Earlier this month, the WIAA announced the make-up of the two divisions for boys hockey for the 2019-20 season.
Fifty-one teams will compete for the D1 title, with three sectionals of 13 teams and one sectional with an even dozen. In D2, 32 teams will contest for the inaugural crown, with an even split of eight teams in four sectionals.
Imagine the Wisconsin high school hockey world's surprise when the name 'Superior' showed up in the listing for D2 sectional 1.
To say you could have heard a pin drop is probably an understatement.
The Spartans have appeared in the state tournament 37 times and hoisted the championship trophy 13 times. They have also earned the runner-up spot 11 times. In addition, the Spartans won the Madison Invitational in 1969 and 1970, the final two years of the six-year tournament experiment that preceded the state tournament.
Jason Kalin was a member of the Columbia Blue and White squad and played at state in 1990, 1991, and 1992. Behind the bench as coach, his teams have played in six title games, winning half of them. Those victories occurred in 2003, 2005, and 2015.
In a recent email interview, Kalin explained the decision for Superior to play in D2, electing not to 'opt-up' to D1 for a variety of reasons.
Kalin cited a steady decline in school enrollment, increasing travel expenses, and the very real possibility of not being able to host a sectional final due to travel distances between northern Superior and the other schools in a now wide-open Section 1, which includes teams as far south as La Crosse, as far north as Ashland, Hudson to the west and Stevens Point and Wausau to the east.
"Our enrollment was a key issue," wrote Kalin. "Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when Superior had powerhouse teams, our school population was 1,600-2,000+, and that was with only grades 10-12 in the building!"
Kalin states that the enrollment is now below 1,300, and that includes grades 9-12. The actual number, as of the 2018-19 school year, was shown as 1,305 on the WIAA website.
Travel expenses also came into play, but Kalin said, "It was not one of the most decisive reasons for choosing not to opt up."
Several groups and key people took part in the discussion, including athletic director Ray Kosey, the Superior coaching staff, the head principal, and superintendent of the school district.
That committee met with Superior players, the Superior Amateur Hockey Association, and the entire athletic department at Superior High School.
The group discussed a WIAA PowerPoint presentation that listed the options of playing in either division. After formulating a list of positives and negatives for each decision, the committee made their choice.
"Our entire athletic department voted unanimously to be placed wherever the WIAA's system placed us," stated Kalin.
And that was in Division 2.
"It was apparent that our administration did not want to leave the decision up to just one person," noted Kalin. "And I was comfortable with that because it is a decision that impacts our city, youth organization, and school district."
Kalin was not entirely pleased with the decision, but understands it was not his choice alone.
"Given the current 4-and-4 setup (four teams in each division) and equity issues that have resulted, and the concerns and feelings of the committee, I respect and agree with our decision not to opt up this season."
When it comes to the '4-and-4' format, there are mixed feelings. But Kalin feels the this two-division state tournament is not the ultimate solution.
"There needs to be a system in place to encourage the break-up of co-ops without penalizing school districts or players to get to the number of 96 teams before two divisions are created."
Unfortunately, this did not happen and with 83 teams competing next year, the 96 team dream is drifting away and might never be achieved.
"Based on the number of teams and the policies that are in place that hinder co-ops abilities to break apart, Wisconsin was not ready for two divisions," commented Kalin.
So what does the future hold?
The WIAA and the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association (WHCA) don't always see eye-to-eye, so changes are slow and hard to come by.
"The WHCA has tried very hard to grow the game and better the atmosphere of our state tournament for as long as I can remember," noted Kalin. "The Alliant Energy Center staff and the WIAA workers at our event have done a wonderful job over the years and will continue to do so, but our state tournament deserves to be moved to a smaller, more updated venue that hosts hockey games on more than one weekend a year."
This has been a bone of contention for many years and according to Kalin, it has been denied by the WIAA every time.
Kalin also would like to see the teams play more than one game, even if they lose their opening contest.
"Our tournament would benefit from a double-elimination set-up so that we keep more teams, fans, bands, and spectators in the building for the whole tournament."
Think of how many times a team arrives at state for the first time and brings four bands, 16 buses, and all the students from their schools on Quarterfinal Thursday. Now think how much it sucks if that team loses in the first game and has to go home.
"I think we owe it to our athletes to re-examine our tournament series and start taking notes from other associations—like Minnesota—to produce the best atmosphere for our athletes as they compete for a STATE title," stated Kalin.
He thinks the girls tournament should be held on another weekend, or possibly even at a different venue. This would eliminate scheduling issues with the two tournaments.
"In my opinion, the girls' tournament deserves its own weekend," said Kalin. "I'm willing to bet the girls' coaches would agree with me. It's done in other sports and could also apply on ours.
"There is so much that we could do for our sport and tournament series if we were given the options to look at making changes," Kalin said. "The direction of high school sports in Wisconsin needs to veer away from the status quo and be open to creative ideas to make these special events more inclusive and appropriate for the championship series."