When Tomah and Sparta meet Jan. 23 in the Tomah Ice Center, it will likely be the last time they face off as high school boys hockey rivals.
The two schools are almost certain to form a hockey co-op next season. Declining numbers at both schools makes the arrangement a necessity, Tomah coach Todd Kirschbaum told the Tomah School Board Dec. 18
“Numbers are way down,” Kirschbaum said.
Tomah started the season with 22 skaters, which isn’t enough to maintain both a varsity and junior varsity squad. The number is expected to drop to 17 in 2018-19.
The situation is more critical in Sparta, which began with just 14 and expects to have just 10 next season. Kirschbaum said most varsity teams rotate nine forwards, four defensemen and a goaltender.
Kirschbaum hopes the co-op will allow the combined program to field varsity and junior varsity squads. He said the projected 27 players “gives us a good number for the varsity and a good number for the junior varsity.”
Board member Jerry Fushianes said it’s impossible to field a contact sport like hockey with a limited roster.
“From a safety standpoint, we have to consider this,” Fushianes said.
Tomah activities director Tom Curran said the two districts must submit their application to the WIAA by April 2. He said the two schools still need work out the logistics of the co-op but added, “I have all the confidence we can make the numbers work.” Tomah already has a co-op arrangement with a girls hockey team based in Black River Falls.
Co-ops aren’t unusual in boys high school hockey as numbers shrink throughout the state. In the Mississippi Valley Conference, La Crosse Central co-ops with La Crosse Logan, and La Crosse Aquinas, Holmen and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau form a three-school co-op. Onalaska doesn’t have a co-op partner, but Curran raised the possibility of Onalaska taking skaters from the two La Crosse schools, where numbers are declining rapidly.
Curran said high schools face competition from junior leagues.
“More kids participate in hockey outside of Tomah,” he said.
If the Tomah-Sparta co-op moves forward, the MVC will be down to four teams for 2018-19.