Playoff football is going to start a week earlier for teams in the Cornbelt and Great Plains Conferences -- sort of.
Both conferences feature nine teams this season and the South Dakota High School Activities Association decided to split them into two divisions apiece. The Great Plains was split into east and west divisions, while the Cornbelt was split between five Class 9AA teams and four teams in Class 9A and Class 9B.
In the final week of the regular season, division champions will square off to determine a conference champion, as will the second-place teams, the third-place teams and the fourth-pace teams. The Cornbelt’s fifth place team in Class 9AA and the Great Plains east will face a state-determined opponent.
“It came out of necessity,” Avon head coach Tom Culver said. “(The Great Plains) actually came up with the proposal. Until Tripp-Delmont/Armour/Andes Central/Dakota Christian co-oped, we had 10 teams. It didn’t help scheduling-wise, because you had teams traveling all over. With 10 teams, you could potentially have two undefeated teams.”
The SDHSAA liked the proposal by the Great Plains Conference, that it adopted it for all conferences with more than eight teams. Although, not every team approved of the new ruling.
Canistota/Freeman head coach James Strang would have preferred to simply play the other eight teams in the Cornbelt. He enjoyed the rivalries developed between school such as Hanson, but now the teams will no longer play each year, unless they finish in the same position in their respective divisions.
“We had some pretty good rivalries with Class 9AA schools that had been on our schedule for years,” Strang said. “I’m a pretty big fan of keeping things the way they were, if there’s nothing wrong with it. … It’s an adjustment, but we’ll just roll with it and see what happens.”
The Great Plains divisions were altered -- in part -- to cut down on travel for some teams, but the Cornbelt divisions were decided based on school size.
While teams at the top of the Cornbelt may have a gripe about losing quality opponents, Howard football coach and athletic director Pat Ruml thinks it could be safer for some kids by playing against schools of the same size.
“The last game of the year is a big game against an opponent of a higher class,” Ruml said. “I think they probably did it right. Some conferences may not like it … You’ve got to look at the kids’ sake of it -- you’re just playing teams your own size.”
In both leagues, one division will host each of the final-week games and the following season, it rotates to the other division. Rumors had swirled about playing the games at one neutral site, but potentially losing a home game was not something that appealed to many coaches and administrators.
Still, the final week of the season brings a playoff-like atmosphere for teams, particularly those that reach the conference championship and play for a trophy before heading into the playoffs.
“Most of the teams on our schedule over the years -- if they’re in our conference, we know them pretty well,” Culver said. “Now, it is going to be like a playoff atmosphere and a little excitement about playing somebody you have played in a long time or ever played. I think it’ll be a fun week for the fans, too.”