Western Christian High School dropped a bit of a bombshell over the weekend, putting the word out that it would be leaving the Lakes Conference following the 2021-22 school year.
That has many in N’West Iowa wondering where the school will eventually end up. Will it be accepted into another conference, or will it end up as an independent? Western Christian isn’t that far along in its plan, but for the rest of us it is interesting to speculate.
Western Christian joined the Lakes Conference in 1997-98. At that time, the conference was a nine-team league. In the past decade, Sheldon, Emmetsburg and LeMars have left the conference. In a news release issued by the school, it is stated that Western Christian’s “primary reason for choosing to leave the Lakes Conference is due to the fact that geographically, Western Christian is an outlier.”
The other schools in the Lakes Conference are Cherokee, Estherville Lincoln Central, Spencer, Spirit Lake and Storm Lake. Hull, where Western Christian is based, is 59 miles from Cherokee, 79 from Estherville, 50 miles from Spencer, 65 miles from Spirit Lake and 79 miles from Storm Lake.
The release states: “Traveling to each conference event during the school year is time consuming, expensive, and most importantly, pulling student-athletes from class far too often to participate in athletic contests. In addition to concerns directly related to travel distance and time, we are also interested in being part of a conference where school size and instructional programs are more comparable, and where students can compete with neighboring community schools.”
It further states: “It is time to engage in a positive solution to a problem. At the end of the day, our goal is to do what is best for students.”
The timing of the release is looked at as sort of a courtesy to the other Lakes Conference schools as the league now desperately needs to recruit some new members.
Western Christian athletic director Travis Kooima said the Lakes Conference is putting together a plan to invite new members. He said while the school appreciated working with the other Lakes members, it was time for the Wolfpack to go another direction. Part of the problem is that only five conference games, or 10 if the season has a home-and-home element, made it difficult for Western Christian to fill the rest of the dates on its schedule. Kooima used the example of basketball, where 21 games are allowed. With only 10 conference games, that leaves 11 to fill for the Wolfpack. However, schools in other conferences are playing 18 league games or more, making them unavailable on many of the dates Western Christian needs to fill.
“It was a challenge for Western Christian after LeMars left the conference to schedule nonconference games and it was one of the reasons to leave, the challenge of putting together a good nonconference schedule for our coaches and athletes was getting more difficult each and every year,” Kooima said. “And the travel of the Lakes Conference for us is just not ideal for the learning culture we are trying to create.”
So where does that put Western Christian?
According to Kooima, the school has yet to submit a formal application to any conference.
“We are putting together a plan right now that is going to serve our school and learning community best for the extended future and create a great experience for all our athletic and school programs,” Kooima said.
He said there is no official time of year where other area conferences look at the possibility of affiliation updates. Again, Kooima said the timing of the release had to do with the respect Western Christian has for the other schools in the Lakes Conference.
“We wanted to give them ample time to put together a plan for their conference moving forward,” Kooima said. “I love working with the other Lakes Conference activity directors. They are a great group. It was just time for us as a school to create better schedules for our student-athletes and start looking ahead on what we want our athletic programs to look like five or 10 years from now.”
Looking at the criteria Western Christian has set in its statement of wanting to limit travel time and wanting to play against schools of its own size, the logical landing place would be the Siouxland Conference, but is that conference looking to expand? It is known that Unity Christian, a War Eagle Conference member, has applied to the Siouxland multiple times and its application has been declined. Part of the rational for that was the lack of junior high sports at Unity Christian.
Western Christian presents a similar situation.
Another possibility would be joining the War Eagle and making that a 12-team league, but that would requite slightly more travel. It also would add to a gap in school sizes in a conference that already has a fairly wide range. The War Eagle has four schools that show enrollments of more than 175 students, led by Unity Christian at 227. It has four schools that range between 144 and 110 students in the latest Basic Educational Data Survey document. Three schools in the conference have 76 students or less.
Western Christian was listed at 192 on the BEDS document.
One other possibility, although it would seem to be a long shot, would be the Missouri River Activities Conference. That would reunite Western Christian with LeMars, which certainly would be looked at as a plus for both schools. The Wolfpack already schedules many nonconference contests against the Sioux City schools and Sergeant Bluff-Luton. The sizes of the schools in that conference are significantly larger than Western Christian, but it has always been a school that doesn’t mind playing up in the regular season.
However, the MRAC includes Council Bluffs schools Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. That would add some major road trips for Western Christian, which was cited as one of the reasons for leaving the Lakes.
Kooima said Western Christian will look into all options now that it is a free agent of sorts.
“We have plans set in place for multiple scenarios as all of this plays out,” he said. “We look forward to the process and are excited about the future. We will start weighing our options after the winter seasons are over and begin the evaluation process on other conferences.”