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SD football: Large getting larger, small getting smaller

Avon players, from left, Devin Tolsma, Brandon Kocmich, Jacob Reeves and Clay Lukkes lift the Class 9B 2013 state championship trophy Friday after defeating Hamlin 24-22 at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

Championship week at the DakotaDome in Vermillion has never been so busy, with 14 of the top high school football teams in South Dakota playing for titles over three days.

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The state will crown its seventh champion of 2013 today. That’s the most champions in any high school football season in South Dakota history, a result of an extra class — 11AAA, for the state’s largest schools — added this year.

The season started with 141 teams. That’s 41 fewer than in 1981, the first year of high school football playoffs in South Dakota, when only five champions were crowned.

Some are wondering why the state needs more classes for fewer teams.

“Seven is too many,” former Mitchell High School football coach Bob Sprang said. “I have old-school beliefs and I understand some of the schools have gotten quite large, but when I coached we competed with those teams. I never liked the scenario with the AAA, and it is very hard to me to rationalize the need for it.”

The seven-class system was implemented following deliberations by athletic directors and South Dakota High School Activities Association board members. The current system will stay in place at least through the 2014 season, because the SDHSAA only considers class alignment every two years.

The catalyst for change was unrest from athletic directors at smaller schools in Class 11AA who thought it was unfair they had to play larger schools from cities such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City. The enrollment gap between the bigger and smaller schools in 11AA was wide and grower wider.

So, for the first time this year, South Dakota has a Class 11AAA division with only eight teams: Aberdeen Central, Brandon Valley, Rapid City Central, Rapid City Stevens, Sioux Falls Lincoln, Sioux Falls O’Gorman, Sioux Falls Roosevelt and Sioux Falls Washington. Prior to this season, those schools competed in Class 11AA with smaller schools including Mitchell, Yankton, Pierre and others. Class 11AAA is set to include the top eight schools in enrollment.

“Football is a numbers game,” said SDHSAA Executive Director Wayne Carney. “The purpose of adding a class was to correct the difference between the higher enrollment schools and the lower.”

New format, fresh issues

There are differing opinions on how the new seven-class system has impacted the legitimacy of state titles.

On one side, there is the notion that having seven titles for 141 teams detracts from the accomplishment of winning a state title, while also making the regular season less important by allowing a greater number of teams into the playoffs.

“There is no need for this new class,” said Steve Kueter, activities director and 35-year football coach at Sioux Falls O’Gorman. “I understand that some of the smaller schools in 11AA feel they can’t compete with the bigger AAA, but the larger schools in that division, like Pierre, Watertown and Yankton, need to be in the top division.”

The other side of the argument is that the current format gives a greater number of student athletes an opportunity to be called a state champion. The change allows some schools, especially those in 11AA, a better chance to compete against schools more comparable in size. Thirteen-year Arlington High School football coach Steve Gilbertson is on that side.

“Some fans might feel that having seven classes makes it watered down, but athletics in schools are not there for the fans,” Gilbertson said. “I very strongly feel that athletics are there for the kids and this allows more of them to compete for championships.”

Jeff VanLeur, the 34-year coach at Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan, agrees.

“I think the kids still see the state title as important as ever,” he said. “It’s maybe gotten a little watered down, but it gives two more teams the opportunity to win a state title.”

Population trend drives change

Carney sees the drop in population in rural South Dakota as driving the need for change in the state’s high school football format.

Prior to the 1981 season, South Dakota did not have high school football playoffs. State championships were awarded by voting media and were referred to as “mythical.”

Starting with play in 1981, the SDHSAA instituted a playoff format that included five classes for 182 teams. Under the first state football playoff format, there were 13 teams in the highest division, which was Class 11AA.

Carney said at the time, the number of students at the highest enrollment school in Class 11AA outnumbered the lowest enrollment school two to one.

The increase in populations at Sioux Falls and Rapid City eventually pushed the discrepancy to four to one.

“The shift in football numbers reflects the population shift across South Dakota, with the large getting larger or staying the same, and the small getting smaller,” said SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand.

The SDHSAA uses Average Daily Memberships to determine athletic alignments for member schools. The ADMs are the Jan. 15 enrollment of grades 9-11 and are calculated on two-year cycles. The current two-year cycle began with the start of the 2013 season.

If the SDHSAA had not realigned the classes for the start of the football season and 11AAA and 11AA were still together, Sioux Falls Roosevelt would have been the highest enrollment school with an ADM of 1,580. The lowest of the 18 schools would have been Spearfish, with an ADM of 459. That would have resulted in a 3.44-1 ratio of enrollment between the biggest and smallest schools. Nearly the same ratio exists between the highest- and lowest-enrollment 11AA teams.

States differ

South Dakota has more state champions than most of its neighbors. It crowns seven champions for 141 teams, which means 4.96 percent of the teams will raise a trophy this year. South Dakota’s population as of the 2010 census was 814,180.

