, the Granite Ridge made an informal invitation to a meeting and we toured the details.”
After sitting down with his coaches, Westrich got the OK to try to pursue the move to Granite Ridge and an official conference invitation soon followed.
“We got school board approval, and then the Minnesota State High School League just needs to be notified, they don’t have to approve the process,” Westrich said.
One of the main reasons for the change is related to Fine Arts. Westrich believes that Granite Ridge provides more opportunities for children to compete in speech, one act as well as in band and choir. The other element was that the schools in Granite Ridge had a similar enrollment size to Pequot.
“It gives us more level of play,” Westrich said. “A perfect example is volleyball. Instead of just having a joint venture and a university, we can have four levels of play and it will be in a few different sports.
Another leap Pequot could make in the future is to go from Class 2A to Class 3A, which Westrich said was at the back of his mind during the conference change debate.
“It was a big factor,” he said. “With our growing enrollment numbers, it’s important for us to compete with schools of a similar size.”
Although Pequot Lakes no longer shares a conference with Mid-State teams, expect to still see them on Patriots schedules as non-conference games.
“It’s by far the toughest place I’ve had to schedule non-conference games,” said Westrich, who previously served as an AD at Kimball for six years and Upsala for two years. “Part of the reason is that I had to schedule more, but the other part is that our size is not attractive to other schools like us in the area. 3A schools don’t want to play us and that’s is a lot of travel for 2A schools. It’s really hard.
Westrich admitted it wasn’t easy to move on from the already-established rivalries and relationships that Pequot built in the Mid-State.
“The only downside is the camaraderie and coaching brotherhood that Mid-State has brought to Pequot,” Westrich said. “Pequot was very lucky to be part of Mid-State. It’s a great group of schools and an even greater group of people that we work with. That’s the hardest thing.
So what’s happening to Mid-State?
Detroit Lakes appear to be the queen of the chessboard when it comes to keeping the Mid-State intact with the current schools of Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, Staples-Motley and Park Rapids.
Going forward, the plan for the Lakers is to stay put.
“We were disappointed when Pequot decided to leave,” Detroit Lakes operations manager Rob Nielsen said. “I’ve worked here in Detroit Lakes for 30 years, not as an activity director, but in the district, and these discussions come up periodically. To be honest, the Mid-State suited us well most of the time.
Detroit Lakes is in a similar situation to Pequot Lakes as the larger Mid-State school, but unlike Pequot, the Lakers have no problem securing a beefy non-conference schedule.
Other options for Detroit Lakes could be the Heart of the Lakes conference which includes schools like Perham, Pelican Rapids and Frazee.
“We already face these teams in non-conference games,” Nielsen said. “We don’t get much from making them conference opponents, and then all of a sudden Aitkin probably wouldn’t move up to DL and I wouldn’t blame them if they weren’t in the conference. For me, I don’t think we really gain anything by leaving Mid-State.
Another option would be to join the Central Lakes Conference, but even then the closest team would be Fergus Falls, two hours from Detroit Lakes.
“To go somewhere else, I don’t know if we would get anything different,” Nielsen said. “I think what Pequot was looking for was a bit more consistency across the board and to be honest it hasn’t been a real challenge for us. There are a lot of schools in our area that will play us at the levels from JV and ninth grade if we have to fill in and it’s been fine.
Nielsen admits the Mid-State’s days could be numbered.
“I think we have one more year with Pequot Lakes in the conference and everyone will be thinking about the fall and spring in the future of the Mid-State Conference,” he said. “Everyone hates to see it disappear, but it could be a reality. Everything is still under discussion now.
Nielsen said a challenge for Mid-State is to grow it.
“I think it will be difficult with us still there,” he said. “I think other schools would be interested in coming to Mid-State if we weren’t there. I guess I don’t know where Mid-State is heading. I guess we need to start shopping around a bit because I think the conference is losing schools, other schools in the conference are going to look at other conferences in their area.
Westrich said most other Mid-State schools weren’t surprised Pequot made the decision. He added what they did, probably put Detroit Lakes under surveillance.
“I feel a little bad for Mid-State,” he said. “I think our departure might help because maybe two or three schools of a similar size will move in to make it a stronger conference. We kind of put Detroit Lakes on edge because they’re similar in size to the ours and could probably look for another conference. I think if Detroit Lakes finds a conference similar in size to ours, it might help the Mid-State. Until something happens with Detroit Lakes and some other schools, it will take time.
Detroit Lakes is currently the only 3A school in the Mid-State.
“If you start looking at the conferences, they’re kind of all the same to some extent,” Nielsen said. “It’s not like we’ve dominated anything. We had a good streak of football in the 90s. We had a good run in golf for boys and girls for a while but you start looking at other sports and other teams took turns for to be the best dog. So it’s not like we’re knocking anyone down.
“Most of the top programs agree to play us twice a year. We’ll be playing Moorhead a few times a year. It’s a good check to see where you are at. I think our Mid-State teams have embraced that. for the majority.
As for a plan, Nielsen wants to work with Mid-State teams and explore options going forward.
“We want to try to do what’s best for everyone,” he said. “We have a great group of conference leaders and activity directors who want the best for the kids.”
CONRAD ENGSTROM can be reached at 218-855-5861 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.