EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the third and final installment in a series examining boys basketball in the Eastern South Dakota Conference.

Eastern South Dakota Conference schools are now embroiled in a battle with numbers, meaning taking a more active role in developing players at a younger age has become crucial to stay competitive in Class AA boys basketball.

Cities such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City have the enrollment numbers to allocate kids into a variety of activities such as basketball, wrestling, hockey, band and other extracurricular activities and have enough quality athletes and teams to go around.

Those factors have resulted in more underclassmen playing varsity sports than ever before. Mitchell currently has 10 sophomores or freshmen on the roster, while the Kernels had a total of six in Gary Munsen’s final five seasons combine and four went on to play college basketball.

There are 74 underclassmen playing for Class AA varsity basketball teams, and 49 of those players are on the teams from the eight smallest schools in terms of average daily membership: Douglas, Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Sioux Falls O’Gorman, Spearfish, Sturgis and Yankton. Meanwhile, the three Sioux Falls public schools and both Rapid City schools -- each of which have more than 1,300 ADMs -- have a total of nine.

“We can’t just take the kids that come to us, we have to be more involved with developing our youth programs,” Mitchell activities director Cory Aadland said. “We have to be more involved from the third grade on. We need to do things better than the Sioux Falls schools are doing when it comes to those development programs, because we don’t have the luxury of the volume of kids.”

Fewer kids participating in each activity comes with fewer parents in the crowd, so schools like Mitchell have attempted to find more ways to intertwine a variety of activities, such as having the pep band play during more basketball games or bringing in local dance studios to perform at halftime.

When the girls basketball season was moved to the winter in 2002-2003, it also fractured crowds, as boys and girls frequently play on the same night in different locations. That also means several parents must choose between two games, particularly if they have a child on both teams.

Class A and Class B schools have moved to playing doubleheaders to combat dwindling crowds and some Class AA schools are in favor of doing the same. Some schools oppose the idea, but the biggest snag is finding time and space to play as many as nine basketball games in one location on a weeknight.

“We’re exploring the idea of playing a split-doubleheader, where we play our junior varsity and varsity games on one night and our freshmen and sophomore games on another night,” Aadland said. “I don’t know if that’s the ultimate solution, but it’s another format that we can hopefully look at to leverage the benefits of the varsity side and mitigate some of the other challenges.”

Spicing up the ESD schedule

Focusing on competing more with the larger Class AA schools also creates the potential for traditional ESD rivalries to diminish, particularly with a schedule predicated on playing each team in the class once.

One idea bandied around when the ESD agreed to drop the round-robin format was playing an end-of-the-year conference tournament similar to tennis and track and field.

Mitchell head coach Todd Neuendorf sees an opportunity for kids to play in packed gymnasiums at a yearly rotating site and an event to replicate the state tournament before the state tournament begins.

“It’s something fun for the kids,” Neuendorf said. “... Are we doing what’s best for kids? Not what’s best for fans. I think it would promote our conference. You’re putting kids in front of a good crowd, in a great venue and you’re letting kids have an experience they don’t normally get.”

The idea was ultimately dropped by the conference’s athletic directors due to a myriad of reasons. Yankton activities director Ryan Mors did not believe in the tournament proposal due to the potential of playing one team three times in a single season. Having nine teams in the conference also created matchup issues in a three-day plan, although ideas of rotating the eight teams or taking the top-eight teams in the standings were proposed.

“The concept is interesting, but if we only have a 20-game schedule and you’re going to play everybody in the ESD already, then you’re wasting three more games on repeat opponents,” Mors said. “I would not be in favor of it, plus there’s nine teams and it’s impossible to play a nine-team tournament in three days.”

“I don’t buy the thing about playing somebody four times because there’s only 18 of us,” Neuendorf said. “I’ve been in this 25 years and we’ve done that numerous times. It is what it is. With film right now, there’s no secrets. When you call something, the other team knows it as well as you do.”

Fitting three games into a schedule designed to be filled with 17 games against Class AA teams -- eventually 18 when Sioux Falls Jefferson -- was the main snagging point for many schools.

“We would have to go to more than 20 (regular-season) games,” said Randy Marso, Brandon Valley activities director and the ESD’s secretary. “I really like the idea of an ESD tournament, but the details would have to be really ironed out and the main thing would be getting an extra game or two to be played. The Sioux Falls and West River schools are counting on a South Dakota schedule.”

Currently, each SDHSAA basketball program can play a maximum of 20 regular-season games, but each class differs once the postseason arrives. Class A and B teams that make the state tournament can play as many as 26 games, while Class AA schools play a maximum of 24 games under the SoDak 16 format, and only if they reach the state tournament.

“There are some ADs and superintendents across the state that tell you we play too many games,” SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said. “They would like to see that number at 18. That’s a discussion that’s quite prevalent. There’s more discussion about reducing the number of games in basketball than expanding it.”

A new look for Class AA and ESD basketball has potential for schools, athletes and coaches, in that naturally new rivalries will develop when each team plays each other at least once.

Compared to decades past, the on-court product has not changed greatly, but standing-room-only crowds are now a rarity instead of the norm, as are the days when a single regular season game was consistently a city-wide happening.

“It’s a lot different dynamic and there’s more entertainment options out there now than there was 20 years ago,” Aadland said. “The idea that it’ll be back to the good old days -- I don’t know if that’s a reality, but we’ll certainly try to get it back as close to that as we can.”