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COLUMN: Eagle Grove, do the right thing: Stay in the NCC

Conference could face collapse if Eagles, Clarion-Goldfield head for exit

December 14, 2012
By Troy Banning - Sports Editor ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

Do this job long enough and you begin to stockpile stories. Some make me smile. Others irritate me. Still others warm my heart and force me to wipe my eyes.

Eric Tolle turned in a tear jerker five years ago when the then Webster City sophomore wrestler gave himself up in a junior varsity match so a young man with Down Syndrome from Humboldt could have a taste of success - something everybody should get to experience at least once in life.

There was that trip to Fort Dodge - at 3:30 p.m. no less - for an 8 p.m. tip-off between Webster City and St. Edmond in February of 2000. I got there more than four hours early and still had trouble finding a place to sit, and yet the sore back and behind were worth it because, wow, what a game.

If you were there, then you know what I'm talking about. I'm yet to see a boys' prep basketball game to this day that could match its intensity and emotion.

And then there was a wrestling tournament in 2002 that still makes me chuckle. There was Eagle Grove super stud Luke Reiland talking on his cell phone as he was beckoned to the mat. He quickly handed his phone to his coach - nope, he didn't hang up - raced to the center of the circle, shook hands, decked his opponent in less than 30 seconds, helped him up and patted him on the butt, and then sprinted back to grab his phone so he could continue his conversation as he walked out of the gym.

True story. I swear.

I tell these stories with a sense of nostalgia. Why? Because they all fall under the North Central Conference umbrella, and unless something, or someone, changes the dialog in the next few months, I fear the 88-year-old league - unquestionably one of the state's legends - will be nothing but a memory.

I'm going to try to change that dialog, and as Lester Bangs quipped in Almost Famous, it's time to be honest and unmerciful.

Here's the Cliffs Notes version of what I know, or at least what I think I know, surrounding the latest NCC developments.

First, Algona Bishop Garrigan is gone - off to the North Iowa Conference. It would take a miracle to unring that bell.

Second, Eagle Grove and Clarion-Goldfield are laying the groundwork to bolt to the NIC as well. On Monday, Eagle Grove's school board voted to begin the application process with the NIC.

And just like that, the 10-team NCC is down to eight, maybe seven. And that's when the vultures will circle the carcass.

The North Iowa Cedar League will almost certainly beat on the doors at Iowa Falls-Alden, probably Hampton-Dumont as well. If and when it happens, and if and when they decide to also leave, then give the NCC one last kiss before it's gone forever.

I've received numerous tweets from Webster City fans on this subject in recent days, many playing on the too-often used "maybe we can join the Big Ten" joke. Laugh now, if you want, but think about this: If and when the NCC dies, enjoy long car rides to Winterset on Tuesday nights in January, because that's likely where the Lynx are headed.

Not so funny now, is it?

So, what can be done to stop this collapse? In the short-term, the league's fate lies with the power brokers at Eagle Grove and Clarion-Goldfield, and since I spoke at length with Eagle Grove Superintendent Jess Toliver earlier this week, I'll direct the remainder of this rant towards him and the Eagle Grove community.

Superintendent Toliver, you're doing your students a great disservice by trying to run from the NCC.

Yep, I said it. I stand by it, too, and here's why.

Toliver is pushing for the move because (a) Eagle Grove will be the smallest school in the NCC once Garrigan exits and (b) he thinks the size of the school makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be competitive.

Let's tackle those claims, shall we?

It's true, Eagle Grove's enrollment in grades 9-11 for this school year totals 179, ranking it ninth - 231 students behind Webster City, which is the conference's largest school. Toliver said Eagle Grove plays 18 league basketball games against schools twice Eagle Grove's size; that is far from true. Only Webster City doubles its size.

But that's nitpicking.

Look back at 2002, though, and you'll see similar numbers. Over the last 10 years, only Clear Lake has increased its enrollment while the rest of the league has suffered decreases. Eagle Grove has lost 42 students over that time, but Hampton-Dumont is down 70, Webster City 50, Humboldt 27 ... you get the picture.

Long story short, the size differences aren't dissimilar.

Funny, but I don't remember Eagle Grove screaming unfair standards a decade ago when the Eagles had Ryan O'Hern splashing in 3s for a dominant basketball team. The school wasn't looking for an out when Brett Jensen was breaking ankles with a vicious slider during the Eagles' Class 2A state championship baseball season in 2002, or when it had wrestlers like Reiland and Mark Kist winning state titles.

Sorry, but the "we're too small" argument just doesn't cut it for me.

Besides, every school has its athletic dark ages from time to time. When I came to Webster City in 2000, the Lynx wrestling team was lucky to win one match in a dual, but did the Lynx pack it in? Hardly. The coaches worked. The athletes worked. And now they're the two-time defending conference champions.

And what is Toliver telling his current athletes with his words? I was an athlete, so the competitor in me always comes out, and what I hear Toliver saying to his athletes is "you're not good enough for the NCC."

That's not a pat on the back. That's a smack to the face.

If you think I'm being harsh, well, I've got news for you: I'm not.

On Tuesday, I received a lengthy e-mail from a group of former Eagle Grove athletes - an angry bunch that doesn't agree with the superintendent. The first paragraph succinctly summed up their thoughts.

"By choosing to join the North Iowa Conference, Eagle Grove's character will ring loud and clear - it will echo cowardice," the e-mail began. "By leaving the North Central Conference - one of the most prestigious athletic conferences in the state - the Eagle Grove community is admitting defeat and putting their collective tail between their legs and fleeing to lesser competition."

It continued several paragraphs later.

"The EG school district and its leaders should be reinforcing the ideals of perseverance to their students. Instead they are choosing to wave the white flag. When our kids graduate from EG and enter the real world, they will not be able to opt out of tough competition and choose an easier path like their school district is actively considering. Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child."

Look, the NIC is a great conference, one where the member schools take pride in their athletic achievements. Schools like Forest City, Osage and Mason City Newman have delivered their share of lumps to NCC schools, so it's not like new entrants will jump in and dominate; far from it, most likely.

Throw in the fact that Eagle Grove and Clarion-Goldfield are centrally located in the NCC - they'll both face significant amounts of additional travel in the NIC - and you'll start to understand why the changes just don't make sense.

I'll admit it: I'm trumpeting the future of the NCC. It's been around 88 years and I'd love nothing more than to see it hang around for 88 more.

Eagle Grove, Clarion-Goldfield: the ball is in your court.



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