Triton and Kenyon-Wanamingo have found a new home for their athletic and other school-related activities.
The two school districts are leaving the Hiawatha Valley League to join the Gopher Conference starting with the 2021-22 school year.
Two other schools are also leaving their current conferences to join the Gopher. Randolph will join while departing the Southeast Conference, while Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton will come back to the Gopher after leaving for the Valley Conference in 2012.
"The No. 1 reason for that switch is school size," Triton activities director Shane VanBeek said. "We have a couple of schools in the HVL that their enrollment is inclining drastically and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Here at Triton, we've been pretty stagnant if not not declining the last couple of years."
Class size is also a primary reason for K-W to make the move to the Gopher Conference.
"Size-wise, it's a good fit," K-W activities director Randy Hockinson said. "We'll come in a little bit above middle size-wise in the Gopher Conference. In the HVL, only Goodhue was smaller than us."
While Kenyon-Wanamingo and Goodhue were 10th and 11th in enrollment in the current 11-team HVL, Triton was tied for eighth. K-W had 213 students in grades 9-12 during the 2019-20 school year. Lately, Triton has been graduating classes of 90 with lower grades producing about 70 students per class.
"It's been a tough decision, because the HVL's been a great conference for us. I think it's helped us as individual programs with success we've had," said Jake Wieme, who coaches football, girls basketball and boys and girls golf at K-W.
"I think we feel size-wise we're starting to get a bit smaller than a majority of them," Wieme said. "Just looking going forward, I think we felt that schools in the HVL continue to grow, and Kenyon-Wanamingo, it seems like we're plateauing at a size growth-wise."
According to 2018 enrollments, Kasson-Mantorville (168), Byron (160) and Stewartville (154) had the largest graduating classes in the HVL. No Gopher Conference school had a graduating class higher than 73 that year.
"I think it puts us in a spot where we can be competitive every night and not have to play schools that are twice the size of us," Triton boys basketball coach Zak Hanegraaf said.
With four new schools moving in, the Gopher will move to a 12-team conference. That likely means two divisions, which will help with travel costs.
"We plan on scheduling non-conference games with Goodhue, Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Pine Island and Cannon Falls and keeping up those good relationships and rivalries with our neighbors," Hockinson said.
Currently Gopher Conference schools Hayfield, Blooming Prairie and Medford are all close to K-W and Triton, located in Dodge Center.
"Graphically, it makes a lot of sense for us," VanBeek said. "The HVL has many great schools and great people as part of it, it's just that we feel that the Gopher is a better fit for our school at this time."
The competitive imbalance of the HVL was also being felt below the varsity level. Bigger HVL schools like Byron and Kasson-Mantorville might have two teams each for some seventh- and eighth-grade sports while Kenyon-Wanamingo would often have one combined seventh- and eighth-grade team.
"It wasn't really fair to the HVL schools that we couldn't match up competition with them at the lower levels," Hockinson said. "And we were getting some pretty lopsided defeats at those lower levels, too."
"We're hoping when we're playing a junior high match, should it be football basketball, we're both coming into it roughly the same class size," Wieme said. "We're not going against a school that's four times our size."
Depending on the varsity sport, the Hiawatha Valley League ranges from Class A to AAA schools. The Gopher Conference has all Class A and AA schools.
"Going to the Gopher, we will be one of the bigger schools," VanBeek said. "We play a lot of those schools in non-conference competition anyway. And I think it's going to be a good fit for us and by no means do I expect to head that direction and instantly be dominate."
K-W has had some very strong programs recently in wrestling and volleyball.
"It wasn't a decision that we took lightly because I know the HVL has been really good for us," Wieme. "You don't always see it in the wins and losses, but our teams got better because of the teams that we were playing."
With the loss of Triton and Kenyon-Wanamingo, the HVL will drop from 11 to nine teams starting in 2021-22, unless other schools are added.