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Prep Bowl’s future hinges on Vikings

By John Millea

McClatchy Newspapers

Imagine this scenario: The 2016 Minnesota high school football playoffs are winding down. The state semifinals are scattered around the state, with games in St. Cloud, Mankato, Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities. The Prep Bowl XXXV championship games are split as well, with three held at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus and three at Wilf World Arena, the new home of the Vikings in downtown Minneapolis.

No games begin before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. It’s just too darn cold in November for such things.

Oh yah, you betcha, all these games are held outdoors ... brrrrr ... the week before Thanksgiving.

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Throw another log on the fire and return to 2006. The 16-hour Prep Bowl XXV extravaganza of six championship games will be held today at the Metrodome, as has been the case since 1982. Beginning next year the Prep Bowl will be split over two days. But 10 years from now, or maybe sooner, the Prep Bowl as we know it might be barely recognizable.

It all depends on the Vikings. They have an agreement to play in the dome through the 2011 season. The University of Minnesota is scheduled to open TCF Bank Stadium in 2009, which removes one major tenant from the Metrodome. If a new stadium — with a permanent or retractable roof — is built for the Vikings, the Prep Bowl problem might be solved. But without an indoor facility, big changes could loom for high school football (as well as soccer, which also uses the Dome for state semifinals and finals).

"We can’t make it financially without the Vikings," said Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome. "If the Vikings aren’t here we might be able to limp along for a year or two, but in the long term, you’d need the Vikings here or some other source of revenue."

In other words, bye-bye Metrodome. And hello changes.

"If there is no Dome, then we’re going to have to take a look at the format of our football playoffs," said Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League.

Changes might come on several fronts, including:

• Starting the season earlier to avoid cold weather;

• Fewer night playoff games;

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• Spreading playoff games, including state semifinals and finals, to several artificial-turf stadiums around the state;

• A total restructuring of the playoff system, with fewer teams qualifying for postseason play to shorten the playoffs.

Minnesota is the only state in the Upper Midwest that allows almost all teams into the playoffs. Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota have qualifying systems that limit the number of postseason teams. All but Wisconsin play their state championship games indoors.

Look to the east

Wisconsin, which has seven classes and held its title games over two days last week at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, might offer a glimpse into Minnesota’s future.

Ken Belanger coached football at Zumbrota-Mazeppa for 35 years, taking several teams to the playoffs. He left that school after the 2000 season and since has coached at Frederic High School in Wisconsin.

Belanger remains close to football in Minnesota. In fact, he worked as a volunteer team host at last week’s Minnesota semifinals and will do the same at today’s Prep Bowl.

"Part of my thinking is I can go [to the Metrodome] and be comfortable and sit inside and watch the games," he said. "It’s pretty tough to go and sit through too many games at Camp Randall."

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Teams will have to make adjustments in preparing for the postseason.

"You probably would have to plan a little bit different, because you're not necessarily going to be able to throw the ball and your kicking game might be grossly different," Belanger said.

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