As Central Iowa Metropolitan League administrators consider the consequences of a possible split of one of the state’s biggest high school athletic conferences, it’s worth mentioning a nugget of Iowa high school history.
Emmetsburg beat Urbandale for the Class 3-A state football title in 1979. Yes, the E-Hawks and J-Hawks were once birds of the same feather. Now they’re on opposite ends of the Iowa prep football kingdom, with Urbandale playing in the state’s largest classification and sporting an enrollment roughly 5½ times bigger than Emmetsburg’s.
The point is this: Demographics — much like the Iowa prep athletic landscape — are changing. Suburban schools are sprawling. Small towns are shrinking.
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Ankeny split into two high schools last year. It won’t be long before Waukee does the same. And Dallas Center-Grimes might be joining the largest programs soon — its enrollment has nearly doubled in the last decade.
The conference alliances and competitive pairings we see today might seem out of place in 20 years. In the past 10 years, Waukee’s enrollment shot up 135 percent. In that same period, Johnston and Southeast Polk climbed more than 46 percent each while Hoover’s fell by 25 percent. Ottumwa and Marshalltown also experienced double-digit drops.
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A 2013 Register report showed the suburban schools are also at the top in terms of CIML spending. With more dollars, more resources and often more athletes to choose from, the playing field is tilted toward the outskirts of Des Moines.
That’s one of the reasons the five metro schools — East, Hoover, Lincoln, North and Roosevelt — along with Ottumwa, Marshalltown and Indianola are considering a split from the CIML, starting with the 2015-16 school year, to form a new conference.
CIML activities directors will meet Wednesday at Valley to discuss whether a 19-team league can be salvaged and how the conference would react if the eight schools announce later this month that they’re bolting to form their own alliance.
“We have a lot of ifs, ands and buts to get figured out,” Dowling Catholic activities director Tom Wilson said.
Is there a solution that can appease all 19 schools and save the CIML under its current construct?
“I’m not sure at this point,” Wilson said.
Wilson said there was a plan in place three years ago that would’ve realigned the three-division league. That format was shot down, and the result was the current CIML makeup of four segments — three groups of four and one of seven: the Des Moines metro schools plus Ottumwa and Indianola..
“I think there was an awful lot of us that wanted that (three-division conference) and some of us that did not, especially the administrators at the time — and some of those have changed since then,” Wilson said. “I think that’s probably an idea to throw around, but it didn’t work once, so I don’t know if it would again.”
The breaking point could be the disparity between the CIML’s big-budget, fancy-facility programs and those trying to keep pace.
ANALYSIS: Is a CIML split inevitable?
“We’re more like each other — demographically, fiscally and probably competitively across the board,” Roosevelt activities director Kelley Hood said of the eight schools considering a new conference. “Each of us have our own strengths and weaknesses, but I think if you look across the board, across 19 sports, we tend to be more in line with each other at this point in time.
“In some ways, we can’t match … some of the things they can do out in the suburbs.”
Hood thinks the potential gains for the eight schools outweigh the possible scheduling headaches that could come with a move to a new league.
Suppose the CIML is left with 11 teams, and they opt to play a full home-and-home basketball schedule. It would leave just one nonconference game for each program, which would mean schools such as Roosevelt might have to travel to Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Iowa City or Cedar Rapids to find nonconference games against big-school competition.
“It’s going to take some work on our part to find those and not hurt ourselves from a travel aspect, too,” Hood said.
Other activities directors at metro schools were tight-lipped Tuesday. Indianola AD Bernie Brueck said didn’t want to share his thoughts until after Wednesday’s community meeting on the topic. East’s Lyle Fedders and North’s Brian Tate referred all questions to Des Moines Public Schools officials.
The silence begs the question: Is everybody on board with the move?
“We’ve got a strong sense that the district coaches and ADs are committed to doing what’s right for our kids,” Des Moines Public Schools chief of schools Matt Smith said. “If that means looking at a different option in terms of a conference, then they’re on board with that.”
Most signs are pointing toward a split. If the eight schools break away, they must declare their intentions by Aug. 1.
“If I had to go to Vegas and bet on it, I’d say, yeah, I think it (will happen),” Hood said.
“But I’m not 100 percent sure. I kind of get the sense around here at DMPS that there’s some real momentum for it and it’s starting to look more and more that way.”
Andy Hamilton is the Register’s lead high school football and wrestling reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @Andy_Hamilton.
VOLATILE ENROLLMENT LANDSCAPE
The sharp changes in enrollment for grades 9-11 among the CIML schools over the past decade reflect why a separation in the central Iowa conference could be taking place:
School, 2003-04, 2013-14, Change
Ames, 1,137, 932, -205
Ankeny*, 1,354, 1,914, +560
Dowling Catholic, 845, 1,085, +240
East, 1,668, 1,691, +23
Fort Dodge, 1,032, 837, -195
Hoover, 955, 714, -241
Indianola, 742, 849, +107
Johnston, 1,015, 1,491, +476
Lincoln, 1,768, 1,639, -129
Marshalltown, 1,188, 1,066, -122
Mason City, 1,020, 866, -154
North, 991, 924, -67
Ottumwa, 1,138, 953, -185
Roosevelt, 1,252, 1,277, +25
Southeast Polk, 990, 1,502, +512
Urbandale, 845, 950, +105
Valley, 1,874, 2,140, +266
Waukee, 644, 1,518, +874
* Ankeny split into two high schools during the 2013-14 school year. Ankeny had 926 students in grades 9-11 and Centennial had 988.