Montana is comparable to South Dakota, with a population of 989,415. Its high school sports association governs 143 football teams, two more than South Dakota. Montana awards five championships, meaning 3.5 percent of teams take home a title each year. The five classes in Montana include three for 11-man and one each for 8-man and 6-man.

North Dakota has a population of 672,591 and is set to crown four state champions in football for its 91 teams, which means 4.4 percent of the state’s teams will be champions.

Wyoming has five classes — four 11-man and one 6-man — with 64 teams, which gives 7.81 percent of the teams a state title each year. Wyoming has a population of 563,626.

Minnesota, which has a population of about 5.3 million, awards the same number of state titles as South Dakota, despite having six times as many residents. Minnesota has 386 high school football teams competing across six 11-man classes and one 9-man class.

With seven titles for 386 teams, only 1.8 percent of schools competing in 2013 will win a championship in Minnesota.

Could the addition of another type of football, like 6-man or 8-man, be an answer to limiting the number of championships and allowing smaller schools to continue to field a team without the need of a co-op?

Carney said he has not heard anyone propose bringing 6-man football back to South Dakota. The state had 6-man football prior to implementing a playoff system.

Constant change typical

When state playoffs started in 1981 for high school football in South Dakota, there were three classes for 11-man and two for 9-man.

The breakdown for the 1981 season split 182 teams into 13 11AAA schools, 28 in 11AA, 30 in 11A, 49 in 9AA and 62 in 9A. The names of the 11-man classes were later changed to 11AA, 11A and 11B.

With 11-man teams competing for three titles, the push eventually came for a third 9-man class.

The SDHSAA instituted three divisions for 9-man football in 1999, which were almost evenly filled with 28 teams. That number has remained roughly the same through the 2013 season, despite South Dakota losing 17 teams over the last 12 years.

The teams were lost when schools closed or consolidated, mostly in rural areas. The number of 9-man teams has stayed roughly the same, though, as schools have dropped from 11-man to 9-man competition. Despite having 41 fewer football teams since the playoffs system started 32 years ago, the rise of co-ops means there are only eight fewer schools competing in football.

“You are seeing a lot more co-ops and you are seeing a lot more teams dropping down to the 9-man ranks from 11-man,” VanLeur said.

In 2001, the SDHSAA had 73 teams playing 11-man football. In 2013, there were 58.

That means South Dakota has 15 fewer 11-man teams than it did 12 years ago, but it still added an extra 11-man class.

Playoffs more inclusive

The addition of classes has made the playoffs far more inclusive, or less exclusive, depending on one’s viewpoint.

“There were times when we missed the playoffs after an 8-1 season,” VanLeur said. “We didn’t complain and that’s just the way it was before changes started. Adding the number of playoff spots gives more teams a shot.”

In 2013, 96 of the 141 football teams in the state — 68 percent — were part of the playoffs, up from 40 of 182 teams — 22 percent — in 1981.

All but 10 of the 58 teams in 11-man made the postseason this year, including every team from Class 11AAA and Class 11A. Four teams in 11AA that finished with a losing record played in the postseason, including Harrisburg (3-5), which hosted a first-round game. The playoffs in 9-man included a 3-5 De Smet/Iroquis squad and several teams that ended the season 4-4.

More teams get a chance to experience playoff football in South Dakota with this format, but it can be argued that the importance of the regular season is diminished with so many spots available.

“With our numbers coming down, the board needs to take a look and see if we can’t do something else,” VanLeur said about the number of teams making the playoffs under the new format.

‘Co-oping’ with change

As the population in smaller towns has decreased and roster spots have become more difficult to fill, SDHSAA member schools have created cooperatives for football.

The need for co-ops has increased substantially since the first teams combined prior to the start of the 1983 season.

Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan coach VanLeur led one of the original six co-ops when Spencer High School joined forces with Emery High School in 1983.

The six co-ops were comprised of 12 SDHSAA member schools, according to Carney, and in just 10 years, the number of co-ops ballooned to 24 teams from 48 schools.

At the start of the 2013 season there were 30 co-ops from 63 schools, with some teams, such as Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan, being comprised of three schools.

Of the 30 co-ops currently participating in South Dakota football, only six compete in 11-man.

“Most schools are not co-oping to develop powerhouse programs,” Carney said. “They are co-oping because they just don’t have the numbers to have the program by themselves.”

Football vs. other sports

The number of championships awarded to football teams in South Dakota far outpaces most other sports.

For example, there are 160 volleyball teams in South Dakota — 19 more than football — that use the same enrollment numbers for classification. Yet there are only three state titles awarded in volleyball.

There are 91 teams in Class B volleyball alone, which is more teams than football’s three 11-man classes and football’s 9AA class combined.

Volleyball is not unique. Other than football, no high school sport in South Dakota awards more than three state titles.

Carney said football’s class structure is likely to be a continuing issue.

“Obviously, it is something that our board of directors voted in,” Carney said. “We are all set for this year and next, but in the meantime I will meet with an advisory committee and we will see what direction it takes.”