By Patrick Slack, Sports Editor
Starting this fall, Little Falls high school assistant principal Mike Olson will begin a three-year term with the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL).
No word yet on whether there was any bad blood between Olson and the person who nominated him, activities director Aaron Sinclair, as the selection places Olson on a board that has the final say on a wide spectrum of hot-button issues covering every high school activity in the state.
Joking aside, it’s a natural fit for Olson, who spent 12 years as an activities director, including 10 in Little Falls starting in 2001, before making the transition into his current administrative role, a task he is eager to begin.
As he prepares to take over as the Section 7AA/8AA representative for the next three years, Olson weighed in on several facets of the MSHSL Board, including many of the topics recently encountered and those likely to arise in the years to come.
Perception of the Board
While the MSHSL covers sports and activities, make no mistake: it is a political body.
And like any political body, the decisions made can deeply polarize those affected.
“There is a process to the MSHSL, but like any political process, they don’t always work as quickly as people would like them to,” Olson said. “Obviously, a lot of times when you make decisions, you are going to have people that think it was a great decision and people that don’t. So you’re always going to have varying opinions of the MSHSL.”
One of the areas the MSHSL is most directly involved in is section alignment, which is done every two years.
During this process, the MSHSL starts by separating schools into classes based on enrollment, with enrollment numbers subtracting 40 percent of the free and reduced lunch count for each school. Single-gender private schools have enrollment numbers doubled.
Schools also have the ability to “opt up” a class, provided they submit a written request explaining the rationale for the move.
Then, the process can become even trickier, as the MSHSL attempts to separate teams into sections that make geographic sense, all while maintaining an even number of teams in each section.
“A lot of people don’t understand the whole section placement thing,” Olson said. “There is a process. Sometimes the process doesn’t look like it makes sense, but they are trying to honor the wishes of the schools.
“What’s happened as you follow these things through the years is that some years there is a push for geographical balance,” he said. “However, that can leave an unbalanced number of teams per section in a given class, another issue the MSHSL attempts to avoid.”
That can lead to schools bouncing back and forth from section to section every classification cycle, even though the geography hasn’t changed. The challenge can become even greater when dealing with the spread-out schools in outstate Minnesota.
“It’s just a reaction to what people are asking about,” he said. “They are reacting to their clientele, reacting to what coaches want. Sometimes it’s be careful what you wish for or you might get it. Everything is trying to be as equitable and fair to all kids as possible.”
Rule on firing coaches
A new law came through the Minnesota legislature this year, by a former coach, stating that coaches cannot be fired solely based on parental complaints.
The bill is more of a “statement law,” Olson said, strengthening what had already been on the books that schools must provide reasoning before letting a coach go.
However, he also believes it will help attract and retain quality coaches who may be tentative about signing up.
Another issue making coaching more of a challenge is the increased pressure placed on programs to succeed, based largely on the investment families put into activities.
“What’s going on is that there’s such an investment, not just a financial investment, but social and time,” Olson said. “From the time kids are little, parents are taking kids to tournaments. The people you hang around with probably have kids on the same team your kids are playing with.
“So they are going to get upset when things don’t go well,” he said. “You hope they look at things as objectively as they can, which is not always easy when it’s your child who is not getting the playing time or gets taken out.”
Maintaining perspective when that does happen can be difficult, but necessary, in allowing players, coaches and officials to carry out their roles.
“In every contest, there are four roles: the player, the coach, the official and the spectator or parent,” Olson said. “You can only be in one of those roles and that’s what parents should do. They should be supportive of those other three roles. They have to cheer and be positive. That’s the ideal situation.”
Coming out of the MSHSL spring meeting, one of the biggest areas of concern remains football scheduling.
Football is unique among high school sports in the limited flexibility provided by its schedule, with teams only able to play once per week. The potential for injury when a large school plays one much smaller further shrinks the pool of teams that can play one another.
“The weird thing about football is you have eight weeks to play,” Olson said. “It can be tough to find ways to make it work. It’s a major topic at conference meetings, section meeting and with the State High School League.”
Some possible solutions proposed have been to discard conference scheduling and go to a section schedule, playing each of the other teams in one’s section.
A “zero week” has also been instituted in which teams that have trouble filling their schedule can play a week earlier, but not many have taken advantage of it.
“We’re fortunate in Little Falls right now, we’re in a good conference with a full schedule,” Olson said. “It’s not fair to your kids to only have seven games when everyone else has eight.”
The MSHSL is also preparing for major changes to the Prep Bowl in the short-term, with the Metrodome unavailable due to the construction of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
“There’s a plan for it,” Olson said. “Obviously they are going to try and get into TCF Bank Stadium (home of the University of Minnesota). That’s the ultimate goal.”
Any changes to the overall football schedule, such as starting earlier or cutting back on the number of teams competing in section tournaments, will come after this year.
“It might mean some changes in the football schedule, not for this year, but the year after because of the Gophers’ schedule,” Olson said. “They might have to do some revamping.
