Column: High school free agents

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 7, 2006

John Focke, Behind the Mike

Earlier this week the St. Paul Pioneer Press voted the issue of open enrollment its high school story of the year, and the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has formed an ad hoc committee to look into the issue.

Open enrollment, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, allows students to attend schools outside the school district they live in.

The program has been around since 1987, and was set up to allow students seeking a better education to transfer schools.

What has ended up happening over the past 10 years though is open enrollment has become a sort of free-agent frenzy for high school athletes since they can transfer without losing eligibility.

There are many documented cases of athletes, mostly in the metro area, transferring from a school with a mediocre athletic program, to one with a better program to enhance their chances at gaining an athletic scholarship.

I was able to witness this first hand at the state wrestling tournament.

The Albert Lea Tigers, a team made up of athletes from Albert Lea, Glenville-Emmons, and Alden-Conger, took on Apple Valley in the state championship.

As I sat next to John Hansen and we went over the roster it read like an all-star team.

There was last year’s state champ who transferred from Roosevelt, last year’s state champ from Alaska, last year’s runner-up from Jefferson.

The list went on and on, it was hard to find two kids who grew up in Apple Valley and worked their way through the program.

On the other side there

was Ben Berhow, the state heavyweight champ, who Tiger fans have watched progress through the wrestling, football and baseball programs since his youth, not to mention Hansen had a picture of the Youth Albert Lea team which featured almost all the seniors on the squad.

Not only does open enrollment take away spots on the team from kids who have put in the time with a program, but it also kills the fan base which is one of the reasons high school sports is so much fun.

At the Excel Energy Center, Albert Lea fans packed two whole sections to cheer on the Tigers.

There were alumni from many years back who made the trip to watch the finals, and even some from as far away as California listening to our broadcast of the match.

In contrast Apple Valley fans made up half of a section.

This is not to bash them for being bad fans, but rather to show how packaging an all-star team makes it tough to build a fan base, and that was evidenced on championship night.

Open Enrollment also makes it tough for alumni to feel a sense of loyalty to their alma mater.

Students seeking a better education in the past have used open enrollment, however there are more times, recently, when it has been used for athletic gains, and the MSHSL has decided that must stop.

High school sports are becoming a big business; one needs to look no further than the AAU programs that allow kids to play a certain sport year round.

Or at the amount of information one can gather on high school athletes who are being recruited by colleges.

The MSHSL has looked into many different rumors of recruiting, and complaints by coaches, and parents over the years about this rule and decided to act on them.

Recently Wisconsin’s WIAA (the equivalent of the MSHSL) voted 269-76 in favor of changing open enrollment rules, by taking a student’s eligibility if they transfer.

I think Minnesota should follow their lead, of course allowing for some exceptions.

But I hope that will cut down on the number of transfers and bring back the school spirit to some schools that have become nothing more than college athlete factories.

The MSHSL has enough on its hands trying to make sure that high school students live up to the &8220;student&8221; part of the phrase &8220;student athlete&8221; they do not need to become a new branch of the NCAA as well.

(John Focke is the sports director at KATE. His column runs every Friday.)