Enrollment tops on-field results in talks around 11AA, 11A divisions
Two years of crossover games between Class 11AA and Class 11A football teams have shown a closer talent gap than some anticipated.
But the results on the field may not be the most decisive indicator when reclassification talks resume for the South Dakota High School Activities Association after the season. Most Class 11AA teams played at least two games against smaller schools the last two seasons, with a combined record of 15-14.
Pierre’s game against Tea Area went by the wayside last week due to COVID-19 outbreaks, while Sturgis and Spearfish each have a tilt with Class 11A Belle Fourche later this season. Douglas is slated to face Class 11B St. Thomas More, which has gone 5-0 against 11AA schools the last two seasons.
Class 11AA schools have gone 8-5 against teams in smaller classes in 2020, a year after going 7-9. But when reclassification discussions are held, it will still likely be centered around enrollment numbers rather than an eventual 32-game sample size.
“Every year you could make an argument one way or the other based off of some select games,” SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said. “... There’s no absolution about (results) or absolution about any singular factor. That’s always in everyone’s mind. You can speak to an argument about one or two years of results, but it’s not really absolute. There are variables in that. Enrollment numbers are a little more defined.”
In April, the SDHSAA Board of Directors scrapped a new five-class football system after failing to come to a consensus on how to configure the classes down from the current seven-class system. Much of the opposition came at the nine-man level, where athletic directors vehemently rejected the proposal from the start.
At the 11-man level, the proposal saw the state’s nine largest schools plus Sioux Falls O’Gorman in Class 11AAA, the next 16 largest schools in Class 11A and the remaining schools in Class 11B.
The 11AAA schools voted 7-3 in favor of the change, while 11AA were in favor 6-2. Meanwhile, 11A schools were split at 7-7 and 11B opposed by a 12-8 margin.
Among the larger divisions, the question remains how Class 11A schools can consistently compete against the 11AA teams and the results during the last two seasons are still a small sample size.
“You have up years and down years, but I think the programs that are strong would be strong with Class 11AA, too,” Dell Rapids head coach Jordan Huska said. “Say Sioux Falls Christian plays Mitchell close for a week. What does that look like when you turn around a Pierre and then play a Yankton, where it’s back-to-back-to-back?”
The advantage for long-term success would appear to favor 11AA schools, which average 268.1 in male-only average daily memberships, compared to 11A’s 143 male average ADM. More students creates more players and a greater possibility for better players.
Whether a given 11A team can consistently compete while playing a schedule filled with 11AA teams is still in question, the last two years of crossover games may have proven the top-tier teams in 11A can have success against bigger competition.
“Whether we could compete in Class 11AA all year long, I can’t say,” said Huska, whose team topped Mitchell by one point two years in a row. “Class 11A football is a strong class and I think that’s shown the last couple years, competing with and even beating 11AA schools. I’d like to think that anyone who would go up could compete.”
Change is coming
While the future of 11AA football is unknown, the last two seasons of playing 11A schools as opposed to the previous arrangement with non-conference games against 11AAA schools is much more agreeable for coaches.
The deepening preference between playing 11A schools instead of 11AAA teams can be directed toward enrollment numbers, as well as results on the field. In 2018, 11AAA teams went 12-7 against 11AA teams, while the average ADM differential doubled the disparity between 11AA and 11A.
The 10 Class 11AAA schools have an average male-only ADM of 613.3 and 345.2 more than Class 11AA schools on average, nearly double the discrepancy between Class 11A schools.
On the field, schools in Class 11A and Class 11B have outscored 11AA teams 663-629 during crossover contests the last two seasons, while 11AAA outscored 11AA teams 498-302 in 2018.
“Class 11AA and Class 11A are much more closely related than Class 11AA and Class 11AAA,” Mitchell head coach Kent VanOverschelde said. “The way that we have right now is pretty productive. The future is probably the combination of Class 11AA and Class 11A, especially the upper end of the Class 11A programs. Those around Sioux Falls like Lennox, Tea, West Central — those will probably fit more closely with the Class 11AA programs.”
Not only have the crossover games brought fresh matchups, but it has also provided shorter road trips for teams and fans.
Yankton’s closest 11AA opponent is Mitchell, which is more than 160 miles roundtrip. But the last two seasons, the Bucks have traveled to Dakota Valley (110 miles roundtrip) and Vermillion (50 miles roundtrip) in 11A crossover games.
Playing Belle Fourche and St. Thomas More also allows West River schools like Douglas, Spearfish and Sturgis to save on long road trips east.
“It’s fun because you are playing a team you don’t necessarily know,” Yankton head coach Brady Muth said. “For us, Yankton and Vermillion used to be a huge rivalry back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Some of that is fun to get back into. There’s a lot more people that make a lot more money than me to make those decisions.”
The addition of Sioux Falls Jefferson to Class 11AAA next fall is expected to force classification changes.
Jefferson would bring 11AAA to 11 teams and create a scheduling imbalance for a nine-game schedule. The problem is exacerbated as some 11AA schools have refused to play 11AAA teams going forward, according to Krogstrand.
“You can’t get to the full schedule, you cannot use the playoff qualification system that’s in place now,” Krogstrand said. “Conversely, you have an opportunity where an 11AA school moves up to 11AAA. You have 12 in 11AAA, but only seven (in) 11AA. … There’s some challenges that come in, however it happens. There has to be some decision or something has to be addressed just to draw up a regular season schedule next fall.”