Future changes possible for three Devils Lake High School sports

Sam Herder

By Sam Herder

Journal Sports Editor

Three Devils Lake High School athletic programs are waiting to learn what their futures hold.

The wrestling and girls hockey teams will have their participation numbers reevaluated at Monday’s Devils Lake School Board meeting to determine if each team is able to continue competing. The future for the football team, meanwhile, may involve a move back down to Class AA in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

The North Dakota High School Activities Association approved a guideline which would drop Class AAA from 16 to 14 teams. The two smallest male enrollments, which is a top factor for division assignments, in AAA are Devils Lake and Jamestown

The plan is set to be finalized in October after co-op dissolutions and agreements.

Monday is the first step for the future of the Firebirds wrestling and girls hockey teams. After two years of “probation,” the school board will look again at the two programs that have struggled with numbers.

If the board members believe both programs have grown and are strong enough to continue competing, no vote will be necessary and the teams will be able to move forward. If one or more board members believe making a cut should be discussed for either or both of the programs, a vote would come at a later meeting.

“Probation”

Two years ago, the school board made cuts to boys and girls golf, cheerleading and soccer due to low participation numbers. At that time, girls hockey and wrestling were also struggling with small rosters. The board voted to look at both programs in two years to see if numbers have gone up before making a decision of any more cuts.

In the last two years, Devils Lake activities director Jason Wiberg along with most of the coaches and players have referred to the teams as being on probation. In that time, both teams have seen their participation numbers rise.

The wrestling roster increased from 12 wrestlers in 2014-15 to 16 this season. Girls hockey has seen an increase from 12 to 17 players in the last year.

“Our numbers have gone up a little bit,” Wiberg said. “Our coaches have done a really good job, both in wrestling and girls hockey, of trying to recruit kids and get more kids out to their programs.”

The Meeting

The school board meeting takes place at 5 p.m. Monday in the Sports Center administration offices. As part of the agenda, Wiberg will present the board with updated winter participation numbers. Superintendent Scott Privratsky will then give his recommendation to the board.

Privratsky told the Journal he is comfortable with the number of activities the school provides right now. What the school board will look at and discuss is participation.

“It’s not about cost, most of it is participation,” Wiberg said. “In the past when they cut those activities, we hadn’t had a high participation. When we cut girls soccer at the time, we cancelled or forfeited some games because we didn’t have enough kids to compete that day.”

“At that time, if you went to a girls hockey game, we’d have 3-5 girls on the bench,” Wiberg continued. “It’s pretty hard to compete when you don’t have two full lines. Same thing with wrestling, we’d maybe fill five weight classes. Teams don’t really want to wrestle you when you can only fill five weight classes and the rest are forfeits. That was our issue. In my opinion, participation numbers is what it comes down to.”

Increase in players and athletic success

“It all started to be proactive rather than reactive and all of a sudden not have a team and have to cancel on kids,” Wiberg said. “Proactive approach was to look at the numbers so you could tell kids in a couple years, we’re probably not going to have this if that was the case.”

Since girls hockey and wrestling were placed on the two-year probation, participation numbers have gone up. With that, so too has the success on the ice and the mat.

“Those two go hand in hand,” wrestling head coach Todd Lambrecht said. “Our guys have gotten better up in the practice room. For our future, it’s there. We have a great core of kids. I’m looking forward to it.”

Wrestling had four more athletes join the team this year. Girls hockey had five. Of the 16 wrestlers, 15 are sophomores or younger. The girls hockey team has three seniors and a junior on its 17-player roster. The rest are in grades 7-10, including six eighth graders.

“I knew I had a decent number of kids in eighth grade that wanted to play high school hockey,” head coach Rob McIvor said. “I was a little reluctant at the start. We had summer hockey. The kids played in a fall league and did well there. I got a chance to watch them and figured they were ready to play.”

Both youthful programs have raised their level of competitiveness. The wrestlers sent four to the state tournament last year, three of which are back this season. The Firebirds have won three duals so far this year, coming off a season when they won zero.

Devils Lake still has spots to fill, though, with 4-5 opens per dual.

“The guys are great to be around,” Lambrecht, in his fourth year as head coach, said. “They’re fun to be around. That’s all we can do. What (the school board) decides is what they decide. I told the guys at the beginning of the year was ‘yeah we’re on probation, but all we can do is go out and wrestle and make our team better and strive for the next year.’ And that’s what they’ve been doing.”

