With one clean swipe, the Le Mars Community Schools Board of Education ripped off the band-aid Wednesday night. The Bulldogs ended a 25-year relationship with the Lakes Conference. They will join the Missouri River Activities Conference starting with the 2019-2020 school year.
That leaves Spirit Lake, Estherville Lincoln Central, Spencer, Storm Lake, Western Christian and Cherokee as the remaining conference teams. The first four are all founding members. Cherokee joined the conference in 1935. Western Christian joined in 1997. Le Mars joined the conference in 1993.
The Bulldogs are the third team to leave the Lakes Conference in the last decade. Sheldon left in 2009. Emmetsburg left in 2017. Sibley-Ocheyedan left in the 1990s.
While the Le Mars board cited concerns over conference stability, the remaining conference schools have been adamant that the conference isn't going anywhere.
"The Lakes Conference can and/or will continue to function with six teams and hope to expand in the future," Spirit Lake Superintendent David Smith told the Dickinson County News ahead of Le Mars' decision. "Schools changing conference affiliations is nothing new. As school populations change, so will conference affiliations. There is no need to panic or put the cart in front of the horse. There are a lot of really good people who will figure out the best way to evaluate options and move forward. Adding additional members to the conference will be a fluid process."
No one can blame the Bulldogs for their decision.
In the MRAC, they will now have five conference opponents within a 30-minute drive. Their average drive in the Lakes Conference was around 63 miles.
Le Mars is also a much better fit in the MRAC in terms of enrollment. The school was one of the largest in the Lakes with a 2018-2019 enrollment of 521 up from 474 just three years ago. The three Sioux City and two Council Bluffs schools have enrollments above or nearing 1,000. Sergeant Bluff-Luton and Bishop Heelan are nearing 400, placing Le Mars near the middle of the pack.
By comparison, Storm Lake is the only Lakes Conference school with more than 500 students (561) and the only school whose numbers are trending upward. Spencer (440), Spirit Lake (296), ELC (261) and Cherokee (209) are all showing a general decline in enrollment. Western Christian is the smallest school in the conference at 187.
Simply put, Le Mars was growing too big for the Lakes Conference's britches.
While there is a general sadness surrounding the Bulldogs' choice to leave the conference, it may actually be a blessing in disguise.
The growing disparity from the largest schools to the smallest schools in the Lakes Conference was the main factor that led to Emmetsburg's departure.
With an enrollment hovering around 200, the E'Hawks felt that they simply couldn't compete with the largest schools in the conference. I'm sure that was a factor in Sibley-Ocheyedan's reason to leave. And probably Sheldon's as well.
Without Le Mars, the Lakes Conference's average enrollment dropped by nearly 30 students. That should make the conference more appealing to smaller schools in the area.
Storm Lake Superintendent Carl Turner told the Dickinson County News that, after Emmetsburg's departure, Lakes Conference officials had already extended invitations to schools in the Siouxland, Raccoon River and North Central conferences, but stopped short of naming specific schools.
To me, the teams from these conferences that make the most sense both from a travel and enrollment standpoint are Okoboji, Algona, Sheldon, Sioux Center, Sibley-Ocheyedan, MOC-Floyd Valley and Carroll.
You could also make a case for Unity Christian, the largest school in the War Eagle Conference. And I wouldn't close the door completely on Emmetsburg's return from the Twin Lakes Conference at some point in the future.
Let's take a closer look at each.
Algona, Sheldon, Sioux Center, MOC-Floyd Valley and Carroll make the most sense in terms of enrollment.
Sheldon's listed enrollment is 249. Sioux Center (278), MOC-Floyd Valley (296) and Algona (327) are all around 300 students. Carroll is the largest school on the list at 348.
Sibley-Ocheyedan (178) and Unity Christian (198) are on the small side, but still viable options, especially after Le Mars' departure.
In terms of travel, Siouxland Conference schools Sioux Center and MOC-Floyd Valley would be adding around 30 minutes on average to their conference road trips if they were to join the Lakes, while Sheldon and Sibley-Ocheyedan would add about 20 minutes. Algona would add about 17 minutes by moving from the North Central Conference. Emmetsburg's travel is pretty much a wash.
While Carroll would have the longest road trip on average, the Tigers are used to long road trips in the Raccoon River Conference, where they average 77.6 miles per trip. They would only be adding about 18 miles to travel to Lakes Conference schools.
Okoboji makes the most sense in terms of travel and enrollment.
The Pioneers would actually save an average of 21.4 miles per road trip in the Lakes Conference versus the Siouxland. Okoboji's current enrollment is 213 putting the Pioneers in the bottom third of the Lakes but that number is trending upward.
I say all of that to say, there are options out there for the Lakes Conference. It can and will operate as a six-team conference. It may even be more attractive to area schools.
It's not going away anytime soon.