Realignment ends Esky-Menominee rivalry

ESCANABA –÷ One of the oldest high school football rivalries in the nation will be terminated due to upcoming conference realignments.

Menominee will join the West Pac Conference in 2023, along with Gladstone and Kingsford, in moves that will impact the highly regarded Great Northern Conference and will stop the Escanaba-Menominee rivalry.

“I have no idea when we will play (Menominee) again. It is sad,” said Dave Wilson, who has returned as Escanaba’s interim athletic director following the recent departure of Kristen Farkas. 

“I hope it is sooner rather than later that this game can come back. I am very disappointed to be saying goodbye to Menominee. We need each other so much.”

That GNC trio will join Calumet, Houghton, Hancock, Negaunee and Westwood in the large-school Copper Division of the West Pac. The small-school Iron Division will consist of Bark River-Harris, Manistique, Gwinn, Iron Mountain, Ishpeming, L’Anse and West Iron County.

Meanwhile, Escanaba, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie will join Alpena, Cadillac, Petoskey and Gaylord in the Big North Conference in football. Long-time Big North members Traverse City Central and West are now with the Saginaw Valley Conference.

Esky, Marquette, Sault, Negaunee, Manistique and Ishpeming were in the Great Lakes Conference in the 1960s, then in the mid-1970’s Negaunee, Ishpeming, Manistique, Gwinn, Munising and Westwood formed the Mid-Peninsula Conference.

With shrinking enrollments impacting many U.P. schools, it is possible some WPC Iron Division teams could join the expanding eight-player ranks in the not-too-distant future.

The Menominee-Escanaba rivalry began in 1897. 

Escanaba will maintain its bayshore rivalry with Gladstone, which started in 1904. That series ran until 1962 and resumed again in 1971, shortly after the GNC started operating.

“I would hate to lose Gladstone,” said Wilson, noting the two schools are about 10 miles apart.

“Escanaba is a healthy rivalry,” said Gladstone athletic director Dale Hongisto. “There is no reason not to play Escanaba. Ultimately, it is what the kids want, and they want to play Escanaba. There are no negatives about it.”

The changes will also end the Esky-Kingsford rivalry for one year. 

“We still need Kingsford and Gladstone,” Wilson said.

That series (Esky-Kingsford) has operated since 1941.

The GNC will continue to exist in the remaining sports, basketball, track, cross country, tennis and golf.

Helping fill the updated Esky schedule will be Calumet in 2023 and Grayling in 2024. Escanaba, which started interscholastic football in 1897, has played only two games against Calumet, winning in 1900 and tying in 1919.

Hongisto said the West Pac approached the GNC trio about joining the league. He said a key factor for the WPC is keeping 11-man football operating in the Upper Peninsula.

WPC and three new entrants met at a restaurant in Covington Wednesday to confirm the expansion process, and Hongisto noted that St. Ignace will start playing eight-man football this fall. 

That means there are only 18 11-man teams left above the Mackinac Bridge and 16 of them are West Pac members.

Kingsford will be the largest school in the new West Pac. Gladstone, whose enrollment has been steady around 415 students, will be second largest with Negaunee. Menominee, which joined Gladstone in Division 6 of the state playoffs this fall, has only 370 students.

“Our numbers are staying nice and strong,” said Hongisto, who indicated freshman football may soon return to the school based on higher enrollments in the junior high ranks. 

The Braves had 29 varsity players and 28 jayvee players this past season.

Hongisto said the West Pac football schedule will have conference games in weeks 2-8, with the Braves opening 2023 against Marquette and ending the season at Escanaba.

Staying in the U.P. for football will be better financially for Gladstone which had two games in Gaylord in 2022, including a playoff game.

“We’ll save in transportation costs,” Hongisto said of the WPC alignment.

“Scheduling (football) is one of the first things that come to mind,” Hongisto said of joining the West Pac. “Scheduling has become a lot easier now.”

While the move will help financially at Gladstone, the Eskymos will be paying more to join the Big North, with at least two trips downstate each season.

“Our (Esky) participation numbers are good,” Wilson said, noting it has been tougher to find freshman football opponents in recent years. That may be easier to handle with the Big North move. 

Escanaba, which has an enrollment of 652 students – down from about 1,900 when Escanaba Holy Name closed in 1971 – may also benefit in post-season opportunities by playing downstate next year. Wilson noted Sault Ste. Marie has been 6-3 the past two years without getting a playoff berth because of a weaker schedule.

Escanaba also must address some facility issues at the Athletic Field. The bleacher seats in the grandstands must be improved for the fans. Wilson said ‘The structure is good. The (seating) is structurally good. It is old, but it is iconic. We haven’t given the stadium enough love.”

He said stadium locker room improvements are also necessary, especially in the varsity area. “The air (flow) is bad,” he said. 

Speaking at a Quarterback Club meeting Wednesday at Mo’s Restaurant, Wilson said “The facilities in the Igloo are decrepit. The middle (Igloo) building is in good shape.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today