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Changes looming for prep football schedules

Players from Winner and Parkston line up for a kickoff during a 2015 football game in Parkston. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

In South Dakota's smallest prep football classes, changes could be coming on how schedules will be created.

At the South Dakota High School Activities Association football advisory committee meeting on Nov. 27, a proposal designed to create more schedule flexibility, but also keep existing football conferences intact was passed the committee by a 5-1 vote.

For teams in Class 11A and below (Class 11B, 9AA, 9A and 9B), the proposal allows schools to remain in one conference, with conferences of six or more teams required to create "divisions" within the conference. The SDHSAA will then schedule opponents from each team's conference "division." Once all the teams have played each of their "division" opponents, the SDHSAA schedule will reflect a week of regular season play for a "Conference Championship Crossover Week" where teams will play opponents from the other division who are in the same place (For example: No. 1 seed for the East division would face the No. 1 seed from the West division and No. 2 would face No. 2, etc). Location of this game would alternate by division on an annual basis.

Avon Superintendent and Head Football Coach Tom Culver brought the proposal in front of the committee. Culver noted SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand, who helps create the football schedules, said the current arrangement with conferences dictating how the schedules are formed will leave some teams without a full schedule.

Krogstrand noted at the meeting that "something needs to be moved within the nine-man ranks, or the SDHSAA may need to request change from the Board as more teams limit their ability to play non-conference schedules, forcing many 9-man and some 11-man teams into contests that are neither within their class or region, but necessary to get all a full schedule," according to the committee meeting minutes.

Culver pointed to an example from the 2017 and 2018 schedules with Bon Homme, a member of the Little Missouri Valley Conference. The Cavaliers had six conferences games scheduled with LMVC opponents, but that left two open weeks. Because of other conference schedules filled most of the opponents in the region, Bon Homme was forced to play a home-and-home with Lower Brule (160 miles away) and Warner (200 miles away).

"That's a pretty good jaunt for a regular season game," Culver said. "In the last two weeks of the regular season, (the proposal) would free up the SDHSAA to schedule some of these teams that aren't in a conference some local opponents, so they wouldn't have to travel so far."

Culver noted Avon, which plays in the nine-team Great Plains Conference, has been fine with filling out a local regular season schedule. He added the proposal allows schools to keep conference history alive by working as a compromise to allow for needed schedule flexibility without eliminating conferences entirely.

"There's been a call for region scheduling and to do away with conference scheduling," Culver said. "The bad thing is, when you have a conference like ours or the Cornbelt, you have conferences with a lot of history and a lot of loyalties. We'd hate to give that up and this (proposal) is the best of both worlds."

McCook Central/Montrose head coach Ryan Evans, who is the Class 11A and 11B representative on the football advisory committee, was the lone member of the committee to vote against the proposal. Evans said he knew of at least eight schools in Class 11A that aren't part of a football conference by choice and added a vote toward more conference scheduling rules wouldn't fully represent the classes of 11A and 11B.

Evans said he'd like to see more schedules align with teams inside each class, pointing out the classes are drawn to keep player safety in mind. He said he understands many schools want to continue to play their conference schools and added there's plenty of other factors that could be explored to fill out-of-conference games.

"Many of these factors change for schools from year to year and I think the SDHSAA does a fine job staying in tune with the changes within schools and works hard to keep our football players safe," Evans said via email. "South Dakota has a unique situation and many factors come into play when scheduling games. Some classes of football are much more affected by this debate than others."

The proposal will now move to the annual South Dakota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association meeting to be discussed and would then need to be approved by the SDHSAA Board of Directors to be enacted. Culver said he's unsure how the proposal will be received moving forward.

Along with creating flexibility, Culver added conference championship games could be a benefit to prep football, giving more kids something exciting and meaningful to play for.

"Playoff-time, you know you are going to be traveling," Culver said. "Hopefully the regular season it can be limited a little bit. There's never 100 percent agreement on anything, but if schools want to keep their conferences intact, this could be a win-win."