Thanks to the two-year remodeling that is section realignment by the Minnesota State High School League, the Section 4, Class 2A football bracket just became one of the most respected.
Along with 2003 Prep Bowl champion Breck and last year's section winner Braham, the 2004 Prep Bowl winner Pierz just moved in.
The Pioneers, who won the Section 8, Class 2A title last year, join their third section in six years.
"We're not going to the Fargodome anymore, that's a bummer," said Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp. "I kind of had a feeling this was going to happen. I saw Pelican Rapids was moving down, Mahnomen was moving up and Breckenridge needed a section so I figured we were out of Section 8.
"Then I saw Royalton dropped down to 1A so I figured we would either replace them or go up with Esko. We just ended up taking Royalton's spot."
In the 2003 state tournament, Pierz lost to Breck in the semifinals. The Pioneers also used to play in the Great River Conference with Braham, Rush City and East Central. Pohlkamp even figured he could remember the roads to those schools.
"It's very hard to jump sections like we have," he said. "We're not going to have any common opponents. When we were in the section with Holdingford and Eden Valley-Watkins, we knew those teams. We played them during the regular season.
"Now we're going to be looking for scores on the Internet and reading season preview stories from papers just to get information on these teams."
A rematch of last year's Class 2A Prep Bowl takes place the Wednesday before playoffs when Pierz faces EV-W. Pohlkamp believes both teams could be undefeated before the rematch.
The Aitkin Gobblers benefited the most from section realignment by dropping down a class. Instead of playing International Falls or Hermantown in the Section 7, Class 3A playoffs, Aitkin will battle Esko, Moose Lake-Willow River and Pine River-Backus, which moved from Section 8, Class 2A, for the Section 7, Class 2A crown.
"What this does is it gives us an opportunity in the playoffs," said Aitkin coach Scott Miller. "Of course we're going to be playing tough teams like the Moose Lakes and Eskos, but these are teams we don't have a history of losing to. We're not going to go into these games thinking we can't win, which maybe was the case against Hermantown and International Falls."
Miller expects the shift to 2A to be a two-year stint. He said Aitkin's enrollment should rise, meaning a bump back to 3A.
The Gobblers will remain in the Great River Conference. Miller envisions Braham, East Central and maybe Rush City as potential front-runners.
The third-year head coach isn't worried about not playing section opponents during the regular season. Other than Crosby-Ironton, Aitkin didn't play any Section 7, Class 3A opponents last year.
The PR-B Tigers will remain in the North Star Conference, but that could change in 2006 with the departure of Clearbrook-Gonvick, said Tigers head coach Randy Schwegel.
Despite remaining in the Section 7, Class 3A bracket, the C-I Rangers opted out of the Sea Range Conference. New Ranger head coach Mike Gindorff said travel was the main reason. C-I's closest conference game was 100 miles away.
The Rangers will play an independent schedule against teams like Aitkin, Deer River, Braham and Greenway. C-I has just seven games on its regular-season schedule with an open date the Wednesday before playoffs.
Gindorff hopes to join either the Great River or Polar North conferences next year.
The Northern Lakes Conference will lose Staples-Motley in 2006 as the Cardinals will transfer to the West Central Conference with Albany, Melrose and Sauk Centre. The Pequot Lakes Patriots also want out of the Northern Lakes.
The Pillager Huskies will face different teams this year in their Section 6, Class 1A playoffs. In are Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, Osakis and Northland-Remer. Out are Ottertail Central, Cass Lake-Bena and Nevis.
Nevis dropped in the Section 4, Nine-Man bracket with perennial favorite Verndale.
"Anytime you lose a team like Ottertail Central, which was one of the best teams in Minnesota the last five years, it helps us," said Pillager coach Derek Schlieve.
Pillager still plays OTC during the regular season.
JEREMY MILLSOP can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.
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