PIERRE — South Dakota's governing body for high school sports has returned to where it started on the always-burning topic of classifications in prep football in the state.

That would be seven classes, once more.

Six months after the South Dakota High School Activities Association's Board of Directors asked its football advisory committee to come back with plans for five or six classes of football, the board circled back and moved ahead with a seven-class plan, slightly altering the current format among the divisions involving the largest schools. The plan moved forward on first reading through a 7-1 vote during the board's regular meeting Wednesday, and will be subject to finalization in January.

The new plan calls for nine specific teams in Class 11AAA, the largest division in the state: Sioux Falls public high schools: Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington, Sioux Falls O'Gorman (which traditionally opts up), Rapid City Central and Stevens, Brandon Valley and Harrisburg. Class 11AAA currently has 10 teams, and Aberdeen Central and Watertown would move down, despite ranking as sixth- and eighth-largest schools in the state, based on male average daily membership enrollment figures.

Including Aberdeen Central and Watertown, 11 schools would be in Class 11AA, which currently has eight teams: Brookings, Douglas, Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Spearfish, Sturgis, Tea Area and Yankton.

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Class 11A would then have the next 14 schools, listed alphabetically: Belle Fourche, Canton, Chamberlain, Custer, Dakota Valley, Dell Rapids, Lennox, Madison, Milbank, Sioux Falls Christian, Sisseton, Tri-Valley, West Central and Vermillion. (Those 14 schools are subject to change, based on ADM enrollment figures finalized later this year.) The rest of Class 11B would include likely more than 30 schools.

After two hours of wrangling over a plan on Wednesday, the board mostly went away from a plan endorsed by the SDHSAA's Football Advisory Classifications Subcommittee, which met on Oct. 30 specifically to put forward a plan for five or six classes of football starting in 2021.

That proposed plan — created by Sioux Falls Roosevelt leaders and factoring in recent program successes rather than relying only on ADM — had the same nine schools in the largest class, 17 schools in Class 11A and the remaining 11-man schools in Class 11B. It did not receive a vote on Wednesday, with a motion brought forward by board member Tom Culver, of Avon, adapting a part of the plan to stay at seven.

The SDHSAA Board has also approved a one-year classification plan for 2021-22, in order to better align the state with neighboring states to do reclassification on the same timeline. That leaves an opening for the football issue to be revisited in a year and enact new changes for the 2022 and 2023 football seasons.

"Within the next year, everyone has the chance to get their input and put in their alternatives," Culver said. "It's a small change from what we currently have in our seven-class system."

The plan would leave nine-man with three classes, something small-school advocates have argued should remain in place and inferring that the nine-man divisions are working well and it's an 11-man issue. But SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos reminded those attending the meeting Wednesday that South Dakota has had competitiveness issues among each of the seven classes, with games decided by 70 points or more in various classes for years, including in the postseason.

"This has been unfairly characterized as a Class 11AA issue," he said. "We’ve had issues up and down the line of our classifications. This is not a single-class issue."

The biggest hang-up with that proposal Wednesday was the criteria and specific principles and how the SDHSAA would characterize schools that are competitive or successful in a given division. Steve Moore, the activities director at Roosevelt who created the plan in recent months, said those details would need to be worked out, but believed it should be something that is revised every year or two.

Moore said his plan classified the nine proposed 11AAA schools together because they are metropolitan schools around either Rapid City or Sioux Falls, and characterized Aberdeen Central and Watertown as rural schools, not like the metropolitan schools.

He proposed the larger middle 11-man division to retain regional scheduling and allow schools to have various levels of success during the regular season, rather than prioritizing only the playoffs. He said it's worth South Dakota trying to do something different, that he believes is better for the kids involved.

"When you look at it as far as athletes and competitiveness, the athletes that you’re looking at for ESD and Tea, those athletes are very similar in the way they look and compete," Moore said. "When you look at the Metro schools, likewise. It’s a different plan. It’s out of the box."

Board member Mike Talley, of Rapid City Central, was the lone opposing vote to the new plan, saying that he felt there was a lack of clarity or communication with member schools about the plan.

"Are we pushing this through too fast where we haven’t allowed schools to digest this and ask questions and for us to be able to provide those answers," Talley asked.

Representatives of current 11A schools such as Dakota Valley, Lennox and Madison voiced their opposition to the initial plan presented Wednesday, while other input took issue with the unbalanced scheduling impacting the playoff seeding, the ratio between the largest school in a class and the smallest and arguing that the process has moved too quickly, given that there were five days between meetings on the topic.

SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand responded by saying the topic has come up multiple times a year most of the last decade and the state has never enacted a classification plan that came from the football advisory committee in the last 30-plus years.

"I think that's why it often ends up at the board level or with the staff working on it, because (the board) is elected to represent all member schools and the staff doesn't work for any one contingent," Krogstrand said. "It's very hard and very challenging because the first thing everyone does when they see a classification plan is ask, 'Where's my school and where's my group at?'"

In other SDHSAA business Wednesday, the board:

  • Voted unanimously to approve a return to play plan for SDHSAA winter sports and activities.
  • Approved a plan to hold Class A and B SoDak 16 volleyball matches at the home site of the high seed, due to COVID-19 and for 2020 only. The matches are planned for Nov. 10 to determine the state tournament qualifiers.