- Two years ago, Lakeland Union started a girls hockey co-op with Tomahawk and Mercer.
The teams had to come together to still be able to form a full-sized team.
"We're having a great season but they all know what they're up against and we push them as far as we can," said Lakeland Union's head coach Steve Bucklew.
But the team knows they will likely never make it to state.
"What disappoints me the most is to see what it could've been and to see what it's going to now," said Bucklew.
The Lakeland co-op lost to a much larger program on Wednesday night in the sectional semi-final. Wisconsin Valley Union is made up of 10 schools from big communities like Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield.
But according to Valley's head coach Dan Bauer, it has to be that way.
"If those schools didn't go together, then there's a bunch of these girls that don't have anywhere to play hockey," said Bauer.
That dead end is now what's happening across the state. A school might have just a few girls that want to play, forcing them to join with another school, or multiple schools to form a co-op.
"We're getting more schools involved, more girls involved, but less programs. We're actually seeing a reduction because of the co-op opportunity," said WIAA hockey liason Tom Shafranski.
For this season, 167 schools formed only 29 teams. Only four of those teams are independent and not co-ops.
"You're seeing less and less teams every year and it's going to continue that way. Pretty soon it's going to be north, south, east and west," said Bucklew.
So when does the WIAA step in to balance things out?
The WIAA leaves it all up to the individual school boards. The association only approves the co-ops, which has always been the case.
"They would really like to not have any criteria involved with co-ops so they can maintain that flexibility in hopes of keeping, especially the small schools, in keeping students at their school," said Shafranski.
But coaches, like Bucklew, think there needs to be different divisions to help the level of competition come playoff time.
As of now, there is only one state tournament bracket for all 29 teams.
"Certainly two divisions is not a potential element at this point in time. We would love to see it grow into that, but we're going to need to get to 50 schools, 60 schools, something in that range," said Shafranski.
Having only one division means each team across the state is battling for one trophy, regardless of their size.
"I don't know if it's best, but I think it's kind of the only solution," said Bauer.
Lakeland's coach believes a solution is growing the youth programs more. But he thinks it is too late to save high school girls hockey.
"I don't think it's going to be a WIAA sport much longer, it's a club sport right now," said Bucklew.
Bucklew is honest when he says he doesn't see a team like his ever making it to state with the current format.
But for others, it's not all about making it to state.
"I just think sometimes we're so hung up on 'we have to get to the state tournament' or 'if we don't make it to the state tournament, our season wasn't worthwhile or meaningless' and I think we've just completely missed the whole idea and value of high school sports," said Bauer.
|Story By: Katie Leszcynski