By BRAD SALMEN
COKATO – DC Activities Director Perry Thinesen could barely hide his enthusiasm in an email sent to this reporter last month.
Brad, don’t print anything yet, he wrote, but it looks like we’re going to be moved down a class for football, basketball, baseball, and softball.
Last week, that good news was made official.
All five of those teams – girls and boys basketball, baseball and softball, and football – will be moved down a class, starting next season.
Once the news was finalized, Thinesen was understandably pleased with the decision.
“My first reaction was a great sense of relief and excitement. This is where we belong,” said Thinesen. “My second reaction was that the MSHSL got it right.”
Thinesen noted that the DC community has a large segment of the student population that does not participate in sports, due to religious reasons.
Therefore, he said, the teams have been unfairly purshed up against much larger districts, when their natural fit is against smaller schools.
“We have generally been put in a class to compete against schools like Hutchinson, Marshall, Waconia, Delano, Orono, Benilde-St. Margaret’s, and several others,” said Thinesen. “Now, we will be competing in the playoffs with schools like Annandale, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, Litchfield, and New London-Spicer. I think most people in our community are aware we share much more in common with that latter list of schools from enrollment to similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
“There are still going to be many tough schools to beat at this level, but at least we are more similar in enrollment, socioeconomics, and values,” he said. “With some of the schools we had to compete against in the playoffs [in years past], I think there was a sense of not being able to compete that was setting in.”
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DC football coach Ryan Weinandt said the lower class designation (4A to 3A) will be nothing but a benefit to his team.
Weinandt noted that the state champions in Class 4A (SMB, St. Paul Academy, Minnehaha Academy and Blake) had three or four NCAA Division I athletes on their team, an accomplishment that simply cannot be matched at DC.
That sort of talent permeates Class 4A, he said. Most of those teams have much higher enrollment, or are “magnet” schools.
“We’ve played teams like Hutchinson, Orono, and Marshall that are much bigger than we are, and we’ve had some outstanding teams and talent during those years, but failed to advance [when we might have advanced in Class 3A],” Weinandt said. “
Playing in Class 3A means the team will be playing teams more like DC in terms of enrollment and talent.
“It will be a very tough section, but I do like that we are playing schools more like us,” Weinandt said.
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DC boys basketball coach Dave Chvojicek said that overall, the drop down to Class AA is a good thing.
Unfortunately, the section that the team was put in is among the toughest in the class.
“By and large, I think in Class AAA the average team is both bigger and stronger than the average AA team,” Chvojek said. “However, we are moving into one of the toughest AA sections in the state. Minneapolis North, Breck, and Maranatha were three of the top AA teams in the state last year.
“Whether we would have stayed at AAA or gone to AA, we have to improve to be a threat to advance in the playoffs.
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DC girls basketball coach Rob Walters said much the same thing – the drop is beneficial overall, but the section will still be difficult.
“I think this section will be tough, but this is where we belong,” Walters said. “It will be a good fit for us.
“Annandale, Holy Family, Maranatha, Rockford, Watertown-Mayer – they all have very good programs, so it’s not going to make it much easier,” he said. “But again, it is where belong, and we look forward to the new challenge.”
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DC softball coach Wendy Runquist noted that her new section – while composed of teams much more closer in enrollment – were not very close geographically.
“We have historically done well in our section play as of the last four years or so [against bigger teams]. Our girls have played competitive softball when it comes to our playoff games against these opponents.
“While we play both Litchfield and New London-Spicer twice during the regular season, the other schools are not teams that we have played, and some are geographically challenging, including Jackson County Central, Luverne, Minneota/Canby, Minnewaska, Montevideo, Morris Area, Pipestone, Redwood Valley, St. James Area, Tracy-Milroy-Balaton, and Windom.
“It will be exciting and interesting to see how we face up to so many new teams.”
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Out of all five teams, the class drop might have the biggest effect in baseball, according to head coach Cole Flick.
Flick said that one of the biggest differences in large schools vs. small schools in baseball is the facilities and training programs available to athletes.
“Outside of what takes place during the game, the larger schools have more options and closer offseason training facilities. Schools like Orono and Benilde have hitting facilities at their doorstep,” said Flick. “If our players choose to participate in offseason training, they need to travel to the Cities, making it much less convenient.”
The other big difference, said Flick, is in pitching rotation.
Every team, Flick said, has a number one-A pitcher who has the capability of beating any team of any size.
The difference between most AAA schools, and an AA school like DC, is that the larger schools can replace their starter with another pitcher without missing a beat.
“When I replace my pitcher, I do so with a player from the field, which leads to a backup playing that position,” said Flick. “As far as batting goes, schools our size typically have their top hitters batting 1-5. The larger schools have hitters 1-9. They have more kids who can play, giving them more options.”
That said, next year’s section will not be easy by any stretch, said Flick.
“Although we are in a smaller class, the talent is baseball-rich,” Flick said. “GSL, Litchfield, and NYA have all had great success, and Holy Family and Providence Academy always seem to have loaded lineups.”
Nevertheless, “this section is a good fit for us,” he said.
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Thinesen had a final word of caution for DC fans.
The MSHSL revamps their sections every two years.
In this year’s revamp, DC fell just on the right side of the dotted line, after being on the wrong side for the previous eight years.
How close was DC to the cutoff?
The cutoff for basketball was an enrollment of 584.
The cutoff for baseball, football and softball was 569.
DC’s enrollment, as figured by the MSHSL, was 568.
One student shy.
“Seeing that we are so close to the cutoff, there is a possibility we could move back up to 4A for football, and 3A for other sports [in two years],” Thinesen said. “But I am hopeful they keep us where we’re at.”