KOVAR: Identity more important than safety?

The game of football is one unlike any other. It requires lots of bodies, and to have those bodies prepared and ready to go.

With that in mind, both the Watertown-Mayer and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted football teams will come into the 2018 season with low numbers, and both teams will be playing in tough and physical districts. It’s not an ideal situation, and it’s a situation that could have been avoided.

In late July, the idea of a co-op was proposed to both school boards – HLWW and Watertown-Mayer. With a situation like this, a co-op would not only benefit each school, but would help each program have a chance to rebuild, as well. In addition, it would also give them the ability to protect the athletes they have now.

Flash forward to August, and both head coaches and athletic directors realized how big of a problem this might be. Both schools took the proposal to the school boards with a tentative outline of what a co-op between the two schools would look like. The outline was put together by the coaches and athletic directors from each school.

While the Watertown-Mayer School Board agreed that a co-op would be a good thing for the upcoming season for safety, there was one thing that kept getting in their way. Their egos.

Projected numbers for each school for the upcoming season are extremely low on each side. For W-M, they expect 26 athletes to go out for football this season in grades 10-12. For HLWW, that number is 22. Those are just rough numbers supplied by the athletic directors and coaches, and could change from day to day. Despite whether those numbers go up or down as the season approaches, that’s not enough for each school to field a healthy team of their own.

W-M athletic director Paul Szymanski stated many times during the special school board meeting Monday that he was worried that if they stayed on their own this season, they might not be able to finish the season. That’s a very alarming thing for an athletic director to say when talking about one of his own programs.

While the school board agreed that the co-op would be a good idea for safety and keeping younger players off the field who aren’t ready for the varsity level, they continued to be misinformed on what a co-op really is. In a typical co-op, the school with the larger enrollment would tend be designated as the host school. That’s not always the case, but more often than not, that’s what happens. The school board could not get the term “host” out of their heads enough to realize the real problem. Just because W-M would be named the host school, doesn’t mean this is all about them and they can get their way. It’s a partnership to help both schools to get through a tough time in their football programs.

A proposal was agreed on between coaches and athletic directors before the school board meeting. It was beneficial for both teams to get through this season with low numbers, while allowing both schools to keep their identities, as well. Essentially, the proposal was to split the four home games. Two at Watertown wearing the Royals’ uniforms. Two at Howard Lake wearing the Lakers’ uniforms.

What seemed like a logical and fair split for both schools, quickly was precveived as unfair by community members and the school board as they didn’t think that Watertown-Mayer should have to cater to HLWW in any way. The common saying was, “They need us. We don’t need them.”

Although W-M’s numbers might be a bit better than HLWW’s currently, there’s no doubt that a co-op would have been the best decision to save and rebuild each program for the years to come. The W-M School Board agreed again and again about a co-op being safer for all the players, yet something as simple as what color uniform and where the games are played stood in the way.

Ultimately, the W-M School Board proposed a two-year co-op with HLWW, under the terms that HLWW would come to Watertown for all practices, all games but one would be played in Watertown, and they would be wearing the Royals uniform in every game.

The fact that the school board realizes how much of a danger it is to trot young players out on the field at the varsity level, yet decided to push for even more in the co-op to protect their identity as a football program is absurd. Essentially, the school board is saying that playing games in Watertown and wearing the Royals uniforms is more important than the safety of those kids who go out for football. Without a co-op, there will be freshmen who aren’t ready for the varsity level forced to play a physical game on a Friday night against teams filled with juniors and seniors.

The HLWW School Board agreed on an outline for the co-op that was more of a 50-50 share. It was a partnership between the two schools. It gave both schools a chance to rebuild and protect their own programs. W-M pushed for too much in wanting everything to be based around them. HLWW did not agree to those terms set by the W-M school board, and for good reason.

If HLWW agreed to W-M’s stipulations, the program at HLWW might as will be gone. With one home game a year and no uniforms, the program might as well be cut now. The goal of this co-op was to help both schools rebuild their programs and keep numbers steady, and even growing. It wasn’t to take everything from one school, and give nothing in return.

