New plan prepares to reshape 11-man classes for SD football

SDHSAA board to take up issue next week, with decision on nine-man's format still be determined

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PIERRE — After a three-hour meeting on Friday, there is a plan for South Dakota high school football classifications in 2021 moving forward.

A specially formed subcommittee voted 13-4 to advance a plan that would essentially merge the current Class 11AA and the top-half of Class 11A to form the middle 11-man division in South Dakota football. That class, using current enrollment figures, would include 17 schools, including Mitchell, and would drop in fellow Eastern South Dakota Conference schools Aberdeen Central and Watertown into the new 11A division, after both schools have struggled to compete with Sioux Falls’ schools in the highest classification, Class 11AAA.

After those 17 teams, the remaining 11-man teams would fall into Class 11B, which currently has 24 teams and would swell to 30 under the new setup. The SDHSAA Board of Directors, which asked for the SDHSAA Football Classifications Subcommittee to form and create a plan after the Board of Directors rejected a five-class plan earlier this year, will take up the new plan on Wednesday, Nov. 4 in a regular meeting. That will be a first reading and if approved, could be finalized in January. SDHSAA staff members have said a plan has to be approved by January in order to prepare schedules for 2021.

In May, the SDHSAA Board asked for a five-class or a six-class plan and the 11-man plan Friday was advanced for both scenarios. If the board decides to go for five classes, there will be two nine-man divisions; if there’s six classes approved, three nine-man divisions will stay. South Dakota currently has seven football classes, including four 11-man divisions.

Sioux Falls Roosevelt coach Kim Nelson, who represents the 11AAA and 11AA coaches on the advisory committee brought the idea that eventually advanced, which was created in conjunction with Roosevelt Activities Director Steve Moore. Nelson’s idea was to not be stuck to only using average daily membership, or ADM, to classify each school, as has been done in the past. Instead, current 11A teams — primarily from the Dakota 12 Conference — with a pedigree of football success were selected to be moved up.


Inside the new Class 11A, there would be scheduling pods mostly along the lines of Black Hills, Dakota 12 and Eastern South Dakota conferences. That means a school like Mitchell would likely see its regular schedule look a lot like this season’s slate, facing ESD opponents, with potential games with Sturgis, Spearfish or Douglas mixed in with a potential game with Madison or Sioux Falls Christian.

Nelson said he couldn’t buy the idea that the new Class 11A division wouldn’t be competitive, considering how many current 11A teams played against 11AA opponents over the last two years when they were scheduled against each other.

“I know the numbers don’t look very good on just ADM. But there’s more factors in success than that. It’s easy to put the ADM up and draw a line. … We want to set it up where teams have a chance to be competitive and have a chance to have a good season. And when it gets to be playoff time, it gets tougher. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Similarly, Aberdeen Central and Watertown, which are the sixth- and eighth-largest in terms of male ADM currently, were moved down in part because of their lack of success against 11AAA teams.

Lennox coach Matthew Luze, which has one of the teams that would now be in the same class as Watertown and Aberdeen Central, said they’ll play anyone. The Orioles would be playing a more than four times larger than their enrollment, something the Arrows and Golden Eagles lamented about playing Sioux Falls schools.

“But if our playoff road is having to go through Aberdeen and Watertown, I’m going to have the same problem that Aberdeen is having. … You’re shifting that argument down to smaller schools,” he said.

Where to draw the line

The committee, which met for the first time on Friday, included 10 invited coaches, athletic directors and school administrators to join the traditional seven members on the SDHSAA Football Advisory Committee.


SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos opened the meeting by asking the group to think about the plan from a “big picture perspective.” The group was also told to think about what’s best for all of football in South Dakota, by SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand, who is the association’s football specialist.

The saga has churned for most of the last year, with the SDHSAA’s Football Advisory Committee advancing a five-class system — three 11-man and two nine-man divisions — in December 2019. In April, the SDHSAA Board of Directors voted to approve the five-class plan but reconfigure how the classes were configured, and a month later, scrapped the plan because there was no consensus on how to go forward with five classes.

The biggest dissension at that time was from the state’s nine-man schools, who believed overwhelmingly that the nine-man schools shouldn’t be adjusted for what they believe is an 11-man division issue.

That came up again on Friday. Bon Homme coach Byron Pudwill, who is an advisory committee member, expressed a sentiment that remained popular among the nine-man contingent on the subcommittee: teams are happy with three nine-man classes and the chance to make the state playoffs is an accomplishment for many schools.

“It seems to me to be backwards to mess with nine-man for something that doesn’t fit for 11-man,” he said. “Teams are happy with how it’s set up.”

Other discussion point surrounded moving the threshold between nine-man and 11-man teams from the current mark of 56 average daily membership, or ADM, for male students, which is how football classification is calculated every two years. Swartos suggested lowering the cutoff to 50 or 48, which could send 10 or 12 of the biggest teams in Class 9AA into Class 11B to potentially make two classes of nine-man work.

“There are nine-man teams that are fully capable of fielding an 11-man team,” Swartos said. “I think the purpose of nine-man is to have it for schools that aren’t able to field an 11-man team. To expand that seems counterintuitive to me.”

Swartos expressed some frustration with the stance of nine-man schools in the state, who he characterized as drawing a line in the sand about staying with three classes.


“It’s hamstrung us to say, ‘This is the line, don’t cross it,” he said.

Various factors have set up a need to visit the reclassification issue, ranging from adding a new high school in Sioux Falls in 2021, fast growth in Brookings to potentially lead to rising to the highest class, and leaving just a handful of teams in Class 11AA. There is also the propensity for blowouts among the state’s current seven classes in the postseason, with 22 of the 57 playoff games played prior to Thursday decided by 35 points or more and 11 games decided by 50 points or more.

Sioux Valley head coach Dan Hughes provided what he called a “simple solution to a complex problem,” to move the two largest and most successful current Class 11AA schools — Brookings and Yankton — to the new 11AA. That would make the largest class 12 schools in size and then send the six remaining 11AA schools to Class 11A. Krogstrand said that idea had scheduling potential, to allow two, six-team scheduling pods from around the Sioux Falls metro and the rest of the state.

In a straw poll vote, the two plans brought forward by Nelson and Hughes were essentially even in support. Tea Area’s Brent DeBoer brought forward the motion to approve the Nelson Plan, which led to the 13-4 vote. Some of the support was contingent on figuring out scheduling. Hughes, in particular, believes that Class 11B’s scheduling should be self-contained to only schools in that class. That issue wasn’t resolved Friday.

Schools that would normally be above the 11A threshold of 100 male ADM were shuffled out — most notably Belle Fourche and Milbank — and drawing the new line between 11A and 11B at approximately 125 male ADM. Dell Rapids, Tri-Valley and Canton, schools that were mentioned under the Nelson Plan for the new 11A division, would be in 11B.

The new Class 11A division would play nine games without a bye week and on the same schedule as Class 11B and nine-man divisions in order to accommodate the 16-team postseason. As it pertains to power points, schools would not be punished for playing other classes.

Because the SDHSAA had already planned for a one-year classification cycle in 2021-22 in order to align with other surrounding states and then return to a two-year cycle in 2022-23 and 2023-24, members of the committee viewed the 2021 season as a chance to try out the new format.

Krogstrand said it’s likely that the classification subcommittee might have to meet again at the same time in 2021 to assess what is working and what is not. Swartos noted that if the plan moves ahead, the SDHSAA needs to set objective criteria for laying out which teams go to which classifications.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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