Gopher Conference members voted last Wednesday to accept the applications of four new members.
The new members will join the conference for the 2021-22 school year. Kenyon-Wanamingo, Triton, Randolph and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton were accepted into the conference. Randolph and JWP were former members of the conference while Kenyon-Wanamingo and Triton will move from the Hiawatha Valley League. Randolph resides in the Southeast Conference and JWP is in the Valley Conference.
“We think it’s the best fit for our school,” K-W Activities Director Randy Hockinson said. “Size-wise we’ve been going down with our student population. There are some schools in the HVL that have been going up and will be going up. It was harder to compete, at the lower levels especially.”
K-W explored joining the Gopher Conference in the past but didn’t at that time because the Gopher didn’t offer music contests. The Gopher does now and it became another reason for the schools to seek membership.
The four additional members push the Gopher Conference to 12 members, which will likely set up divisions for some sports.
“We’re going to be pretty solid,” Gopher Conference Secretary Jeff Annis said. “It creates solid lower-level teams in games, which is important for the development of your varsity.”
JWP resided in the Gopher Conference until 2012 when it decided to join the Valley Conference. Since then enrollment numbers have increased in the JWP district and the Gopher seems like a better fit.
Triton’s application came, in part, with discussions with Hayfield, which moved from the Hiawatha Valley League to the Gopher two years ago. Schools in the Hiawatha Valley League like Kasson-Mantorville, Stewartville and Byron continue to increase their enrollment and it’s starting to squeeze some of the smaller schools.
Kenyon-Wanamingo has a Minnesota State High School League enrollment number of 213. The MSHSL determines enrollment numbers for grades 9-12 by taking out a percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunches. Randolph has an enrollment number of 170, but Activities Director Aaron Soule said the district is seeing increased enrollment. JWP has an enrollment of 205 and Triton has an enrollment of 309.
Triton, Maple River and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva are the three largest schools in the future Gopher. Randolph, Bethlehem Academy and United South Central have the three smallest enrollments.
Randolph will welcome the reduced travel time to schools in the Gopher. The shortest trip for Randolph in the Southeastern Conference is to Schaeffer Academy at 52 miles one way. In the Gopher, Kenyon-Wanamingo is the shortest trip for Randolph at 19.6 miles. The Gopher also provides shorter travel for JWP.
“Why wouldn’t we make the move basically?” Soule said.
Gopher Conference representatives are expected to meet again in the coming months to determine the look of the conference. Early discussion has focused on creating either a north-south division or an east-west division.