CIML: Changes Impacting Modern Landscape

In 2017, competing in this league has become a whole new ballgame

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When the Fort Dodge football team won at West Des Moines Valley in 2010 to clinch the CIML Iowa Conference championship, nearly 2,000 Dodger fans in attendance celebrated an undoubtedly-momentous occasion.

It took all of the Dodgers’ heart and soul — and their best teams in 15 years — to take the Tigers down on the gridiron for the second consecutive season. The accomplishment was unequivocally impressive, but in reality, completely anomalous; in the other 23 meetings between the two programs since FDSH joined the CIML in 1992, Valley is 22-1.

All of those games were racing through my mind last Friday night, when the Tigers turned a 10-point deficit into the almost-inevitable 59-14 rout inside Dodger Stadium. I’ve seen all but four of the head-to-head contests in person, and although they all kind of blend together now, the general theme is as clear as ever:

What are we doing here?

In 2016-17, Valley sported 2,848 students in grades 9-12. By comparison, Fort Dodge had 1,138 — almost exactly 60 percent less than VHS.

This, per se, isn’t necessarily a new development; Valley has been the largest school in the state for quite some time, and significantly bigger than FDSH dating all the way back to 1992-93, when the Dodgers officially became members of the CIML after the Big 8 dissolved.

What has changed, though, is the disparity between the Fort Dodges of the conference and the size of its top-tier schools. And there are a slew of them now.

Valley ranks No. 1, but it has company. In grades 9-12, Waukee — a Class 2A program in ’92-93 — had 2,435 students last year. Johnston has gone from 3A to 2,085. Southeast Polk, from 3A to 2,006.

Twenty-five years ago, Ankeny had just 12 more students than FDSH at the high school level. Today, the two Ankeny schools — Ankeny High and Centennial — have 3,021 students in grades 9-12 combined, which is well over two and a half times more than Fort Dodge. Ankeny is currently the third-fastest growing community in the entire country, and both of its high schools rank in the top half of 4A in enrollment.

West Des Moines Dowling — the four-time defending 4A state football champion — hasn’t even been mentioned yet, despite its always-intimidating presence. And despite its recent move to the Little Hawkeye Conference, Indianola — a CIML school in ’92-93 — has actually grown by over 85 percent at the high school level.

During this quarter-century of Des Moines-area growth, Waukee’s grade 9-12 enrollment has increased 745.5 percent. Johnston’s is up 219.3. Ankeny, 145.4. Southeast Polk, 111. Even Valley is almost 40 percent bigger.

Fort Dodge has done an impressive job of staying relevant in football specifically — the shift to district play has helped — and the CIML in general. The Dodgers have secured conference championships through the years in wrestling, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and tennis. There have been memorable moments and monumental victories. The school has truly embraced its underdog role, defying logic and even making title waves in isolated doses at the state level.

With that being said, today’s CIML landscape is vastly different than it was 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Fort Dodge isn’t shrinking, per se, but the competitive environment around it continues to explode at an overwhelming pace. Waukee will split by 2021. Norwalk and Dallas Center-Grimes are now the two biggest 3A schools; their 4A membership is an inevitability, and CIML invitations may soon follow.

I have nothing but respect for Fort Dodge’s willingness to take on the biggest and best. It’s always been the Dodgers’ hallmark: not backing down from a challenge.

As that challenge becomes more daunting by the year, though, where does FDSH’s athletic department fit, realistically, in this CIML arms race moving forward? Does it make more sense to explore other conference options, so that the Dodgers are only expected to contend with these schools at state competitions rather than on a nightly basis?

What are we doing here? It’s a legitimate question, given the facts and figures in front of us in 2017. Seven of the state’s nine largest high schools reside in the CIML now, and that doesn’t even include Ankeny High, Ankeny Centennial or Dowling. Marshalltown, Mason City, Ottumwa and even Urbandale and Ames are in similar territory of shaky sustainability when it comes to conference relevance now compared to a decade or two ago.

This is a numbers game, but also, a resources battle. While Valley, Waukee, Johnston, Dowling, Southeast Polk and the two Ankenys continue to one-up each other in both enrollment and investment, the remaining 11 CIML athletic departments are left to wonder where they stand.

With sports specialization soaring and overall participation dwindling, the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. Fort Dodge has the competitive spirit to fight the good fight. For the sake of our kids and the future of their development, though, the question must be asked: will that be enough?

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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