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Seasonal struggle: Concerns remain but June state golf tournament here to stay

Girls golfers warm up at the driving range before the 2016 Class AA state girls golf tournament at Lakeview Golf Course. (File photo)

Spring golf is tricky — especially in South Dakota.

No one knows that better than high school golfers, who battle weather elements throughout the season. It's led to a debate on when to start and when to finish the South Dakota High School Activities Association spring golf season.

But the debate now appears to be over for the foreseeable future and it has many high school golf coaches feeling like they are stuck like a golfer in a sand trap.

"The people in the trenches, that being the coaches, have spoken. But the powers that be don't agree and that's how it is," said Parkston golf coach Tyler Hockett, who believes 80 percent of golf coaches across the state don't support a later golf season. That results in the state tournament held in early June — well after graduation and when other summer activites kick in.

"The comment right now is that it's fallen on deaf ears," Hockett said.

This year, the topic of the start and end date for the spring golf season was unanimously opposed by SDHSAA golf advisory committee. But the committee still wanted the item to be voted on by athletic directors at the South Dakota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Conference in Deadwood.

At the conference, the vote was close, highlighting how hotly disputed the topic has remains. The proposed changes — to move the entire golf season ahead two weeks — failed by a 59-54 vote. Class AA athletic directors voted 9-8 in favor of moving the season, which would've resulted in the state tournament taking place back in mid-May. Class A athletic directors voted 28-17 against any change and Class B athletic directors voted 28-23 in favor of moving the season.

Most recently, at the SDHSAA Board of Directors April meeting, no action to change the current format was taken. Those decisions leave the spring golf season as-is, running April to the state tournament in June through 2022.

Impact on play

SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand, who oversees the spring golf season, said since the season was pushed back in 2014, the topic of switching back has come up on an annual basis with a section of coaches. Krogstrand acknowledged the coaches concerns, but stressed the move allows for better weather throughout an entire season (June vs. March rather than June vs. May) while also providing what's best for the student athletes.

"While there are some personal sacrifices that might be made by some with the season date changes, I'd again reiterate the opinion of the golf advisory (committee), majority of AD's and Board of Directors is that the change truly is an improvement on our previous setup," Krogstrand said via email. "At the end of the day, part of the discussion is not just the end-date tournament, but the reflective change in the regular season as well."

Krogstrand pointed out the advisory committee found teams miss less school time and don't have semester testing/finals during the last two weeks of the season. The committee also claimed participation and attendance at region and state meets has been higher, while scores are lower along with better course conditions.

Hockett wasn't buying those claims.

"They are making comments that scores have gotten better and attendance has gotten better. It's not true. Where is the data on that?" Hockett said. "I've talked to many coaches who are furious about it."

The Daily Republic's analysis of the top scores from each of the last five spring state tournaments — two with June dates and three with May dates — shows a sizable drop in scores coinciding with the tournament date change, especially in team play. An average of the top-20 individual scores at the Class A and B girls meet went down by 10 strokes, while the average team score dropped by more than 30 strokes. The same can be said for the Class AA girls, who had the top individual scores improve by 6.3 strokes, while making a 27-stroke improvement in team play.

The Class B boys competition saw the average top-20 individual score go down by nearly four strokes, while the average team score was down 10 strokes.

Platte-Geddes Athletic Director and golf coach Frank Cutler spoke at the April Board of Directors meeting, speaking to move the season so the end doesn't come so far after graduation. Cutler also voted at the athletic director conference to move the season, citing problems the current system creates in his community.

"I think our kids would like to see it finish in the middle of May. But there's not enough statewide support," Cutler said. "There's enough support because of the better weather to stay in early June."

Cutler admitted the last two state tournaments have had excellent weather and golf courses are in much better condition. But he cited other summer activities such as baseball, softball or rodeo along with summer jobs and family vacations that have drove participation down.

"We're seeing some of the kids not participate and do other things rather than finish their season or not even start at all," Cutler said. "Whether that gets past the advisory committee and back as a discussion item with the AD's, I don't know if it will get that far again or not."

A recent change

The push for a later spring golf season came after bad weather plagued the 2013 season. That year, ironically similar to the spring weather South Dakota has experienced this year, weather caused some schools to have as little as two weeks of time on the course prior to playing in the state tournament. In comparison to the fall golf season — when the Class AA and A boys play — teams had as much as eight weeks of playing time.

In 2014, the athletic directors voted 70-42 in favor of moving the golf season back. It would no longer start in mid-March and end in mid-May. Instead the current format, starting the first week of April and ending the first week of June was adopted. At that time, Class AA athletic directors were heavily against the proposal and voted 13-5 against the new schedule, while Class A was 27-15 in favor and Class B voted for the change 32-14.

Hamlin golf coach Tim Koisti, who represents Class B on the golf advisory committee, said he believes the issue won't be going away anytime soon, but added the complaints have been heard.

"Sometimes the vocal ones are not necessarily the majority and I believe that is what happened with the vote," Koisti said. "The advisory committee felt it was best to leave the state tournament in June, but we also had heard from coaches that there were issues. So we decided to send it to the AD's to vote."

Koisti said the decision came down to giving what's best for the majority of the student-athletes.

"It is my belief that a state tournament in June gives them the best chance for good weather and a course that is in great shape," Koisti said. "As far as (participation) numbers dropping, it is a concern, but as with any change it takes time to adjust and I don't believe it will have a huge impact."

A decline in participation numbers is what Mobridge-Pollock girls golf head coach Jason Weisbeck predicts. Weisbeck said he's already seen his golfers affected. He listed Boys and Girls State, volleyball and basketball camps, baseball, softball, local pools as a few of the activities that will deter high school golfers for going out for the sport.

"There's just so much competition after Memorial Day," Weisbeck said. "Competition with the courses, competition with the girls and their schedules. They are pulled in so many directions. I understand the rationale and having nicer weather, but if we are losing kids in the meantime, it's not conducive to the sport."

Weisbeck, who also manages Oahe Hills Golf Course in Mobridge, said the later season makes it harder for tournaments to be held as courses start to fill up in the middle of May. He noted it's now common for teams to limit late-season practices because of other activities going on.

"I understand the weather aspect of it, but most of the other coaches are fathers and educators. They rely on other summer jobs to make ends meet," Hockett said. "It's just been a mess."

Local issue

What makes the situation more difficult is a compromise or middle ground can't be found. Along with graduations that take place throughout the middle and end of May, the state track and field meet is typically held the last weekend of May, while Boys and Girls State events sponsored by the American Legion fall during the next week.

Mitchell High School Activities Director Cory Aadland called the spring golf season debate very unique because each community has different factors in play. There hasn't been any conflicts for the Kernel girls golfers with the later season, Aadland said.

"For us, in Mitchell, we haven't seen that conflict," Aadland said. "I wouldn't say it's hurt or helped us from a numbers standpoint."

Aadland, who voted to keep the schedule as it is, acknowledge the pros and cons for both sides but mentioned the fall boys golf season was moved forward to try and get better weather for the state tournament and added the same should be done for the girls in the spring.

"It's interesting when you have a close vote like this, you usually have larger schools against small schools or East vs. West River," Aadland said. "Those usually draw a line that separates votes, but that's not the case here. It's a unique community by community topic."