PIERRE -- Fans planning to make the annual pilgrimage to the DakotaDome for state championship football weekend may want to hit pause.

As the first round of Class 11B and nine-man playoffs commence on Thursday, the South Dakota High School Activities Association is still batting around details on the amount of fans and ticket procedures.

Uncertainty has reigned throughout the fall sports season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and few details seem set in stone four weeks away from the state finals. Only a drastic shift would force the SDHSAA to bar fans from attending the three-day weekend, but there will be limitations on the amount of spectators allowed into the building.

“With all of our championships, we are subject to whatever the local ordinance or facility requirements might be,” SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said. “... If we are at the Barnett Center in Aberdeen or the School of Mines for a track meet, we would follow the policies of the local venue and this would be no different. It’s our role to navigate what that looks like.”

Such discussions are held in conjunction with University of South Dakota officials and the SDHSAA is beholden to the policies and procedures set in place by the site hosting the event. The university currently requires face masks to be worn by all while indoors on campus and it is expected that will apply for prep football fans in the DakotaDome.

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Studies have shown spread of COVID-19 is more prevalent indoors, and the SDHSAA has moved this weekend’s state cheer and dance competition from Rapid City Stevens to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to create more room for social distancing for athletes and fans.

But there has not been any consideration in moving state football championships from Vermillion, although there is no known monetary penalty if the games must be moved to an outdoor venue this year, according to Krogstrand.

“If we felt that the accommodations at any of our facilities were too much or too limiting, we would certainly take a look at alternative options,” Krogstrand said. “What we’ve worked out with the USD staff, I think it fits both of us. It’s just a matter of policy and procedure to get to that point than it is what the rules might be.”

Referees stand on the sideline prior to a 2018 SDHSAA state championship football game at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Referees stand on the sideline prior to a 2018 SDHSAA state championship football game at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The $24.2 million renovation project that moved championship weekend to Brookings last year may prove beneficial for circumstances created by COVID-19. Permanent seating on the west side of the stadium opened an opportunity to designate separate sides of the stadium for fans of both teams playing, which was the SDHSAA’s plan prior to the pandemic. The dome's regular capacity is near 10,000 following the renovation.

How fans will get into the stadium is not determined yet, however. Many schools have allotted each player and coach a limited number of game passes to be shown at the gate and that has been discussed by the SDHSAA for state championship games, although prior attendance shows it may not be necessary.

“If the number (of fans allowed) were half, the vast majority of our state championship games with no restrictions would have come under that number anyway,” Krogstrand said. “I don’t think it’s going to be so restrictive that people are going to be turned away at the door. We’ll do as best we can to accommodate as many people as we can.”

Fans important to school success

A trip to the DakotaDome is not something only cherished by team personnel. It is often a time in which an entire town uses the school as a sign of pride, particularly if on-field success has been limited in prior years.

Platte-Geddes is unbeaten and has the fourth-highest seed-point total in Class 9AA. The Black Panthers are seeking a rematch with defending state champion Viborg-Hurley after being dispatched 66-20 in the quarterfinals last season.

The school has not reached the state finals since its consolidation, while Platte’s last appearance in the state finals came with a 14-8 win over Hamlin in the 1992 Class 11B championship and Geddes’ came with a 22-12 win over Wood in the 1982 Class 9B finals.

Platte-Geddes currently has a school-wide mask policy, but the football team had one long before that. Players are encouraged to limit social interaction outside schools, including those with out-of-town girlfriends.

The Black Panthers are not making premature plans for Vermillion, but they do want the towns of Platte and Geddes along for the remainder of the ride.

“We’ve got a good following and the kids feed off it,” Platte-Geddes head coach Bruce Hanson said. “I think our town’s more excited than our players about what we’re doing. We want people there to celebrate with us. We started doing some things last year after the games and we’re not in a hurry to get off the field.”

For fans that cannot attend or choose not to watch games in person, most schools have games streamed live online.

“I think there are a lot of things going on in the state that are hurting people,” said James Strang, Canistota/Freeman head coach looking for a third-straight Class 9AA title. “Deaths continue to rise, and based on our population, 1 out of 100 people are currently infected. There are a lot of people struggling and if they can find enjoyment watching a football game on Friday night, we have to give it to them.”

COVID-19 forfeit rule applies to state finals

On Friday, the SDHSAA announced the No. 17 seed in each class will be on standby in case a team must forfeit the first round due to COVID-19, but forfeited games in subsequent rounds will not be made up.

That rule will also apply for state championship games.

Even though it is the final week of the regular season, a one-week postponement may not be sufficient and there is no guarantee the healthy team on the originally scheduled date is healthy for the make-up game. This season, 46 percent of the state's high school football teams did not play a full schedule in 2020.

“Considering postponement for one week doesn’t mean you don’t create a different issue for a different team,” Krogstrand said. “... Team A might not be able to play on Week One, but all of a sudden Team B might not be able to play on Week Two and you’re looking at Week Three. It becomes perpetual at that point. There has to be some finality to it in the postseason.”

Such a circumstance would result in the most devastating and abrupt season-ending scenarios possible. Undefeated Howard is the top seed in Class 9A and the school experienced a sudden finish to the girls basketball season one game into its first state tournament in 25 years.

Tiger head coach and athletic director Pat Ruml was adamant prior to the season that the schedule should be played from beginning to end, even if it meant “playing in a corn field.”

Howard already knows the feeling of missing a game after Viborg-Hurley was forced to cancel last week’s Cornbelt Conference championship game. Ruml wants any championship to be decided on the field, win or lose.

“You’d get a bye, but if you ask anybody, they’d rather play,” Ruml said. “Just to stay fresh, keep that edge. I think it would be horrible if anybody had to forfeit a game in the playoffs because of this. I would feel bad for that team and those coaches.”

On the opposite side, Strang believes playing in a corn field might not be necessary, as it would take a catastrophic number of COVID-19 cases to keep Canistota/Freeman from forfeiting a playoff game.

“It would take a whole lot for us to not go out and play a game,” Strang said. “If we’re short players, we have a pretty big group standing on the sideline that’s played a lot this year and we’ve subbed out early to ensure our health. Our (first string) has played about 21 quarters in an eight-game season. It would take a lot for us to go down that path of not having a game because of COVID.”