GRAVES: Rarity of ESD success proves new playoff system neededOne of the pitfalls of writing a timely piece for a daily newspaper is that on occasion, you must write about an event that will be over by the time the article is published but remains in the future as you write. Thus, as I write this, I am unaware of the outcome in the football playoff game between the Mitchell Kernels and Sioux Falls Washington.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell public schools superintendent
One of the pitfalls of writing a timely piece for a daily newspaper is that on occasion, you must write about an event that will be over by the time the article is published but remains in the future as you write. Thus, as I write this, I am unaware of the outcome in the football playoff game between the Mitchell Kernels and Sioux Falls Washington. (A more superstitious man would find something in the fact that we are playing a team whose school colors are orange and black on Halloween, but even then I’m not sure for which side that would be a good omen.)
Since I really can’t say much about a game yet unplayed, let me talk about one the outcome of which is known. I am a bit ambivalent about adding yet another story about the MHS football game against Sioux Falls Lincoln on Oct. 7 (after all, too much Kernel self-adulation can step perilously close to poor sportsmanship), but here goes anyway. I have been watching high school football games pretty consistently since 1978, with just a four-year hiatus during college. That means I have been watching high school football regularly for just shy of 30 years, and the game on Oct. 7 was the most exciting game I have ever witnessed.
It was a rather special event even without the particularities of the game itself. South Dakota State University’s band came to play and all but filled the field. During the third quarter, the rain and lightning that had threatened much of the evening finally let loose, leaving a game tied at 29 unresolved for the better part of an hour while the stands stood empty. Due to the increasingly late hour, our band’s “lights-out” show had to be postponed until Oct. 14. Throughout the evening, at least two different species of truly enormous beetles, one of which I had never seen before, dropped from the sky onto the home stands. And, no, I am not kidding. Standing there watching the game and supervising various student groups, I began to mentally tally just how many of the ten plagues of Egypt we were encountering that night. More to the point, I began to wonder just what these portents portended.
Several days after the game, which, in case you have been living under a rock, the Kernels won 50-49, The Daily Republic reported that the ESD Conference schools were all delighted to hear the news that an ESD school had managed to defeat a Sioux Falls school. If the story was correct and the ESD schools are truly feeling it is a feat sufficiently unique to merit celebration throughout the conference, this tells us something. So does the fact that, as the DR also reported in that story, it was the first and so far only victory of an ESD school over a Sioux Falls school in football this year.
What these tell us is that it is time, probably past time, to start looking at a different schedule, or playoff system, for football competition in South Dakota. Before I launch into such unknown territory like Dante sans Virgil or Beatrice, let me first freely admit that my knowledge of football is poor. I’ve never played any organized football and I still rely on crowd reaction and friends’ explanations of the meaning of various flags and penalties.
But here’s what I do understand. Football is a game of numbers. When you have a large team, you can commit students pretty exclusively to offense or defense or even special teams. This means your students have periods of respite between the bursts of activities that typify the sport. A smaller school, in comparison, must use players for more than just offense or defense or special teams. Such “doubling-up” players become fatigued more quickly and the team becomes less competitive. Add this to the numbers games which affects every sport or activity — the team with more students to select from will statistically be more likely to have a deeper pool of talent from which to draw — and the inequity leads to the sort of win-loss records we are now seeing between the ESD and Sioux Falls.
And, while win-loss records are important, they aren’t really the most worrisome part of this inequity in numbers related to football. Rather, this would be the potential for more frequent and more serious injuries to student players. If Sioux Falls teams have a greater pool from which to draw students, tend to field larger players, and are able to allow their players to specialize and thereby keep them rested while ESD players are more fatigued, does this mean that ESD players are being put into competitions that increase their likelihood of injury? Though I don’t know of any statistics that exist on this issue in South Dakota, the logic seems unassailable. An additional concern is that over time, participants may shy away from a sport at which their school is typically less competitive, compounding the problem and turning many young men away from a program which can have a profoundly positive impact on their lives.
One solution to this that has been suggested is the creation of another level of football competition which might include the four Sioux Falls schools, the two Rapid City schools, and a few other high schools as they grow to the size of the Sioux Falls schools. Another would be to have some of the very largest schools in the state compete outside our state’s boundaries, where they can find competition more in line with the size of their student body.
I am not fit to really assess the validity of either of these solutions. (I am not a football aficionado; remember, this is the guy who was watching bugs drop out of the night sky on the most exciting game of 30 years of spectating.) But I do know this much: the current system is not working and it poses a current and perhaps increasing danger of getting young men needlessly hurt on the field and pushing them away from the sport. Some sort of change needs to be made and needs to be made soon. The lopsided records already occurring in South Dakota football should be more than an adequate two-minute warning.
As I say this, of course, the best counter to my argument is the fact that the Mitchell Kernels this year are, in fact, viable contenders for the state title. It will not surprise me in the least to find the Kernels triumphant this morning and myself watching our team prevail at the DakotaDome two weeks from now. In truth, I’d much rather win these final two games than win this argument.