EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second installment in a series examining boys basketball in the Eastern South Dakota Conference.
After holding court as the pinnacle of high school basketball in South Dakota for decades, the Eastern South Dakota Conference has had to adapt to a new era of Class AA basketball.
Ahead of the 2018-2019 season, Class AA scrapped the long-held district and regional tournaments and the top-16 teams in the seed-point standings would play for a trip to the state tournament. That meant the ESD had to drop the double round-robin schedule that had previously comprised 80 percent of the season’s games. The South Dakota High School Activities Association didn’t mandate it, but the goal was to have each Class AA school play each other.
Schools have attempted to maintain home-and-home dates with some rivals -- Mitchell scheduled Huron and Pierre twice the last two seasons -- but nearly two full years into the new setup, not every school has gotten on board.
“Basically what we have in Class AAA football and what is nearly completed in Class AA volleyball, is every team in Class AA plays each team so you don’t have a need for power points,” SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said. “It’s essentially what major colleges did prior to expansion, where you would seed based on head-to-head records. That was the intention, but has not come to fruition and it may never. There are some schools that are playing all the Class AA schools, but some that are not.”
Pierre is the lone boys basketball team slated to play all 17 Class AA teams this season, while Aberdeen Central, Huron, Mitchell and Rapid City Stevens have 16 different teams on the schedule and Brandon Valley has 15.
The four Sioux Falls-based schools each play 14 different teams this season and Harrisburg, Watertown and Brookings play 13.
Some of the West River schools have not followed the scheduling plan, though, as Douglas plays the fewest amount of Class AA teams with eight, Sturgis plays nine, Spearfish has 10 and Rapid City Central has 12.
“People aren’t wanting to play everybody because it’s about the wins,” Mitchell head coach Todd Neuendorf said. “Right now, everybody is trying to get wins and people are dodging other people. It’s not apples-to-apples. We have teams that are higher seeds than we are and they’re not playing the same schedule. I’m not sure how that equates to being fair to everyone.”
When the state split two classes into three in 1986, Class AA declined to implement a one-game playoff like the current SoDak 16 format, believing it did not guarantee the top-eight teams would make the state tournament.
Some also felt the district/region format, coupled with the round robin conference slate, was antiquated when some ESD teams played four times per season.
“You don’t want to see a team four times in a year,” said Ryan Mors, current Yankton activities director and former Huron player and coach. “To me, that’s unnecessary and unwanted. As a high school kid, you didn’t think anything of it because that’s what you do. As a coach, you think a little differently because we essentially cannibalized each other, reducing where you’re seeded.”
Those in favor of the current eight-game ESD schedule believe it may be more difficult to win a conference championship than a state championship because of the miniscule margin of error. But it also does not allow high school athletes room to improve from the start of the season to the end.
No longer are fans guaranteed to see the top players in the conference come to their town each year. Players like Aberdeen Central’s Eric Kline, Watertown’s Jason Sutherland and Mitchell’s Mike Miller were must-see attractions that drew fans to venues, even if they had no rooting interest.
There were also a series of games that fans wanted to see, such as when Miller and the Kernels dueled with Austin Hansen and Brandon Valley in 1997-1998, splitting two regular season games before the Lynx stunned Mitchell in the state semifinals.
“I think it’s normal when you play a conference foe two times a year,” said Hansen, now an assistant coach for Utah State. “As a competitor you always want to play the best and the ESD had very talented players and very good teams.”
The Sioux Falls effect
While some ESD basketball purists believe the move brought the conference down in stature, Class AA felt a shift in power well before scheduling changes, thanks in part to the growing giant in Sioux Falls.
In 2000, Sioux Falls Roosevelt won the Class AA state championship, marking the second title for a Sioux Falls-based school since 1983. Since the new millenium, Lincoln, Roosevelt, O’Gorman and Washington have combined for 13 state titles, including eight of the last 11.
Jay Ellwein graduated from Huron in 1993 with 1,383 career points to his name, but now he travels throughout the state as the co-owner of a wholesale beverage company, along with being a father to up-and-coming athletes in the Tiger basketball program and he sees the future of the ESD being tied to Sioux Falls.
The ESD posted three state championships in the last decade and two were powered by Division I basketball players. Before moving on to Creighton, 6-foot-9 Zach Hanson led Pierre to the 2013 state title and 6-foot-7 Wisconsin commit Matthew Mors guided Yankton to the state championship in 2018.
“The old ESD -- I don’t want to say it’s dying, but it’s struggling to compete at the next level,” Ellwein said. “You look at Mors and he’s carrying Yankton right now, but when he comes through, are they going to have another kid like that to compete with Sioux Falls? Do we have the kids to compete, because we don’t have the class sizes like they have.”
The increase in athletics, though, can be tied directly to demographics. Since the ESD began racking up state titles in the 1960s, the original seven core cities -- Aberdeen, Brookings, Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Watertown and Yankton -- have seen minimal increases in population.
Brookings is the lone outlier with an increase of 132.1 percent, while Huron has declined 3.4 percent in population during that span, according to the United States Census Bureau. Sioux Falls, meanwhile, has gained nearly 120,000 residents, an increase of 177.8 percent.
“Sioux Falls is a financial and medical center,” Aberdeen Central athletic director Gene Brownell said. “People who are in medical and finance are educated people. Educated people are going to have some financial abilities, being white-collar workers than blue-collar workers.
The median household income of Minnehaha County is $59,884, while Lincoln County is $76,094, which combined with proximity, allows Sioux Falls-based basketball players more opportunities for quality travel teams, personal trainers and workout centers.
Meanwhile, the original seven ESD cities have an average household income of $49,462 and all sit below the national average of $63,179, with Pierre ($60,077) being the lone city to come within $10,000.
“I’m not knocking blue-collar people, but the demographics have changed,” Brownell continued. “When you have that many people in the income levels that the Sioux Falls community enjoys, then you’re going to have parents that have time to spend with their children, who can afford to send their children to camps and clinics.”
When Sioux Falls’ newest high school — Jefferson — opens in 2021, it should provide temporary relief in student body size for smaller schools, but the city continues to grow and it projects to have an increase of 40,000 citizens in the next 15 years.
Population is also rising in suburban Sioux Falls districts such as Brandon Valley -- which is nearing 5,000 students -- and Harrisburg, which has surpassed 5,000 and has grown from a town of 300 people in 1960 to more than 6,000 during the 2018 census.
Elsewhere, Tea Area is expected to grow into a Class AA school in the coming years, while more jobs are expected to be added in Rapid City with the expansion of Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Challenges will only increase for ESD schools on the basketball court in the coming years, but there has been strong opposition to placing the largest handful of schools in a separate class similar to football.
“Until such time that data drives that decision and the membership drives that decision, I think everybody is comfortable with the three-class system,” Krogstrand said. “A lot of that may be based on the next three-to-five years as we have a new Sioux Falls high school and we see growth in the Sioux Falls area and what that does or doesn’t do with competitiveness across the state.”
With challenges geographically and demographically, the ESD faces a need to come up with creative solutions to maintain conference prestige, while remaining competitive at the state level.