brett labore/lakeland times

LUHS?freshman Jenna Whitman approaches the ball to make a quick decision in the first half against Shawano Community on Thursday, March 28.
brett labore/lakeland times

LUHS?freshman Jenna Whitman approaches the ball to make a quick decision in the first half against Shawano Community on Thursday, March 28.
Dual concerns have changed what the Great Northern Conference baseball and girls soccer schedules will look like this spring.

Unpredictable early spring weather and an attempt to create more competitive balance are both at play this spring as the GNC adopts weekly home-and-home series between baseball teams and a quasi-conference tournament in girls soccer for the first time. 

“I think it’s a good testing schedule this year,” first-year Rhinelander High School girls soccer head coach Richard Kotula said. “I agree with the schedule. I think it will help to be competitive against the teams we need to be competitive against. It gives the stronger teams a chance to up their game.”

Here’s a closer look at the two biggest schedule changes in the GNC this spring. 

Baseball: Home-and-home series

Since the GNC’s inception, the 12-game conference slate has followed the same pattern — all seven teams play each other once during the first six games of the season, and then again in the final six games of the season. It’s a tried and true format the conference has used in a number of sports featuring double round robins. 

This year, however, the conference has implemented a home-and-home series each week during conference play. Essentially, two teams will get their two scheduled conference meetings out of the way in a span of three days. Team A hosts Team B on Tuesday, and then turns around to play at Team B on Thursday. 

RHS activities director Brian Paulson said the conference’s baseball coaches brought the proposal to the conference’s ADs and principals. The premise is to put each team on equal footing, pitching-wise, more often during the season. 

“You won’t be able to pitch the same pitcher against the same team twice,” he said. 

That’s especially true given WIAA pitch count mandates that went into effect to start the 2017 season. If a pitcher throws 50 or more pitches on a Tuesday, he’s ineligible to pitch again on a Thursday. 

That doesn’t mean a team couldn’t trot its ace out of the bullpen on a Tuesday, especially late in a tight ball game, but it should force coaches to manage their pitching staffs a bit differently. 

“I’ve got some ideas I don’t want to share, but we do have some thoughts on that and how we could change the dynamic with our staff,” RHS baseball coach Joe Waksmonski said. “A team will have to pitch its whole staff against hitters. If there is a drop off between a 1 and a 2, or a 2 and a 3, a team will get to experience that.”

Another added benefit to the format is built-in makeup dates. 

“If you got postponed on Tuesday you get a doubleheader on Thursday with that team,” Lakeland athletic director Phil Updike explained. 

Should there be a rainout on Thursday, it would be up to the two schools to mutually agree upon a makeup date. Barring any non-conference obligations, Paulson said pushing the Thursday game back to Friday or Saturday would be the most likely option. 

Girls soccer: Round robin plus tournament

Like baseball, girls soccer has employed a double round-robin format since its inception in the GNC, except in 2013 and 2018 when abnormally late springs forced the conference to condense the schedule to a single round-robin format. 

This year the GNC will play a 10-game schedule with a bit of a twist. The first seven games in the eight-team conference will be a standard single round robin. But the final three games of the season, the conference will be split into two divisions with the top four teams playing each other, and the bottom four teams playing each other. 

“All 10 games count in GNC standings, but teams in 1-4 group cannot finish lower than 4th, and teams in 5-8 group cannot finish higher than 5th,” conference statistician Gregg Scott explained. 

The format is essentially a carbon copy of what the Wisconsin Valley Conference used to do with its final week when it had nine teams, except the GNC will split into two, four-team divisions based on record rather than three, three-team divisions like the Valley used to.

The change serves two purposes. First, the less compressed schedule adds more potential make-up days to the calendar, in the event of another late spring. Second, it affords teams the chance to pick up more non-conference games and weekend tournaments while cutting down the number of times teams could play on three consecutive days. 

“This year we’re playing non-conference games in Hartford and Pewaukee,” Paulson said, referencing April 5 and 6 games for the Hodags in the Milwaukee area. “It gives us an opportunity to go down there on a Friday-Saturday. If we had a Thursday night conference game that’s scheduled, it makes us think, ‘Do we really want to do a Friday-Saturday?’ Without a conference game there, we can make that schedule happen.”

Not every school has been able to take advantage of that opportunity, however. Lakeland, for instance, has only 20 games on its schedule this year, four shy of the maximum of 24 allowed by the WIAA. The difference: the four conference games the T-Birds lost with the GNC going away from a 14-game, double round-robin format.

“I am not sure if it will benefit us or hurt us when we get into the seeding for playoffs,” coach Stephanie Hartzheim said. “We did struggle to find games to fill our schedule, since we lost a few games from not playing each team twice.”

Aside from the schedule change, the new format provides a chance for a rematch for the conference’s best teams. Last year, Rhinelander allowed only one goal in a weather-truncated conference season, but saw a six-year run atop the GNC snapped in a 1-0 loss to Ashland in the team’s only meeting of the season. 

“I think for the Rhinelander program, it’s a good change,” Kotula said. “I’m excited to see how this plays out and how we can adjust as a team to play in this kind of environment.”

“Looking at it as an activities director, I like this conference tournament because you’re taking 1-4 and they’ll play each other in that conference tournament,” Paulson said. “What I like is competitive games for the top tier and/or the bottom tier.”

Golfers seeing sixes

The final major tweak in the conference schedule this year is a laid back event planned by the GNC’s golf coaches at the end of the season. 

The conference will hold a 6-6-6 exhibition event May 17 at Inshalla Country Club in Tomahawk. 

The event will not count for the conference standings. According to RHS golf coach Adam Schmidt, how the event will work is that golfers will be assigned a partner for the 18-hole match and will play six holes each in a best ball, scramble and an alternate shot format. 

“We thought it would be kind of fun,” Schmidt said. “We’re always talking that we want to do more as a conference and do more with the guys in our conference. It would be kind of nice to have something that’s a little less stressful and a fun event in our conference.”

Schmidt said the event serves a second purpose. Should a leg of the seven-round conference tournament be canceled due to inclement weather, the GNC could scrap the fun event and use May 17 as a make up date. 

Lakeland Times sports writer Brett LaBore contributed to this story from Minocqua.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at