The Big Rivers Conference has seen minimal change thus far in the 21st century.
But that will change this fall as the league gains one team and loses another as a part of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's statewide realignment plan.
New Richmond will enter the Big Rivers from the Middle Border Conference while River Falls departs for the Mississippi Valley Conference. The change is the first for the league since 2002, when the Tigers left the conference after a brief run around the turn of the century and Superior jumped in.
The statewide realignment plan was created to address enrollment and geographical and competitive balance concerns statewide in an effort to create more uniform 7 and 8-team leagues.
Some conferences saw more turnover than others. The Big Rivers had one team leave and another enter, but with fewer large schools in this part of the state, it made for more difficult decisions with fewer options.
"I know River Falls really didn't want to leave and it's a tough call," Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda said. "But they had to get it down to a certain amount of teams, and New Richmond was definitely getting too big for their conference they were in. I think it was really a tough call all the way around."
Hudson is the largest school in the conference based on 2018-19 school year enrollment numbers at 1,791 students, with Eau Claire Memorial (1,724), Chippewa Falls (1,482) and Eau Claire North (1,305) making up the top half. Superior (1,305), Menomonie (973), New Richmond (939) and Rice Lake (744) comprise the other teams in the league in order of enrollment.
But with the La Crosse-area Mississippi Valley Conference being the next closest conference with teams of that size, River Falls (989) makes the move south to play teams in a conference from the Coulee Region.
Chippewa Falls coach Chuck Raykovich said many different realignment possibilities had been floated around over the last several years, including some more radical ideas involving teams from the Valley Football Association, such as D.C. Everest, Stevens Point, Wausau West and Wausau East potentially joining the Big Rivers with more teams leaving.
"I guess this is a good alternative, although I don't know. I kind of support River Falls in their fight to stay in the Big Rivers," Raykovich said. "It seems like if they did this move to save energy and gas and time and all that, River Falls has got to drive a lot further than they used to."
The Wildcats have taken steps forward in recent years, winning the Big Rivers Conference championship in 2018 for the program's first league title since the mid-1990s. River Falls kept former BRC foes Menomonie and Hudson on the schedule for nonconference games in the first and second weeks, respectively.
Adding the Wildcats for the non-league portion of the schedule was important for LaBuda and the Mustangs, not just for a good test on the field but also to get a nonconference game closer to home. In recent years, Menomonie has traveled long distances in state to play the likes of Lake Mills, Oshkosh North and Greendale, as well as out-of-state foes like Chaska (Minn.) and St. Francis (Ill.).
Both the Cardinals and Mustangs maintain Holmen on their nonconference schedule, while the Cardinals will also play D.C. Everest in the second week, the first matchup between the Cardinals and Evergreens since 2004. The Big Rivers Conference has featured nonconference games across the league in the first two weeks each season since 2003, but with all conferences statewide operating under the same guidelines it helps to create more opportunities to schedule nonconference games.
New Richmond was by far the largest program in the Middle Border, more than 400 students larger than Osceola (521) with the district gaining enrollment.
New Richmond coach Reggie Larson's program is excited for the move to the Big Rivers Conference but knows the step up from playing Division 3-4 size schools to playing teams from Division 1-3 will create a steep learning curve.
"There's going to be some teams in the Middle Border where we could maybe lineup and not play our best game and probably still come out and win," Larson said. "That's just kind of the nature of the athletes we had coming through at the time, and it's not going to be the case in the Big Rivers where you have to show up week in and week out, and you better be locked and loaded ready to go because anybody can beat anyone on any given night."
New Richmond is familiar with teams from the Big Rivers, defeating Rice Lake and falling to River Falls in nonconference games a season ago before falling to Menomonie 35-13 in the second round of the Division 3 playoffs after a Middle Border Conference championship in the regular season. But now Larson and his team know the challenge lies in being ready to battle programs of that caliber for seven straight weeks in the regular season.
"As soon as you're done playing Chippewa Falls, then you've got strap it up and go play Hudson the next week," Larson said. "Once you're done playing Hudson then you're going up to Superior. There's no off week in the Big Rivers. Every single team is good and that's going to be the biggest adjustment where it's going to truly be a grinder week in and week out."
Overall the Big Rivers sees one depart and another join, but the coaches expect the league to remain strong.
"I think our conference is pretty balanced," Raykovich said of the Big Rivers.
"I think it's one of the top leagues in the state and New Richmond has done a really good job," LaBuda said. "We played them in the second round of the playoffs last year and Coach Larson is a very good coach and they're very well coached so I think from that standpoint I think they'll be a good addition to the Big Rivers. But I really don't like to see River Falls go out either because they won the conference two years ago. They've gotten better. We've won it three of the last four years and they've won it two years ago and they make our league better so from that standpoint, I wish they would've stayed in."
Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire Memorial, Eau Claire North, Hudson, Menomonie, Rice Lake, River Falls, Superior
Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire Memorial, Eau Claire North, Hudson, Menomonie, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Superior
Big Rivers Record
Menomonie 6-1 (11-2)
River Falls 6-1 (8-3)
Superior 5-2 (10-3)
Hudson 4-3 (4-6)
Chippewa Falls 3-4 (3-7)
Eau Claire Memorial 3-4 (5-5)
Rice Lake 1-6 (1-8)
Eau Claire North 0-7 (0-9)
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