By BRETT MARSHALL
Just about one year ago, Dighton High School Principal Jim Keenan looked at the landscape of the student enrollment of the Western Kansas Liberty League, comprised of 10 schools primarily north of Kansas Highway 96 and all Class 1A schools that play 8-man football.
Keenan, and eventually the USD 482 Board of Edcuation, determined that being in the WKLL with three of the seven smallest school districts in Kansas was not in the long-term best interest of the district's students and those who participate in a wide-range of activities.
In March, Dighton voted to accept an invitation to become a member of the Northwest Kansas League, and then was joined more recently by Wichita County (Leoti), Greeley County (Tribune) and Wallace County (Sharon Springs) in moving to the NWKL, effective at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
The current NWKL is comprised of Oakley, Oberlin, Hoxie, Quinter, St. Francis and Atwood. In the new NWKL, there will be five schools in 2A (Oakley, Oberlin, St. Francis, Atwood and Wichita County) and five in 1A (Wallace County, Greeley County, Hoxie, Dighton and Quinter).
"There's more stability and more opportunity for our kids in our athletics, our speech, debate, music, forensics," Keenan said in discussing the reasons for making the league jump. "We explored several different leagues (Central Prairie, Santa Fe Trail) and we felt the NWKL was most like Dighton with size of schools, activities that were offered."
Keith Higgins, then principal/athletic director and now superintendent at Wichita County, said his school's reason for leaving the Hi-Plains League drew parallels to Dighton's.
"We'll go from being the second smallest to the second largest," Higgins said of the enrollment numbers for his district. "We've had a good relationship in the Hi-Plains and we've got a lot of history there, so it was a very long thought-out process. We had discussions with the board, coaches and people in the community before making the decision to change."
Higgins cited an example of the fact that the Indians have a wrestling program at the Class 2A school while only three schools in the HPL currently were offering the sport. The NWKL has traditionally had some of the best wrestling in Class 3-2-1A in Kansas.
"Geographically, we've been playing more and more of our district (football) and sub-states (basketball) to the north," Higgins said. "There will be some growing pains with the 10 teams, but we've got a year to plan things out, and I expect it will go smoothly."
The WKLL's remaining schools (Bird City-Cheylin, Brewster, Wheatland-Grinnell, Healy, Golden Plains, Weskan and Triplains) already have accepted Palco, Western Plains-Ransom, Northern Valley and Logan into the WKLL for next year.
Greeley County Athletic Director David Schneider said his school's decision was based solely on the school sizes and the future of those small schools.
"We were concerned that the league (WKLL) could be in jeopardy, and we felt there was a lot of stability with the NWKL," Schneider said. "The fact we get three schools (Wallace County, Wichita County and Dighton) within a 30- to 60-minute drive is a big plus for us."
Schneider said it was not often that schools were in a position to make a league switch while also keeping intact many of the important components of quality competition, not just in athletics but in all academic and other activities.
"We were the biggest school in the WKLL, and now we'll be the smallest, but we feel like the schools are more in line with our overall goals," Schneider said. "I think we will part on pretty good terms with the league, and the other schools understood the opportunity for us to change."
All four schools heading to the NWKL have in recent years played against a number of schools in the Hi-Plains League, and Higgins said he hopes that will continue.
"We'll need to fill in with a number of games, and we hope to be able to continue to play some of those schools in the future," Higgins said. "We hope to keep those games with places like Syracuse and other schools that are close in proximity to us."
The departure of the four schools to the NWKL comes approximately one year after the Great West Activities Conference began its first season of competition.
That league consists of 3A schools Goodland, Scott City, Holcomb and 4A schools Hugoton, Ulysses and Colby. Goodland and Colby had been part of the NWKL, Scott City and Ulysses were in the Mid-State Activities Association while Hugoton and Holcomb were in the Hi-Plains.
When Hugoton and Holcomb departed the HPL following the 2009-2010 season, it added Meade to make it a 10-team league. With Wichita County's departure, that leaves nine schools in the league. In addition to Meade, the remaining schools are Syracuse, Stanton County, Satanta, Sublette, Lakin, Cimarron, Southwestern Heights and Elkhart.