Class B wrestlers say farewell to districts

For 37 years, Howard High School wrestling coach Ken Ruml has guided his team into the district tournament, winning 20 district titles. Next Saturday, Howard and other Class B programs across the state will compete in district tournaments for pre...

Last season before historic change
Laura Wehde/Republic Howard High School wrestling coach Ken Ruml, left, oversees practice earlier this week. Ruml said he is disappointed in a decision made by the South Dakota High School Activities Association to drop the traditional district wrestling tournaments in the state. It's a move that will take effect in 2010.

For 37 years, Howard High School wrestling coach Ken Ruml has guided his team into the district tournament, winning 20 district titles.

Next Saturday, Howard and other Class B programs across the state will compete in district tournaments for presumably the final time and Ruml isn't happy about it.

Citing declining numbers, state athletic directors last spring voted 43-2 to end district tournaments, and a final decision was made when the South Dakota High School Activities Association board voted 8-0 to approve the AD's vote.

"I hate to lose the districts," Ruml said. "We didn't have a choice -- the AD's made the decision. I don't like it but I have to live with it."

Class A teams -- such as Mitchell -- won't be changing, as they traditionally have not had district tournaments. But in Class B, too many teams have too many open weight classes, a problem caused by declining numbers statewide, according to Bob Lowery, an executive assistant director with the South Dakota High School Activities Association. Some district tournaments, said Lowery, have only three wrestlers at certain weights, although each district is expected to advance four wrestlers to regional competition.


"I don't know if it's the wrong or right decision," Lowery said. "The vote was 43-2, so the schools said it was the right decision. If it proves to be the wrong decision, we'll revisit it. But based on how the schools feel, we needed to do what we did."

The number of wrestlers may be down, but the number of schools that still carry the sport has remained almost the same for dec-ades.

In 1979, there were 58 wrestling programs competing in Class B. Today, there are 54.

They gather each February to compete in eight separate district tournaments, six of which consist of seven teams and two of which have six.

The number of Class B teams rose to 61 in 1989 and fell to 56 a decade later.

But it's not about the number of teams; it's the number of kids competing overall.

Dwindling enrollments

"Dwindling enrollments everywhere are a major problem," said John Gilman, an assistant coach at Parkston and a South Dakota wrestling historian. "We used to have 450 kids in high school; now it's only about 150. A lot of these teams only have seven, eight or nine kids, and in the '80s it wasn't that way at all."


As programs struggle to field full rosters, it has caused competitive disadvantages and imbalance during the postseason. Ruml said in years past, West River teams especially have had troubles filling certain weight classes. The result is that some districts have only three or four wrestlers per class in the district tournaments, and all of those wrestlers therefore advance to the regional, whether they win or lose.

Meanwhile, wrestlers competing in other districts don't have that luxury.

Next year, such discrepancies will be eliminated, as all teams will go straight to the regional tournament. The top four wrestlers from each of the four regions will advance to state.

Despite last year's near-unanimous vote of athletic directors, not everybody is convinced this is the best course.

"I'm not in favor of this all, but I'm old fashioned," said Ruml. "There are too many schools. How do you run this tournament? How do you seed it? I've never seen any kind of format for it."

The possibility of a two-day tournament is an option, Lowery said, since a state rule could become a hurdle for one-day regionals. The SDHSAA wrestling rulebook states no wrestler may exceed five matches in one day; in a 14-team region, wrestlers in most weight classes could surpass five matches in a single day.

John Hansen, coach of the Burke-Gregory co-op, said there could be a way around the five-match rule. He said some states use a 30-minute total rule, under which no wrestler can exceed 30 total minutes on the mat during a day. An exception would be granted when a wrestler's final match starts before exceeding the 30th minute.

Hansen, who has coached for 35 years, is happy the state is tossing out districts, but he isn't in favor of two-day regionals.


"Up until this time, I got along with districts," Hansen said. "But there's a trend that's starting that warrants getting rid of it. There's just not enough competition in some districts."

One reason for the decline, according to Hansen: Athletes are focusing on one or two sports instead of being year-round contributors to other school programs.

Cutting divisions

Instead of cutting districts, a different approach to counter the decline of wrestlers in the state would be to cut one or two weight classes, some wrestling coaches say.

In recent years, South Dakota has actually added a class. In 2005, the state adopted a 215-pound weight class.

Lowery, with the SDHSAA, said the National Federation of State High School Associations is considering decreasing official classes.

Still, Lowery doesn't think dropping districts is being done too soon. Instead, he points at the current open weight classes in the dis-trict tournaments and said something needs to be done sooner than later, rather than waiting and hoping for national rules to change.

One thing that won't change is the state will keep four regional tournaments, and the top four wrestlers from each region will go to the state tournament.

Not everyone is convinced it will be a smooth transition.

Ruml thinks it will be impossible at the regional tournaments to correctly seed wrestlers, since each team does not necessarily wres-tle every other team in its region during the regular season.

"We don't see teams like Alcester-Hudson during the year, and we don't see a lot of other teams from our region," Ruml said. "So what are they going to base the seeding off of?"

Money issues

Another potential problem, according to Ruml, is travel and accompanying expenses.

Smaller schools, he said, won't be able to host the larger tournaments like the regions, and teams may have to travel and dole out money for hotels and other costs.

Lowery counters by saying schools may actually benefit financially from the new format.

"At the district tournaments, many times schools take losses after paying the activities association and their expenses," Lowery said.

Last year, the eight combined Class B wrestling region tournaments lost $3,276 after expenditures, while the regional tournaments lost only $679.

Only two of the eight district tournaments made money last year, and neither earned much. After expenses, the tournament held in Tyndall earned $44.46 and the one held in Presho brought in $142.

When each school hosts a district tournament, it pays 20 percent of its profits to the SDHSAA, pays its expenses then evenly splits the remaining losses or profits among the schools in attendance.

In last year's District 5, held in Tyndall, each school earned $7.41.

In District 3, held last year in Garretson, each school lost $178.50.

"There's usually not a lot after expenses," Hansen said. "Financially, I don't know if it's a great benefit to host a regional tournament or not. It's probably not going to be right for everyone, but that's the way it is with most rules."

One activities director who wasn't present at the meeting last spring and did not vote on the subject was Platte-Geddes' Steve Ran-dall. Randall said if he could vote today, he would be in favor of keeping districts, but he can see reasons to end them.

"The thing I liked about the districts is the kids can win a medal at that point," Randall said. "That's what these activities are all about."

Lowery did say that if wrestling numbers increase, the SDHSAA will revisit the idea of bringing back Class B districts. Until then, it's possible a few fans will miss what they consider an exciting round of high school competition.

Others won't.

"I think it's time," said Gary Kortan, a longtime wrestling fan from Tabor who helps put together state wrestling rankings. "I'm not against districts, but I think in the state of wrestling now, if there's only 14 teams in a region, it just makes sense to go to regions only."

Added Gilman: "I wish we could have districts. I wish we had a real strong district of 10, 12 teams in each district. I'm not happy to see wrestling decline. But in the situation we're in now, I guess I'm glad districts are gone."

Luke Hagen was promoted to editor of the Mitchell Republic in 2014. He has worked for the newspaper since 2008 and has covered sports, outdoors, education, features and breaking news. He can be reached at
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