Sophia Castillo | staff writer
If accepted, Wabaunsee could be part of the Flint Hills League in the 2024-2025 school year.
With the Mid-East League merging with the Big Seven, the five remaining schools are left to decide their next steps.
Rock Creek started the shift when it decided to leave the Mid-East league in the spring of 2022 to go to the North Central Kansas League. Rock Creek made the decision based on its growing enrollment (at 380 students this year, it’s almost 60 percent larger than Silver Lake, the second biggest MEL school).
That left a league of five, which makes it hard for other schools to fill their schedules and is not sustainable in the long run. The MEL reached out to multiple schools to join the league, but didn’t expand.
The other four remaining schools — Riley County, Silver Lake, Rossville and St. Marys — are taking steps to merge with the Big Seven league. Located north and east of the current MEL, the Big Seven includes Hiawatha, Holton, Royal Valley, Jeff West, Perry-Lecompton, Sabetha, Nemaha Central and Riverside, who is leaving the league. The new league could recieve a new name when the additional schools join.
Administrators and the school board decided that the Big Seven wasn’t the best option for WHS.
After researching potential leagues, athletic director Jeron Weisshaar presented options at the February board meeting. His findings showed that the Flint Hills League is more equitable in terms of location and school size. There are five 2A schools and three 3A schools in the FHL and the average travel time is an hour.
The league includes Northern Heights, Chase County, Council Grove, Mission Valley, Lyndon, Osage City, West Franklin and Central Heights.
After a board discussion, USD 329 sent a letter of interest to the Flint Hills league to visit with them about membership. The league plans to meet and decide later this month whether to extend an official invitation.
If the Flint Hills League doesn’t accept WHS, administrators would have to weigh other options. Although not exactly lined out, WHS would have to consider going along with the merger with the Big Seven. Joining would leave WHS about 200 kids smaller than the biggest school.
Another option could be to look at other leagues that are similar to the Flint Hills League, although the options would include a significant increase in travel time.
How would league change affect individual programs?
We asked coaches how a move to the Flint Hills League could impact their programs.
Football already competes independently of the MEL, and the current KSHSAA district system leaves four games to schedule independently. Coach Jess Rutledge said the priority would probably be to fill those spots with league schools, several of whom we regularly play already.
Coach Chris Smart said he would be sad to see current rivalries go away, but that we already play several Flint Hills schools throughout the season.
Cross Country, Track
Coach Roger Alderman said the change would only affect the league meets at the end of the season. We would still schedule a variety of opponents throughout the season, including current MEL and FHL schools.
Both boys and girls coaches cited scheduling as the biggest change. “By changing leagues we will have more teams on our schedule that have the same size of enrollment as us. For example, instead of playing in a mid-season tournament at Royal Valley against 3A and 4A opponents, we will play in a league tournament against 1A and 2A opponents,” girls coach Trevor Keller said. Boys coach Christian Ulsaker said “If we join the Flint Hills league we would only play each league school once and then a league tournament.”
Softball and Baseball
Coach Joe Dee Tarbutton said he’s in favor of the change. “The school sizes will match up better. It is tough to field a softball team with 9 players on the field out of about 100 students. I will never run from competition, however this will just be a better fit overall.” While some have cited the strength of competition as a reason to stay with MEL schools, Tarbutton didn’t agree. “Mission Valley softball and baseball came out of the league and won 2A State last year, so it’s not like you can’t prepare playing in that league. They have some very good teams.” Baseball coach Lance Fuller said WHS would likely be more competitive against similar sized schools.
Wrestling would be most affected at the league tournament. WHS currently cannot fill every weight class for either boys or girls teams, so smaller competition could help us as far as team scores.
WHS is the only MEL team that regularly has girls tennis (Rossville recently had a co-op with Hayden). That wouldn’t change in the FHL, as no teams have tennis. WHS is looking to compete in the NCKL, as it competes against those schools throughout the season.
Scholars Bowl, Forensics and Music
For scholars bowl and forensics, coach Brendan Praeger said the move would only affect the league meets. “We’ll be competitive anywhere in scholars bowl, and forensics is individualized enough that it shouldn’t matter.” For band and choir, director Jamie Rogers said the change wouldn’t be big. The FHL hosts a league festival at Emporia State each year, which would replace MEL band day.
Junior high sports would receive the same benefits as high school sports, mostly facing similar-sized schools. A big change would be in basketball, as the FHL boys and girls basketball teams compete from November-February, rather than a split schedule.