PIGSKIN PREVIEW TAB - Three Rivers bigger, better
Conference grows to 12 schools
By Donny Henn
There are bound to be some growing pains when a high school football conference grows by 50 percent in one year.
But lost rivalries and longer bus rides notwithstanding, most of the coaches in the newly expanded Three Rivers Conference believe that bigger will be better.
The TRC morphs from an eight-team league into a 12-team conference with two divisions this year, with the fusion of four teams from the Southeast Conference.
Former Southeast Conference powers Caledonia, Fillmore Central, Rushford-Peterson and Southland will renew their rivalries in the six-team South Division, joined by longtime TRC tenants Chatfield and Kingsland.
The North Division is comprised of Dover-Eyota, Goodhue, Lewiston-Altura, Plainview/Elgin-Millville, St. Charles and Wabasha-Kellogg.
The teams' first three games will be non-conference games against teams from the opposite division; the last five games will be within the divisions and will constitute the conference season.
It's the first major change in local conference alignments since 1993, when the Hiawatha Valley League absorbed five teams from the folded Wasioja Conference and became a 12-team, two-division league.
"I think it's going to be a totally good thing," said Caledonia coach Carl Fruechte, whose team won the SEC last year with a 7-0 record.
"We do realize that we might take a few lumps, and that winning a conference championship is going to be extremely tough now. But in the long run, it'll be a good thing for our program."
History of success
The TRC established itself as one of the strongest football conferences in the state in the decade of the 90's, with a bunch of state playoff berths and Prep Bowl appearances. Chatfield won three straight Class C titles from 1994 to 1996, and Kingsland won the Class B state crown in 1995.
Last year four TRC teams played in section semifinals, and two won section titles.
Goodhue, which shared the 2001 conference title with Dover-Eyota, won the Section 1A tournament and made it to the Class A state semis. Lewiston-Altura was a state quarterfinalist in Class AA, after posting back-to-back shutout wins over TRC rivals St. Charles and D-E in Section 1AA.
"We're very excited about the opportunity to compete in the (TRC)," said longtime Fillmore Central head coach Del Elston. "I think the competition will be more intense from week to week."
The conference will only get stronger with addition of the four largest teams from the SEC. Caledonia, Fillmore Central, Rushford-Peterson and Southland dominated the other four teams in the SEC recently, winning 44 of 56 games in the last two seasons.
Leveling the field
Some of the new TRC teams have been trying to get into the conference for several years, primarily in search of better and more equal football competition.
There was a wide enrollment variation in the old SEC; Caledonia and Fillmore Central were two or three times larger than the smallest teams in the conference, Houston, Mabel-Canton, Lanesboro and Spring Grove.
"I understand the need for those schools to get into our conference, but it will take some getting used to the idea of not having one conference with one winner," said Chatfield head coach Gary Hansen, who takes over this year for his old friend, Ken Jacobson.
Hansen also lamented the loss of Chatfield's spirited rivalries with Dover-Eyota and St. Charles, which are in the opposite division.
"We always had great games with them, and a packed house to play for, so we'll miss that," he said.
On the other hand some lost rivalries will be renewed.
Preston-Fountain, Wykoff, Spring Valley and Harmony all competed against each other in the 1980's in the Maple Leaf Conference. Now they'll meet again in the TRC South, as Kingsland (Spring Valley and Wykoff) and Fillmore Central (Harmony and Preston-Fountain).
"Fillmore Central is an excellent gate for us," said Kingsland coach Mike Holzer. " I think that will develop into a nice rivalry."
A little more travel
The new TRC will be expansive, with about 100 miles separating Goodhue from Caledonia.
"There'll be a little more travel, and some people want to make a big deal out of that," said Fruechte. "But to me it's not that far to go for a good game."
Eltson, in his 29th season as coach at Harmony and Fillmore Central, pointed out that the SEC wasn't the most compact conference to play in.
"Our bus guy added up the total miles we traveled last year, and the total we'll drive this year, and it won't be that much more," he said.
It's the third conference in a decade for migratory Caledonia. The Warriors were part of the HVL for several years in the late 1980's and early '90's, before leaving in 1993 to join the SEC.
Fruechte said there's still some confusion in his community, but he thinks Caledonia has finally found a home.
"People have stopped me on the street and asked, 'What conference are we in now?'" he related. "I tell them we're in the right conference now. Right where we belong."
The Plainview/Elgin-Millville Bulldogs are the coaches' consensus favorite in the North Division, with two dozen returning players, and help from a dominant B squad.
The South Division, with a mix of former SEC and TRC teams, is harder to predict. Caledonia and Rushford-Peterson look the strongest on paper.
Dover-Eyota had one of the strongest running games in the conference last season, which paved the way to a share of the conference title (with Goodhue), and the Section 1AA finals. The Eagles finished 8-3, with a 20-0 loss to Lewiston-Altura in the 1AA final.