Beaver Dam photo

Beaver Dam's Blaiz Firari runs through a hole created by the center and the left guard during a recent practice. Firari and the rest of his Golden Beavers teammates are now members of the Badger North Conference. 

MARK MCMULLEN, CAPITAL NEWSPAPERS

Longtime rivalries have ended, new ones are about to begin.

The Wisconsin Little Ten Conference banners must come down in Beaver Dam and Watertown, replaced by the banners representing the Badger Conference schools.

A new high school football season is set to kick off and fourth-year Beaver Dam coach Steve Kuenzi acknowledged he has mixed feelings.

“After 90-plus years of playing in the Little Ten — we’re one of the founders — it’s very bittersweet to leave and join the Badger,” Kuenzi said. “With change comes anxiety.”

But with change also comes excitement, said Kuenzi, believing new foes could be a breath of fresh air for the Golden Beavers’ football program.

“We’ve been excited about this since the end of last year,” said Beaver Dam’s 6-foot-5, 270-pound senior offensive and defensive lineman Matt Piekarski, adding: “I’m looking forward to stepping up to a new challenge. It is a cool honor that we get to go to a new conference. It will be a chance to make a good impression.”

Beaver Dam’s landing spot in the Badger North after dissolution of the Little Ten amid WIAA realignment gives the Golden Beavers brand-new opportunities for their athletics programs, including football.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Kuenzi said. “We had a hard time competing (in football) against some of the schools in the Little Ten (which included Wisconsin Lutheran, Oconomowoc and Hartford). Coming into the Badger Conference, there is a lot of unknown, but there is a lot of excitement about the unknown.”

Beaver Dam and Watertown, which will be in the Badger South, increase the conference total to 16 schools — eight in the North, stretching from Beaver Dam to Reedsburg, and eight in the Badger South, from Watertown to Monroe. The two conference newcomers meet tonight in Beaver Dam.

“It’s a big change,” Watertown football coach Benji Kamrath said. “It is an exciting time of the year. The Badger South has a rich tradition and a lot of great programs. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

Welcome additions

Most of the burden of change fell on the newcomers. The addition of the two schools didn’t create many challenges for the existing conference members, said Stoughton athletic director Mel Dow, who described the transition as seamless.

Some non-conference games in various sports had to be eliminated. But Dow said expanding to eight schools instead of seven in each division generally eased conference scheduling.

“It’s just a great fit,” Dow said.

In football, the Badger Conference no longer had to worry about the two seven-team divisions that created the need for weekly crossover non-conference games.

“We are excited,” Dow said. “We are glad to add two new schools and to have two eight-team conferences. Watertown and Beaver Dam bring in great programs and traditions that will fit in with what we do in the Badger Conference. I’m looking forward to their additions. … They each have some programs of distinction, just like the rest of us in the Badger Conference.”

For instance, the Beaver Dam girls basketball team won the WIAA Division 2 state title last winter and Watertown has demonstrated strength over recent years in sports such as football, baseball, softball and girls volleyball. Watertown brings all sports except hockey; Beaver Dam doesn’t have a gymnastics team.

Scott Mirkes, who was Sauk Prairie’s football coach until he resigned this week to take a teaching job at Oregon High School, said earlier this summer he believed Beaver Dam’s arrival will make the Badger North deeper and more competitive.

“I can only speak for the interactions that I’ve had with each school through their football staff, but I think that both will be great additions to the Badger,” Mirkes said. “Coach Kamrath and coach Kuenzi are good stewards of the game of football, trying to grow the game and provide a meaningful experience for the student-athletes in their communities.

“I think that they make the Badger an even better conference, athletically and academically.”

Travel for a Friday night football game didn’t seem to be a major concern.

“Travel for Badger Conference schools is relatively sane, especially if we look at what some northern Wisconsin schools experience,” Mirkes said.

But there will be some of those longer treks on school nights in other sports.

More of an issue appears to be school size.

With its move into the South, Watertown (1,345 enrollment) becomes the largest school in the conference — considerably larger than Monroe (719) and Madison Edgewood (536).

Beaver Dam (1,081) is second-largest in the North, behind Waunakee (1,236).

While Dow hasn’t heard any talk about realigning area conferences (Badger, Big Eight), he said Badger administrators plan to scrutinize the conference configuration and reassess after two years.

New proposals could come at that time. The league likely will consider moving to a Large School and Small School configuration — which Milton activities director Brian Hammil has indicated has support.

Passing interest

In football, Watertown brings a prolific passing attack led by receiver Ryan Hayden — who has committed to the U.S. Air Force Academy for football — and quarterback Dylan Fagerland. Beaver Dam hopes to feature a physical brand on defense and with its spread-option offense.

“I’m excited for both Beaver Dam and Watertown to join the Badger Conference,” Mount Horeb/Barneveld football coach Ryan Kleppe said. “I think their experience in a very competitive conference will only further create depth and great crossover matchups in the future.’’

The 6-3, 180-pound Hayden caught 95 passes for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.

“He has phenomenal hands, he’s a good route runner and he competes well for the ball,” said Kamrath, a former University of Minnesota quarterback who’s in his ninth year as Watertown’s coach. “He exploded onto the scene last year.”

Hayden said he believes the Goslings definitely will be competitive in the Badger South because of their spread, no-huddle offense that many opponents don’t see on a weekly basis. His connection with Fagerland — who threw for 3,550 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2016 — is a major factor in that.

“Dylan is my best friend,” Hayden said. “We’ve known each other since forever.”

Measuring stick

New opponents will result in new rivalries.

“We get to start some new traditions,” said Beaver Dam’s Joel Riehbrandt, a 6-2, 200-pound senior who plays linebacker, running back and tight end. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Playing against perennial power Waunakee was particularly intriguing to players at both schools and will serve as a measuring stick for his own program, Kuenzi said.

Beaver Dam travels to Waunakee in the regular-season finale; Watertown plays host to the Warriors in a crossover game in the second week.

Kuenzi, a former Watertown head coach, said his seniors are invested in this fresh start in the Badger North, which he hopes will build success for the future.

“There is more excitement this year,” Kuenzi said. “I can feel it and I can feel it with my coaching staff. There is more jump in our step.”

Kamrath echoed those sentiments, saying his team is looking forward to the challenge of the unknown.

“From top to bottom, it’s a really good football conference,” Kamrath said. “It’s going to be like a playoff game every week. You have to familiarize yourself with a new team every week.”

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.