The idea of a co-op team was created with the intent to offer smaller enrollment schools a chance to participate in a sport that they normally wouldn’t have been able to by themselves.
But since the co-op’s inception in WIAA gymnastics in 1982, the number of teams, and athletes, has dwindled. Because of this, the WIAA Board of Control voted 8-1 on a new rule that states co-ops that compete in the postseason must either have a maximum of two schools, or a total combined enrollment that is smaller than the largest single team in the division.
The rule doesn’t take effect until the 2019-2020 school year, which will allow teams time to decide the next step to take.
The WIAA has 125 schools that offer gymnastics, but the number shrinks to 80 total teams with co-ops, according to Karen Kuhlmann, former longtime Holmen High School gymnastics coach and president of the Wisconsin High School Gymnastics Coaches Association.
“For many years this has been a concern that these co-ops are continuing to grow, but they are being formed by big schools instead of its original intent,” said Kuhlmann, who coached Holmen gymnastics for 33 years.
The rule change affects Division 1 co-ops, while not those in Division 2. Teams like Division 1 Waukesha, which is composed of four Waukesha high schools, will have to separate while teams like Division 2 West Salem/Aquinas/Bangor will remain intact.
“I am for it,” West Salem coach Carrie O’Hearn said of the new rule. “It’s not going to affect us at this point. If those big teams break up, people will bump up from Division 2 to Division 1 and I honestly have no idea where it will put us, but we’ll be able to keep our co-op as a whole.”
In a perfect world, the new co-op rule would create room for more teams, and gymnasts, to partake in the sport.
Each team is allowed five varsity and five junior varsity spots, regardless of the size of the schools represented in each co-op. Because of the limited space, potential athletes in larger schools may miss the opportunity to participate in the sport.
“It forces us to look to every level of gymnast,” Kuhlmann said. “A lot of time they (teams) have one or two very strong girls and then some middle level and some lower level, and that’s what high school sports are really about— it’s about allowing all levels to participate.
“With the number of kids who compete in a big co-op, they can’t give all of the kids an opportunity to (compete).”
Viroqua/Cashton/De Soto coach Darcy McClelland echoes similar thoughts when it comes to allowing more girls an opportunity to compete.
“I had taken a manager that came into our gymnastics program and she was competing in vault her sophomore year, so they (gymnasts) are out there,” she said.
“There’s always an athlete there somewhere that needs to compete, they just need to be given the opportunity.”
With the new rule not taking effect until after next season, teams in both divisions will remain intact — for now.
All local co-ops will remain as one, but the new co-op between Onalaska/C-FC/G-E-T/Melrose-Mindoro could be testing the new waters. But since the team is under a one-year co-op contract, things may change before the new rule takes effect.
It’s no secret that co-ops between large schools had become an issue, but that wasn’t the only place there were challenges.
While the future of gymnastics appears to be solid with a growing number of teams and an increase in competitors, the rule may help increase participation across the spectrum, as in different sports.
“We’re hoping the outcome of this is to rejuvenate and bring our sport back up in numbers and make it competitive for everyone, that was the intent of it,” Kuhlmann said. “It starts with gymnastics, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t where it’s going to end.”