Madison Edgewood vs. Waunakee football from 2014

Waunakee running back Troy Laufenberg tries to shake Madison Edgewood's Cordell Murphy (20) during a 2014 Badger Conference crossover football game.

M.P. KING — State Journal

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Clinton had received approval to join the Capitol South Conference, but the move was denied by the WIAA. This version of the article contains corrected and clarified information.

MOUNT HOREB — One way or another, the Madison Edgewood football program would like to execute an end run — straight out of the Badger South Conference.

During Monday’s WIAA area meeting at Mount Horeb High School, Edgewood athletic director Chris Zwettler said school administrators are considering making an official request to leave the Badger South for football only.

Edgewood had 536 students last year, barely more than half the average enrollment of the other seven schools in the Badger South (1,035). This fall, Zwettler said, Edgewood started the semester with 487 students.

“This has been an ongoing conversation at Edgewood for the past five to seven years,” Zwettler said after the meeting. “It started when we requested to (realign the Badger Conference) into divisions based on enrollment size, rather than geographical proximity.”

That was turned down, so that when Beaver Dam joined the Badger North and Watertown the Badger South this fall, the new teams could simply be added to the existing divisions, giving each eight schools.

“We’re 487 kids this year," Zwettler said. "We haven’t been able to provide a junior varsity program — this is the second or third year. That’s not fair to the other programs in the Badger.”

It hasn’t helped that Edgewood is 0-4 in the league (0-6 overall) this year, already locked out of an automatic WIAA playoff berth. The Crusaders went 1-5 in the conference in 2016, 3-3 in 2015 and 2-4 in 2014.

The Crusaders have a new turf field on campus, used for practices and some freshman-level games, and are in the process of trying to gain the approval of homeowners in Regent St. neighborhood on the West Side to play home games on the field. Most Edgewood home games now must be played at Middleton.

Edgewood is just one example of an urban private school competing in a conference against much larger public schools. Waukesha Catholic Memorial (enrollment 666) has done so in the Classic 8 Conference (average of other schools 1,535); as has Green Bay Notre Dame (770) in the Fox River Classic (average of other schools 1,472).

But Edgewood has not been able to keep up with the powerful programs in the Badger South, led by 2016 state runner-up Monona Grove.

Where would the Crusaders go? That is an interesting question, as the WIAA stands at a crossroads in terms of its football conference alignment guidelines.

If there are no changes to the current conference setups, Edgewood would most likely petition the Rock Valley Conference for membership. Two years ago, Palmyra-Eagle and Orfordville Parkview left the Rock Valley for the Trailways Large in football, knocking the league down to 10 teams.

Also at Monday’s meeting, it was discussed that Brodhead (enrollment 333) — which currently plays in a co-op football program with Juda (101) — and Clinton (364) were looking into moving out of the Rock Valley.

Clinton athletic director Jeff Spiwak said via email that after contacting the Capitol Conference and WIAA associate director Deb Hauser, it was decided that everything would remain "status quo" for the time being. 

“We will continue to pursue other conference affiliations as we have a declining enrollment and competitive equity is an issue in all sports. This isn’t a football issue,” Spiwak said.

Spiwak also said in the email that Watertown Luther Prep is in the considering making a request to leave the Capitol North Conference.

Six of the nine conferences covering Southwestern Wisconsin, including 34 school districts, announced plans to move forward with a football-only realignment plan that would improve competitive balance and allow for adjustments should one or more schools be forced to form co-op programs or move to eight-player football. The change would create one conference of 10 schools and three of eight schools each.

Hauser, who has handled all realignment issues for the WIAA, is retiring after this school year. Anderson said he expects to impose a one-year moratorium on conference realignment while he decides how conference realignment will be handled in the future. The last time the WIAA tried to shift responsibility for conference alignment to the conferences themselves, the measure was turned down in a vote of members.

However, there is another possible solution in the works, and it would render all football conference realignment requests as moot.

Revisiting a plan that was proposed and turned down in 2009, the WIAA is urging schools to take another look at the district plan, which has been adopted by multiple neighboring states.

The district plan would dissolve existing conferences (only for football), reorganizing each team by first grouping them into seven enrollment-based divisions and then into eight districts (per division) of eight teams each.

Under one version of the district plan, each team would open the season with a non-district game — allowing existing rivalries to live on. They would then play seven games, one against each other school in their district. In Week Nine, the top four teams in the district would begin playoff competition (No. 4 vs. No. 1 and No. 3 vs. No. 2), with the bottom four teams in the district playing a non-playoff Week Nine crossover game.

After two rounds of play determine each district champion, three more rounds of play would determine state champions — the same number of playoff games seen now.

The season would be one week shorter, but only for the schools that lose their first district playoff game in Week 9, and the 14 schools which make the state finals.

That would help solve the current problem of the early start to the season, with players beginning pre-season practice as early as July 31. This year, the first round of games were played the week of Aug. 18.

Also in play are revisions to the district plan creating some 10-team districts in order to reduce geographical distance between district rivals, particularly in northern Wisconsin. If the district plan were adopted only for varsity play, it would reduce travel time for sub-varsity teams that would remain in regular conference alignments. District alignments would be adjusted every two to four years.

Also at the meeting, it was announced that the WIAA would sponsor an official eight-player championship game in 2018, with the site and date to be determined based on the qualifying teams. In prior years, the WIAA held a season-ending “jamboree” and made it semantically clear that the final game was not an official state championship game.

WIAA executive director Dave Anderson said he expects eight-player football to grow substantially in the future. Trends include schools having trouble attracting enough players for 11-player football and other schools dissolving their co-op programs so that each school might field an eight-player team.

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Wisconsin State Journal prep sports editor Art Kabelowsky has traversed the state to cover sports while working for daily papers in Fort Atkinson, Racine, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Baraboo.