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Coach Mark Gibson's Bismarck Demons will be among 14 teams in the reclassified Class AAA high school football ranks this fall.

TOM STROMME, TRIBUNE

 Bismarck football coach Mark Gibson is thankful he isn't expected to cut the Gordian knot.

However, when it comes to football reclassification, somebody has to do it, and that somebody is the North Dakota High School Activities Association. And they have to do it not once, but every couple of years.

 "I don't envy Valley City's job -- making these decisions -- at all," Gibson said, referring to the location of the NDHSAA's offices. "You're not going to please everybody, you really aren't. Somebody somewhere is going to be upset."

 The latest reclassification attempt, which takes effect this fall, will have an immediate impact on Gibson and his fellow AAA coaches. Gone are Jamestown and Devils Lake, which are now in the AA ranks.

 That makes for two seven-team AAA regions which, in turn, will lead to three nonregional games for each team.

 "We'll have three nonconference games and six conference games. ... That certainly puts a little more value on every conference game," Century coach Ron Wingenbach said.

  Legacy coach Chris Clements said the nonregional dates worked out well for the Sabers this year.

 "We got fortunate. We have two nonconference games, we go to Dickinson and then we play another nonconference game," he pointed out.

 Gibson said playing two nonregional games at the front end of the schedule, which has been the case in recent years, is a good scheme for a coach.

 "Playing those two nonconference games first is nice. You can get a feel for your team," he observed. "... I'm thankful we have two regions and three nonconference games. Look at AA. They go right into the conference season."

 However, he's not so sure about that third nonregional game. The third nonregional game is a wild card, appearing at a different place in the schedule from team to team.

 "We've done that before when we had seven teams in the West ... and I didn't mind it. ... But I've thought of a couple of things," Gibson said. "No. 1, you can use it to get healthy before a conference game. ... The only drawback would be if you play somebody in a nonconference game the last week (of the regular season) and turn around and play them in the playoffs the next week."

 Although the AA division has adopted Devils Lake and Jamestown, its ranks have thinned from 16 teams to 10. Eight schools have been transferred from AA to A. Thus the AA teams will play a statewide round-robin regular season schedule in the manner of AA American Legion baseball teams.

 For a state encompassing 70,762 square miles, that's going to add up to a lot of travel. For instance, it's 425 miles from Wahpeton to Watford City, a six-hour jaunt. They're both Class AA football schools.

 "I don't know if there is a right answer ... but I wonder how some of the (AA) teams are going to be able to afford the travel," Gibson said. "I thought they might make AAA one (statewide) league."

 With teams tending to migrate down in classification rather than up, Clements says it doesn't take much imagination to foresee a similar situation in the AAA ranks. 

 "Look at AA this year. One division, that's tough," Clements observed. "I can't speak to what's going on in other towns. ... Could it happen (in AAA)? Maybe. Will it happen? I don't know. The teams that would get hurt there are teams like Williston and the Grand Forks schools, due to travel."

  Clements said he's not a big fan of a statewide AAA division with noninclusive scheduling.

 "Will we have to do it? I don't know. Do I want to do it? No I don't, but it all comes down to what the Activities Association dictates. We may not be left with any options."

 Wingenbach said the AAA division, down to 14 schools, wouldn't need much more attrition to make a single statewide division look like a viable option.

 "To be honest with you, I thought that might happen before this (current plan) happened," Wingenbach said. "Montana has a Big 10-like schedule where not everyone plays everyone else in a given year. ... Realistically, that could yet happen (in North Dakota) ... so there will be some questions that will arise in the next few years."

 Montana's big-school football division, Class AA, has 14 teams.

 Gibson said the NDHSAA could do worse than follow the approach of some other states, which try to find a logical breaking point in enrollment and split off the biggest schools. That might mean a 10-, 12- or 14-team big-school division in order to keep the big schools segregated.

 "Where I used to coach in Arizona they have a top league which has the fewest number of schools. ... I think that's probably what's going to happen in the future  -- triple A going to one division. There was talk of that even this time," Gibson said.

 Gibson believes noninclusive scheduling should be considered only as a last resort.

 "That could easily happen, and I'd hate to see it," he said. "If it's going to be one (big-school) league I would hope you'd play everybody. Otherwise there might be some disputes over the No. 1 seed. If you play everybody, then you know."

 With fluctuating enrollments and many other elements to consider, Wingenbach said he doesn't envy the NDHSAA's position.

 "I imagine it's kind of a nightmare for the Activities Association to keep realigning. ... When you start talking about co-ops and schools dropping from co-ops there are a lot of variables that come into play," he noted.

 Clements said serious consideration of Big 10-style scheduling may not be far away.

 "We're not too far from that right now with three nonconference games. ... We're two teams from that happening," he said.

  With reclassification constantly a work in progress, Clements said change is the name of the game in high school football.

 "It's a different kind of poker every two years. Is it five-card stud this year or seven-card stud?" he mused.

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Sports Reporter