“And there’s the TV part of the Prep Bowl. They always have good ratings and that’s important for the High School League. They generate their money through the tournaments, so the tournaments have to be a successful thing for them.”
Private versus public
The debate of what to do with private schools versus public schools has been contentious throughout the state in recent years, with area teams directly affected come playoff time.
Two years ago, the Little Falls boys hockey team faced St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys school, in the opening round of the state hockey tournament.
The Cadets won 7-0, going on to win the state championship. St. Thomas Academy went on to win another title this past season, but will move up to Class AA next season.
“That’s one of those tough ones where every citizen, every kid has a right,” Olson said. “If I choose to go to a public school or go to a private school, I should have the same opportunities. I think the MSHSL will continue to look at how we count kids (for enrollment), but I don’t think we’ll ever see a separate class or section just for private schools.
“It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to put Rochester Lourdes and Duluth Marshall in the same section,” he said. “That makes no sense geographically.”
Outstate versus metro
Along with the private versus public debate is that of metro versus outstate.
The issues facing schools in the metro are largely similar to those in outstate Minnesota, Olson said, with communities expecting successful programs to remain that way.
However the opportunities for kids are much easier to grasp with the sheer volume of schools in the metro area, with the mobility of students to switch schools and find top programs much greater than in the past and compared with spread-out schools in the outstate area.
Also, transportation expenses in the outstate area can dwarf those of metro schools, impacting how many events are scheduled as well as where.
“That is definitely part of the equation when you live outstate,” Olson said. “Your transportation is going to be different than say a metro school. They think 30 minutes is a long bus ride, versus Warroad, where their shortest ride might be two hours.
“Every school and every community decides what kind of opportunities they are going to create for kids and how they want that to go. Some schools, when budgets are tight, they limit the amount of travel that kids can do, maybe one long trip. But if you were going to tell Warroad hockey they can’t drive to the Cities because it’s too far, it isn’t going to happen.”
The High School League hasn’t gotten very involved when it comes to offseason contact, with the only step taken being a week-long no-contact period during which high school coaches cannot interact with athletes in their activity.
However, the MSHSL will continue to monitor the issue, with kids facing ever-mounting pressure to compete year-round in order to succeed.
“If Team A down the road in your conference is playing 50 games in the summer and you’re not doing that, it makes sense they would be a little more successful,” Olson said. “Now, can there be a burnout point? Absolutely. So that’s the balance, that’s the summer contact question.
“How involved should the MSHSL be? They’ve gotten involved. They’ve created that seven-day window around the fourth (of July). They’re very concerned about this. Right now, there are some football programs that are putting equipment on kids and are actually doing scrimmages. We have travelling tournaments all over the place,” he said.
Another concern this can cause is the possibility of coaches that are not well-educated on issues such as heat acclimation and concussion recognition, with the MSHSL instituting testing for all of its coaches regarding head injuries.
While no further steps are imminent, the MSHSL works to address these issues as they develop.
“The High School League, like everything, keeps evolving and changing,” Olson said. “They’ll continue to be proactive in creating programs and activities for kids.
“Will things change? It’s hard to say. They’re pretty intense right now. I don’t know how much more intense they can get,” he said.
One of the main goals for the MSHSL is to provide opportunities for kids to participate in as many activities as possible.
“Ultimately, everyone on the Board is there for the same reason: to help students,” Olson said. “It’s all about kids and providing them the best experience they can have.
“Activities in Minnesota are still pretty much run the right way,” he said. “There have been a lot of changes over the last 40 – 50 years in athletics. The High School League’s greatest value is providing opportunities for kids. It’s all about participation, giving kids a chance to compete, whether it’s in robotics or hockey, football, badminton, adapted bowling, it’s all-encompassing.”
The pinnacle for high school participants is the chance to participate in state meets and tournaments, leaving the MSHSL the task of trying to balance providing opportunities between activities with costs.
This balancing act was brought to the forefront earlier this year, when the MSHSL rejected a recommendation from the Nordic Ski racing advisory committee to allow one additional team from each section, but three fewer individuals, to qualify for the state meet.
“The MSHSL (a non-profit organization), is all about opportunity but they also have to keep things in check in regards to expenses,” Olson said. “Just trying to be as equitable between students that qualify for state between sports.”
Olson added that once section competition begins, it is considered a part of the “state tournament” by the MSHSL, as it marks the start of the MSHSL’s monitoring of each activity.
A great opportunity
All in all, Olson is looking forward to joining a “close-knit group,” and working to help shape things in a positive way for students.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity,” Olson said. “It’s a great honor to be chosen to do that and represent Region 7 and Region 8. Hopefully I can do a great job of bringing their interests to the High School League Board and represent them in a way that they can be proud of.
“It’s one of those things where you’re always involved,” he said. “Activities is one of those things that has led my path in the educational field. It’s a big part of my life.”