A lengthy 45-minute discussion took place regarding the future direction of the Sleepy Eye Public football program. District 84 admits a co-op with in-town St. Mary's no longer may be an option for football.

On Wednesday, Jan. 8, the District 84 School Board held their monthly meeting. Included was a 45 minute discussion regarding the future direction of the Sleepy Eye Public School football program.

Activities Director Cory Haala went over a packet of information. He said SEPS is locked into 11-man football for the 2020 season. The packet also contained information on what other conferences or sections look like and how SEPS relates to other areas.
With the current standings of enrollment, the list points out that a potential co-op with St. Mary’s would leave Sleepy Eye in Section 3A for football. A potential co-op with Cedar Mountain could potentially bump Sleepy Eye up to Class AA. This co-op idea  came up after Sleepy Eye admitted that in-town St. Mary’s may no longer be an option.

The future enrollment is a potential unknown, but currently a merge with Cedar Mountain would bump a Sleepy Eye/Cedar Mountain co-op to 207 students. The threshold for Section and Class placement is 205. Haala said the current MSHSL co-op rule counts the larger school’s enrollment plus half of the other schools involved.
SEPS is currently the seventh listed school in enrollment in its section at 139. SEPS is also below eight of its crossover opponents in Section 3A. St. Mary’s enrollment is last in their district, while Cedar Mountain is third of nine teams in theirs. St. Mary’s is also below crossover opponents like Mountain Lake and Madelia, and is above only Westbrook-Walnut Grove.

A co-op with Cedar Mountain would not guarantee a jump to Class AA, due to unknowns regarding potential migrant population and impending enrollment declines. However, a potential move to Section 3AA would have Sleepy Eye/Cedar Mountain facing St. James, TMB, Windom, Redwood, and Pipestone. A move to Section 2AA would include opponents like Norwood-Young America, St. Clair/Loyola, and New Richland-H-E-G.

A potential co-op would mean slightly more travel for SEPS. With their current schedule, teams average about 40 miles in distance. Factor in the new Class AA placement and that number is bumped to roughly 48.9 miles. For St. Mary’s 2019-20 schedule, teams were an average distance of 71.75 miles apart, the closest schools being Cedar Mountain, BLHS, and Nicollet. These numbers were factored in terms of opponents, whether it was home or away.

Once the numbers were pushed out of the way, discussion between administrators and the school board members began to take place. Superintendent John Cselovski gave a brief recap of the current situation. Initially, 10 years ago, discussions and meetings with St. Mary’s took place. More recently, 2-3 years ago, there were brief mid-level meetings to discuss a co-op with St. Mary’s. Each of those previous discussions resulted in a no from St. Mary’s.

Last fall,  steam picked up after an article in the Herald-Dispatch surfaced. SEPS administrators reached out to St. Mary’s administrators to discuss a co-op. SEPS was again denied. Cselovski  claimed St. Mary’s said they were not interested, as they wanted to maintain their identity. St. Mary’s also said they are comfortable with the competition 9-man has given their program.

After the Herald-Dispatch contacted St. Mary’s adminstration via e-mail, Principal Peter Roufs replied, “This decision has proven to be sound and viable for us, as it has allowed us to keep our program intact, be competitive, and play schools with comparable talent and physicality. The football program continues to provide valuable opportunities for our students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members to become involved in the happenings and mission of our school.”

At the school board meeting, Cselovski also stated that St. Mary’s had recommended to SEPS administration that they also go 9-man.
“We are at a crossroads,” Cselovski said, “we need to make a decision what’s best for us as a school.” Cselovski then mentioned that he reached out to Cedar Mountain about a potential co-op. “I reached out to Cedar Mountain. The Cedar Mountain Activities Director and Cory [Haala] talked and ‘there is interest to do something’.”
Cselovski said Cedar Mountain Superintendent Rob Brandl would not be concerned with a Class A or Class AA placement, as he (Brandl) said, “You play at the level your numbers require you to do so.”

