When the Park Wolfpack takes the field this season, there’s going to be some very unfamiliar football foes to tackle. There’s no Hastings, Henry Sibley, no Simley, South St. Paul or Apple Valley …
When the Park Wolfpack takes the field this season, there’s going to be some very unfamiliar football foes to tackle.
There’s no Hastings, Henry Sibley, no Simley, South St. Paul or Apple Valley on the 2021 schedule. On the plus side, there’s also no 5A power St. Thomas Academy either.
In their places will be unfamiliar 6A opponents such as Lakeville South, Eastview, Hopkins, Anoka and Prior Lake.
It’s a brave new world for Park of Cottage Grove football as the Wolfpack step up in class this season to 6A football.
Park will play in the newly- created, seven-team Maroon South division which includes Eastview, East Ridge, Burnsville, Woodbury, Eagan, Hopkins and Park. The Wolfpack will play six division games, plus crossover games against Prior Lake, Anoka and Lakeville South.
‘There’s a lot of good teams,” Park head football coach Rick Fryklund said of this year’s schedule. “It’s a little like the SEC of college football for that kind of grind.”
Old Suburban East Conference rival Woodbury returns to the schedule after a several- year absence, although there is no game with division opponent East Ridge this fall.
Indeed, one of the biggest pluses for Park, according to Fryklund, is the ability to resume a rivalry with School District 833 mate Woodbury this year — and East Ridge in the future – along with simply playing a lot of good teams with good coaches The new divisions and schedules for Minnesota’s 30 largest enrollment schools were formed to create more even competition by creating two new districts, then splitting those districts into two divisions.
After getting feedback from the schools, a group made recommendations to a 16-member Activities Directors’ Advisory Committee. The plan then went to the Minnesota State High School League executive committee who drew up the districts.
The way it’s landed is the MSHSL has placed many of the state’s perennial top 16 teams – including Eden Prairie, Lakeville North, Rosemount, Maple Grove and Minnetonka — into the two Gold Districts. Those are the state’s winningest 6A high school football teams over the last eight years. The other 14 large-school teams were slated into the Maroon Districts.
Park, on the borderline enrollment wise with approximately 1,900 students, was moved up to 6A from 5A.
“We knew this was coming,” said Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel. “Two years ago when we went through this cycle we were very close. I want to say we were like number 32 enrollment- wise. And then you get a school like Cretin which opts out (of 6A).”
Park appealed and lost a
bid to remain in 5A.
“We did appeal the process,” added Kuemmel. “Our appeal was denied just based on the fact of from a numbers standpoint this is where enrollment says we should be playing. So now we look forward, and say this is what we have to do, this is the schedule that we have, so what can we do to prepare for our return to 6A football.
There was some consideration of geography and pairing teams against natural rivals. But obviously by placing Park in a division with Hopkins, proximity wasn’t the top priority.
Of the teams in the Maroon South division, Eastview has made the final eight in the playoffs three times from 2012 to 2019; East Ride has made it twice, Burnsville and Woodbury once each. Eagan, Hopkins and Park have never advanced that far.
Just how competitive Park will be in the new setup is up for grabs.
“On any given night we feel we can compete on the field,” said Kuemmel. “And we feel pretty confident that we can do that even with the schedule that we got.”
Unlike the days when Park often struggled to be competitive against larger schools in the old Suburban East Conference, the Wolfpack have fared much better recently playing in the Suburban Maroon Division.
Park went 31-23 the last six years, including 4-6 in 2019, 5-5 in 2018, 6-3 in 2017 and 7-3 in both 2016 and 2015. That record also includes section 5A playoff wins over Bloomington Kennedy, Henry Sibley and St. Thomas Academy during that stretch.
Park was 2-3 in a Pandemic- shortened season last fall.
“Great competition, we won some, we lost some,” said Kuemmel. “We definitely felt we were a great fit in 5A, obviously enrollment- wise didn’t quite show that.”
The ability to compete in sports such as football is often a numbers game. Schools with larger enrollments simply have more athletes among the student body to draw upon. The new Maroon South division enrollment numbers break down like this: Eastview (2085), East Ridge (1757), Burnsville (2079), Woodbury (1864), Eagan (1916), Hopkins (1856) and Park (1685). * In moving to 6A football, there are obvious concerns over the numbers of athletes Park can field, compared to schools with larger enrollments.
“Just the amount of kids on our roster and our overall school size,” said Fryklund. “We’re going to be competing with 6A schools with 3,000 to 4,000 enrollments and Park will sometimes have less than half that.”
One quirk in this year’s schedule is a pair of Thursday night games, Sept. 2 and Sept. 12, in addition to a Wednesday night game during MEA week. The Thursday night games are mainly due to a lack of game officials. There simply weren’t enough qualified officials to staff every Friday night football game, so each team was asked to move a couple of games off the traditional Friday night lights schedule.
Park hosts Lakeville South Thursday, Sept. 2, to open the 2021 season.