Countdown to high school softball for SDHSAA is less than a year away
The move to officially sanction softball by the SDHSAA has sparked schools and officials across the state to start making moves to offer softball to students for the first time
MITCHELL – In less than a year, the first softball games sanctioned by the South Dakota High School Activities Association will take place across the state.
It takes girls high school softball into the mainstream in the state, with advocates for the sport already seeing the benefits.
The move, made official at the SDHSAA board meeting in November, has sparked schools and officials across the state to start making moves to offer softball to students for the first time.
For many in the South Dakota softball world, the move has been a long time coming. The state was the last in the country to offer high school softball through a state high school sanctioning organization.
“We have been waiting for five years now to get this up and running,” said SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director Jo Auch.
Even before first pitch has been thrown, the outpouring of schools lined up to participate in the 2023 season has blown away expectations. Auch hoped for around 35 schools, but as of now, over 55 schools have agreed to join the SDHSAA’s inaugural softball season. The first games will be allowed as early as March 31, 2023, with a three-day state tournament set to begin on June 1, 2023.
“We are really excited about that. It has superseded my expectations for the very first year,” Auch said.
The move to sanction softball as an official SDHSAA sport was not unanimously accepted as a good idea. With the large infrastructure of club teams that play softball in the fall, many did not see the need to join the new movement, at least in the first year.
“We had some naysayers that said, ‘Why don’t we wait another year and do it right’” Auch said.
While some have questioned whether the move was worth it, almost everyone involved agrees that allowing the softball players of South Dakota to represent their school is the main positive outcome of this move.
Gary Young, the state commissioner of USA Softball in South Dakota, said his organization pushed for this move for that exact reason.
“We approached (the SDHSAA) 23 years ago with this idea, they said no, and we started the fall league,” said Young, reflecting on the long process of bringing softball to South Dakota officially. “I think it's a positive as far as the girls are concerned because they can finally start getting recognition from their schools.”
Even with a longtime club structure in the fall season, only 24 teams — 13 in Class A and 11 in Class B — played for a state championship in 2021, with the SDHSAA's count nearly doubling that and allowing for three classes of competition.
Young said that since the move to sanction softball was made official, there has been little to no contact between USA Softball and the SDHSAA. While he is understanding of the reasons for the lack of communication, he says many of the coaches and players cannot wait much longer for decisions to be made due to the non-contact rules for coaches.
“A lot of these guys who have coached in the fall don't have any idea if they will be hired for the spring,” Young said. “So they aren’t willing to say if they will have a team, because if they do, they can’t coach after August 1.”
Softball coaches for next season have been started to be named be schools around the state, including Mitchell, with Kent VanOverschelde being announced as the program's first official softball coach on Thursday. As more of those moves are made official, many of the big question marks surrounding the fall and spring seasons will be answered.
Perhaps the biggest question mark, however, is how the players will decide between club and school ball in the first year. USA Softball South Dakota still plans to run its club season in the fall, although it will no longer officially be a club sport, meaning athletes will not be allowed out of class early. That mat may pose some difficult decisions for those girls who have been invested in their club teams for many years.
“Girls on teams like the Renegades and the Cyclones, those types of teams, the kids are going to have to make a choice. And some of those teams already have a big financial base in those kids,” Young said.
“Kids are going to have to make a choice,” Auch agreed. “Will our Class A and B schools be as far along as some of our AA schools that have been playing club ball?”
On top of those concerns, certain logistics still need to be ironed out before next year. Auch is still in search of the proper host sites for the state championships next season, hoping to find a stadium setting to give the kids a platform to shine on. Also, searching for umpires is a big part of the SDHSAA’s next steps.
“We are hoping those involved with the fall sports will be willing to do it again in the spring," she said. "We hope that if you love umpiring, you will probably have that same love in the spring.”
Nevertheless, there is a sense of excitement and relief for South Dakota’s softball breakthrough moment, which will allow teams and athletes to compete for championships for their school.
"We’re really excited for the opportunity for these kids to play softball,” Auch said.