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CEC girls hockey to play Class A

The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey team will transition to Class A, effective next season.

It was more a matter of not applying to play up in Class AA, explained Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough. The school board did not vote on the issue or hold any kind of public hearing.

"We just didn't make the application," Scarbrough said.

The girls hockey team had considered dropping out of Class AA in 2015, the last time the application was due, after school board member Jim Crowley asked Cloquet Activities Director Tom Lenarz to poll the players and parents in the program.

It was more an issue of school size, Crowley said at the time, noting that even combined with Carlton and Esko, the enrollment places the Lumberjacks in Class A.

"It's silly for us to compete with teams that have 90 kids to pick from for each age and we have maybe 20," Crowley pointed out in 2015.

According to current rules, programs and combined programs with enrollments of 1,200 students and over must play in Class AA, but programs below that number may "opt up" instead of playing in the smaller-school Class A tournaments.

"It's a common misconception that we've always been Class AA," Lenarz said. "We've always been AA because we opt up, not because that's where we're supposed to be."

Lenarz said the change is something that parents, coaches, administration and the community have been talking about for several years. But two years ago, the parents were fairly evenly divided on the issue, so he chose not to change.

This year, he said some parents approached him. He asked them to see where the other parents stood on the idea.

"It was clear the vast majority of U-10, U-12 and returning varsity players support the decision to stay in single-A for the next two years," he said, adding that people had a chance to speak for or against the idea. "After that, I discussed it with the coaches and the administration and everyone was supportive."

Although he knows there will be people who disagree with the decision, Lenarz said it comes down to fairness for the players, and low participation numbers for girls hockey.

"This is what's best for the kids," he said. "Given the participation numbers in girls hockey, we're at a huge disadvantage when it comes to playing AA teams in the season and, more importantly, in the playoffs. When you ask eighth- and ninth-graders who are working their butts off to line up across from juniors and seniors game after game, it's just not fair. At the end of the day, we need to do what's best for the program."

Scarbrough pointed out this year's boys state hockey championships for Class A and Class AA. Hermantown won the smaller class, and Grand Rapids the larger, the first time two northern Minnesota schools won both classes since 2007.

"If you look at boys hockey and the Hermantown and Grand Rapids teams, I'm not sure it matters what class you're in," Scarbrough said. "There are a lot of tough programs out there.

"Incidentally, we beat Grand Rapids," he added with a smile.

Lenarz hastened to add that the CEC boys hockey team is playing AA hockey for the next two years.