I believe the W-M School Board made a huge mistake by not agreeing to the terms that were proposed by the school’s athletic directors and coaches. A co-op between HLWW and W-M made sense as it would protect younger players as well as older players. It gave both sides a chance to rebuild and regroup what they’ve somewhat lost the last few years.

The W-M School Board got greedy and wanted it its way, and lost sight of what the problem really was. The problem wasn’t what color uniform the team would wear Friday night. The problem wasn’t where the game would be played Friday night. The problem was there simply is not enough kids at both schools to field a team safely.

It could be a very difficult season for both the HLWW and W-M football teams in 2018, and it could get even worse in the next few seasons. Football is a physical game and if the younger players are forced to play at the varsity level even though they are not ready, it could be ugly.

This was a chance to help both schools stabilize their football programs for not only this year, but for years to come. I realize how important Friday night lights are in communities like Howard Lake and Watertown. It’s just a shame that the color of a uniform and where the game is played take priority over the safety of the athletes.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports


  1. Gene Starke says:

    Great article there always people that do not see the whole picture. And you are right some people want everything to go there way and do not see in the future.

  2. Troy Congdon says:

    Great article Kip, i think that the biggest issue here still goes unanswered! Both Schools have known about this issue for over a year now. I don’t think that the school board at WM is to blame and I think somethings are being overlooked. Why did it take until late July to try to rush this co-op into place? Of course identity is important to both schools in this situation otherwise HLWW wouldn’t have vote down the new arrangement. Home games were going to be split 2 at Watertown and 2 in Howard Lake so I think if fingers are to be pointed they should be pointed both ways! This is a good lesson for both schools and any other schools out there that are thinking about Co-oping in any sport. Don’t rush, put some thought into it and make it work by getting both sides, players, coaching staff, parents, schools, and communities excited about the merger of two teams!

  3. Nick Pothen says:

    Interesting. It looks like HLWW also chose identity over safety. They could have joined W-M’s program but they turned down W-M’s counter offer. Safe choice? Seems they put their kids in harms way. But that is what football does. If you want ensured safety, play a video game. Kids will get hurt in any situation.

    It doesn’t help the co-op cause if the W-M AD says ‘I don’t know’ to very critical questions. There were contradictions and overtly biased messaging, as well. Use this tactic to a business board and the meeting would have been over in 5 minutes.

    Most of the W-M kids saw through it and spoke their minds. They put faith in their Head Coach to get things right, even if they take it on the chin this season.

    And because of this result, more W-M sophomore’s signed up for football. It’s called Royal Pride.

    I am sure HLWW has their pride as well. So both schools need to rebuild our programs. If we cannot, we need to get new leadership, like competent schools do.

  4. Rob Illies says:

    Way off base here Kip. Making this decision 6 days before the season was never a good idea. Don’t oversimplify it. HLWW also got greedy and wanted it’s way as well. WM will be fine. This was brought up way too late in the process. This should’ve been hammered out months ago not days before the start of the season.

  5. Rob Illies says:

    I also applaud the school board for not rubber stamping this so quickly.

  6. John Hess says:

    WM has done this for other sports too.. Boys soccer. Huge push by parents to dissolve their co-op with Mayer Lutheran because they couldn’t stand the thought of their kids playing for another school and not wearing Royals colors. They also didn’t like having to come to Mayer for games… they kept forgetting that Mayer is part of the district and there are some kids from here that do go to school there and not to Waconia! If fault is to be placed, it is likely on parents ego’s and not necessarily the school boards… they were only listening to what their voters were telling them. I wasn’t at the meeting, so don’t know all the facts on that, but if it was like the Soccer meeting was, it was parents pushing and not the school board. They made their decision based on what they heard.

    In this case, both HLWW and WM programs will suffer and I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams are unable to complete the season due to injuries that wouldn’t have necessarily happened had they been together.

  7. Robbie Illies says:

    The numbers in 8th and 9th are good and so is the talent. They will survive this and in a couple years be competitive.

  8. Robbie Illies says:

    The MSHSL is mostly to blame placing WM in a really tough area schedule for 4 years. They put Westonka in an area schedule that was very helpful to their program. They put WM in one that almost ended the program. A couple years of success in the MRC fooled the MSHSL.