Lance Witte’s No. 1 objective of the All Nations Conference has been accomplished.

The Lower Brule school superintendent was instrumental in forming the football conference made up of 12 Native American high schools. Witte’s vision was to pump up football participation numbers and that goal has been met during the inaugural season.

“When we started conversations about forming the conference, our No. 1 goal was to increase participation numbers,” Witte said. “That’s happened in every school that’s been involved and some pretty significantly.”

Witte has also noticed a bigger commitment from the players, and that has been observed across the All Nations Conference. Of the nine schools to respond to a Daily Republic request about participation numbers, coaches and administrators raved about the conference. This year among those schools, 222 students are participating in football, a 69.5 percent increase over 2018, when there were 131 students participating. Two schools added new football teams, and four others nearly doubled the number of players on their squads.

Lower Brule has gone from 17 players last season to 21 players this season. Not only have the numbers climbed, but Witte also said kids are engaged in practices.

“The thing I have noticed is the commitment from the kids,” Witte said. “Everybody is in and nobody is wanting to miss practice. Everybody wants to be there and everybody is excited about next week and that’s been kind of a change.”

Flandreau Indian ended the 2018 season with 15 players, but it currently has 25 players out this season.

“So far we have been able to keep all of our players out this year,” Flandreau Indian coach Trevor Greger replied. “The biggest factor I believe is because our students know that they have a shot at competing week in and week out playing other teams in the All Nations Conference.”

Crazy Horse has noticed a similar jump.

“I believe we had 11 players out for football last year and this year, we have 23 players out,” Crazy Horse coach James Bagwell wrote. “So it has been a huge impact being in the All Nations Conference. It’s gained the interest of my kids and giving us a real opportunity to build a program.”

The building is happening all over. Red Cloud coach Arthur Vitalis said the Crusaders have gone from 18 to 30 players in one season. Cheyenne-Eagle Butte’s roster consists of around 35 players again this season and coach Michael Scott said the Braves have 12 freshmen out this season. Tiospa Zina coach Mikey Peters said the program has increased from 23 to 30 players this season and said “it’s been a real big change for the better.”

St. Francis athletic director Roger Crow Eagle also said numbers are up and “it seems like our students like the idea of nine-man football and it shows in our numbers that are out this year.”

Marty Indian played just a junior varsity schedule last season and coach Jay Maynard said the team was lucky to have around 12 players at games, while between just 6 to 9 players at practice each day.

This year?

“We have 21 individuals on our team,” Maynard said in an email. “Practice attendance is much better this year compared to previous years. Most days we have enough to scrimmage a full offense and defense.”

This is Takini’s first season fielding a football team and it has 17 players from 7th-through-12th graders on the squad, said athletic director Travis Albers. Oelrichs hasn’t had its own football team since 2011 and it would co-op with Hot Springs in previous years. But that wasn’t always a fit for the kids, said Oelrichs athletic director James Knutson.

“We have a roster of 20 high school boys who are playing this year and we have that pride of representing our school again,” Knutson wrote. “Being such a small school, we had to postpone our middle school program so that those players can add depth to our high school roster. But all in all, we went from zero students to 20 students.”

Future expansion?

The conference is a nine-man league and is separated into two divisions: West and East. The 12 teams will play a six-game regular season schedule and the playoffs start on Oct. 17. The first and second seeded teams in each division will receive a first-round bye. The championship game is Nov. 8 at the DakotaDome in Vermillion.

Schools were chosen for the conference based on the percentage of Native American students in their student body. Tribal and public schools with an enrollment of 50 percent or more Native American students were sent an invite. Chamberlain, Pine Ridge, and Todd County received invites, but declined.

Witte said Pine Ridge and Todd County administrators are in a wait-and-see approach through the first two years and could possibly join after the 2020 season. Witte said Nebraska schools -- Winnebago and Omaha Nation -- have already expressed interest in joining the conference next year.

The competitive nature of the All Nations Conference games have been wide ranging this season. Last week, Little Wound defeated Takini by a 78-6 score, while Red Cloud defeated Cheyenne-Eagle Butte 58-6. But also last week, Marty slipped past St. Francis 26-14. During Week 1, Tiospa Zina nipped Marty 18-14 and Red Cloud edged Lower Brule in a 58-48 shootout.

The disparity in the size of the schools play into the competitive inbalance. According to the South Dakota High School Activities Association website, Little Wound has the largest male-only average daily membership with 164.188. Takini is the smallest with 19.125.

The rest of the league’s male-only ADM includes: Red Cloud (111.499), Cheyenne-Eagle Butte (106.108), St. Francis (85.677), Flandreau Indian (82.045), Tiospa Zina (74.491), Crow Creek (67.397), Lower Brule (45.788), Crazy Horse (45.369), Marty (40.822) and Oelrichs (34.446).

“So there’s a lot of disparity in size,” Witte said. “So you have kind of an upper-tier kind of competitive group and you kind of have a lower-tier that are competitive amongst the smaller schools. I don’t know in the future — if we will get enough interest — if we will end up having maybe leagues based on size of enrollment possibly, rather than just everybody lumped into one.”

Today and Saturday, the teams will play in Rapid City and will play in conjunction with the Lakota Nation Invitational volleyball and cross-country events. The LNI basketball tournament in December in Rapid City has evolved into a 32-team tournament and is the highlight for student-athletes each year. Witte hopes the football version will resemble the basketball tourney.

The football matchups include: Red Cloud vs. Little Wound; Crazy Horse vs. Marty; Cheyenne-Eagle Butte vs. Tiospa Zina; Oelrichs vs. Takini; Lower Brule vs. Crow Creek and St. Francis vs. Flandreau Indian.

“It’s kind of a rivalry weekend,” Witte said. “We’ve got some teams that are similar in size and maybe have some past history as far as rivalries and maybe they were basketball rivalries. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think everybody is looking forward to it.”