The girls hockey team got its first win in three seasons with a 7-1 defeat against Jamestown in December, a team it plays again later this month. But a bigger indicator than the record book is the statsheet. In his second year as head coach, McIvor said his team’s quality of play is noticeably better.

In 2014-15, the Firebirds had just five goals and two assists all season. This year, they have 31 goals and 24 assists. Goals against have dropped from 301 to 133, while save percentage has increased from 76 percent to 86 percent.

The girls hockey program has also seen a 12U team develop. Having a feeder program of this kind has obvious advantages before players reach the high school level. The team has 17 girls from Devils Lake and Cando playing.

“I basically took the job because my daughter plays hockey and I wanted to try and keep it around,” McIvor said. “I like the fact that there’s more girls that are going out. I’m pretty happy with how things are progressing.”

More decisions with possible cuts

The good news for the school board is it isn’t faced with an “it’s either wrestling or girls hockey that goes” decision. If the board sees fit, both programs could continue to progress. Such a decision would come Monday.

If discussions turned to a debate on whether one or both programs should be cut, a vote wouldn’t come until a later meeting. Hypothetically, if the board did vote to make a cut, they would then need to decide when that program would end, whether it be at the end of this season or an upcoming season.

The school board also has to take Title IX into consideration. Under Title IX, a school must provide female and male students with equal athletic opportunities. It’s not necessarily based on number of sports offered, but participation numbers. Football skews the numbers, which is why schools typically offer more female activities than male activities.

Wiberg wasn’t sure what the numbers are now, but he said it’s his assumption that if girls hockey were to be cut, the board would have to look at cutting a boys sport to even out the numbers.

Football possibly moving classes again

While nothing will be finalized until October, early indications are the Firebirds will move from Class AAA to AA in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Devils Lake has bounced back and forth between the two divisions. The Firebirds last played in AA in 2010 before being moved back up to the state’s highest division.

The NDHSAA completed guidelines for the 2017 and 2018 football seasons in late January. The maximum number of teams in the top three divisions for those seasons are 14 in AAA, 10 in AA and 32 in A. The remaining teams will play 9-man.

AAA and AA had 16 teams in the 2015 season.

To determine where teams fall, the board will use adjusted male enrollments of grades 7-10 in the fall of 2015. The adjusted male enrollment has Jamestown 15th highest in the state with 333 and Devils Lake 16th with 209.

That number places Devils Lake in AA. The Firebirds would then have a schedule that includes teams like Bismarck St. Mary’s (178), Fargo Shanley (174), Watford City (170), Turtle Mountain (157), Wahpeton (155) and Valley City (131).

Co-op dissolutions are due in June and co-op agreement deadline is in September. Those numbers will determine who fills out the bottom part of each division.

“When you’re on the top, like we are, we sort of know where we fall. We’re going to fall in AA unless something changes,” Wiberg, who is also the NDHSAA board president, said. “If you’re on the bottom, then you don’t know yet where you’re going to be because of co-ops.”

In a survey sent to North Dakota schools, competitive balance was the No. 1 choice when looking at realignment. To do that, the state football committee chose to make the AAA and AA divisions smaller.

Devils Lake has been the smallest school in AAA. To compare, its adjusted male enrollment of 209 creates a big gap to the two biggest schools in Minot’s 868 and West Fargo’s 605.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s clearly where we belong,” Firebirds head football coach Jake Wateland said on the possible move to AA. “It’s going to be a good thing for our program to help our numbers and help our kids be successful. But for our kids right now and our coaching staff, we’re just looking for next year. We still know and believe that we can be successful at the AAA level.”

Participation numbers have been steady the last few years. But the Firebirds saw their numbers rise when the team went from AAA to AA. When they went back up to AAA after 2010, the numbers took a small hit. Devils Lake has gone 2-7 and 2-7 before going 3-6 in 2015.

“Each class is different in our school,” Wateland said. “It’s hard to say because you’re in AA, more kids came out. And because you’re in AAA, less kids came out. But I do think it will help our overall numbers being in a place where parents don’t fear for the safety of their children. And I think kids will be a little more excited in the future to come out knowing that they have a more fair playing field.”