Cselovski then proposed three options: stay independent in 11-man, go 9-man, go seek a long-term partner. “Cory and I need direction,” he said. SEPS currently opts up from 9-man football to play 11-man. Multiple 9-man schools have higher enrollment.
Board Chair Darla Remus said, “Definitely you would like to see it locally to make the town whole, but I just think if it’s not an option, I would like to seek out Cedar Mountain.”

In 2018, Cory Haala and the football program hosted a meeting with parents. In the meeting, parents and players were given a survey of their preferences — stay 11-man, or co-op with St. Mary’s, or go 9-man. The large majority of the survey exposed that SEPS and its players and parents preferred to stay 11-man, and if not, they would have liked to co-op with St. Mary’s.

Board member Brian Nelson said, “Everybody’s preference here would be to partner with St. Mary’s, but you cannot make them do something they don’t want to do. Whether we feel it’s the best thing for the students or the best thing for the community, we can’t make them do it.” Continuing, Nelson encouraged to move forward. “We need to look at what’s best for us, for our players, what’s going to build their confidence, what’s going to make them competitive, and most importantly, what’s going to make them safe on the field.” Haala said 17 players in the football program were injured and missed at least one game last season.

As discussion continued, the option of dissolving current co-ops with St. Mary’s and having Cedar Mountain be a potential partner for all programs came across. “If we were to co-op with Cedar Mountain and they had interest in other sports like track, golf, cross country etc. Would we then look at dissolving the co-ops we have now and just simply co-op and be one?” asked Brian Nelson.

“Something to consider, they’re in our track co-op currently,” Haala responded.  
Other comments echoed in the room that it is frustrating for the community and members in decision making. Board member Casey Coulson said discussion of a co-op has come up many times, but whenever there is any optimism it gets shot down by a couple of adminstrators.

“This year is actually the most positive chatter I have heard of a co-op with St. Mary’s. But when it comes to real negotiating, it gets shot down,” Coulson said, “you talk to players from both schools, they want to do it, you talk to coaches, they want to do it, you talk to parents, they want to do it. Maybe not every single one, but the majority.”
Board members were confused with why St. Mary’s is against a co-op for football, but not other sports, finding that is what is frustrating about it — that it would make the most sense for both schools.

Coulson concluded his argument with, “I think it is a disgrace St. Mary’s does not want to come and talk to us about co-oping. It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand it, never will.” He continued about how productive it would be for the community. “I think it would bring this community together. It would be a great thing for this town, but it’s a disgrace. I don’t understand it.” Coulson also questioned the sustainability of both football programs in the future. “I don’t see the long term, I don’t see how either school can sustain their own program.”

Board member Bryan Sellner agreed, “They can’t even sustain their own program, it doesn’t make sense. They don’t have the numbers coming up to make it work, so start looking forward. I don’t get it.” Sellner continued, “It’s totally different if there is no co-op at all. Then don’t co-op with St. Mary’s on anything if that’s how it’s gonna be.”
Coulson mentioned, “If we end up choosing Cedar Mountain, I think we have to look hard about dropping current co-ops we have and finding one partner.” He admitted it’s a hard decision to make, but that it is a possbility.

Board members resoundingly agreed that a football co-op would greatly benefit the community. “People partner in this community all the time to make it a better place, I don’t see why this would be any different, but you cannot force someone to do something they don’t want to do,” said Brian Nelson.

At the conclusion of the discussion, the SEPS board decided to form a committee to contact Cedar Mountain about a potential football co-op. Board members Remus, Coulson and Sellner, along with Superintendent Cselovski and AD Haala will meet to discuss what the next step will be.

In his e-mail, Roufs acknowledged the difficult situation SEPS is in. Roufs also supports the Catholic mission St. Mary’s schools carries with its programs. As their football program for over 135 years allows them the opportunity to share their Catholic faith to be shared in a direct and holistic way. He wrote, “At St. Mary’s, we work to incorporate faith into everything we do, and the members of our community are continually sacrificing in order to live out this mission to the best of our ability.”

Lastly, Roufs said, “We at St. Mary’s are grateful for the existing co-ops that we have with SEHS, as they have proven to be both successful and rewarding. We appreciate the working relationship we have with SEHS in the many things we do together and only wish them the best in their decision regarding their football program.”