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Taking it outside: Weather helps state football debut at SDSU

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The Flandreau Indian School Junior ROTC Honor Guard presents the flags during the national anthem prior to the Class 9A state championship game between Canistota/Freeman and Britton-Hecla Thursday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

BROOKINGS -- For the first time, the South Dakota state football championships went outside this weekend.

A few things are certain: the weather cooperated in a big way, the teams playing enjoyed the experience and the South Dakota High School Activities Association expects to come out OK financially after this two-day, one-year stopgap site at South Dakota State University’s Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos said Thursday that he was pleased with the crowd turnout and the way those involved have embraced the opportunity to contest the championships outdoors.

“Judging by the early crowds, I think we’re going to be pretty close to what we normally see as far as attendance,” Swartos told The Daily Republic. “We’ve been really happy and thankful for the people that have come to watch it, and hopefully they’ve enjoyed it.”

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Canistota/Freeman students cheer on the Pride during the Class 9A state football championship against Britton-Hecla on Thursday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

For players and coaches, it was a moment to relish for perhaps a one-time chance to win a unique state title. That included Ethan Engen, who was the Class 9AA championship game’s Most Outstanding Lineman, leading Viborg-Hurley over Bon Homme on Thursday.

“Some people wanted it in the (DakotaDome) because they thought it was going to snow, but I said, ‘When is it going to be back at the Jackrabbits’ stadium? You know, this is once in a lifetime,” Engen said.

But the outdoor championships brought out some items not commonly seen in the state championship game. There were sideline coats for the reserves, quarterbacks wearing hand warmers, brisk sales of hot chocolate at the concession stands, and large heaters near the benches. Fans carried massive blankets into the stadium and bundled up behind stocking caps and heavy-duty jackets, just like they do at home games in Lennox, Winner, Colman or Pierre.

“You get to play in the first outdoor championship and it was a great time, a great environment. It was a blast,” said Canistota/Freeman senior Bailey Sage.

A key break

There’s little doubt Brookings caught a break this week with the weather.

At kickoff time for the first of the seven games -- 11 a.m. on a mid-November day -- was 29 degrees and sunny with a light breeze. The wind chill was at 17 when warmups started, according to National Weather Service data in Brookings. The high crept up to 41 degrees and. on Friday, the temperature climbed to 47 at 2 p.m., late in the Class 11AA championship game.

The challenge came with the night games, with temperatures in the low 30s on Thursday night, and wind chills expected in the 20s or lower on Friday night.

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“We got really fortunate with the weather … we really couldn’t ask for anything more,” Swartos said. “The crowds have been good.”

Between the weather and the crowds, the SDHSAA’s outdoor gamble will likely work out, in part because of the costs involved with renting SDSU’s Dykhouse Stadium.

For the previous seven years at the DakotaDome, the rent charged by the University of South Dakota has been $50,000 for the weekend. Generally, that has covered the seven games played over three days, and the Coyotes worked those games into the schedule, even if USD had a home game on Saturday afternoon, as well. The DakotaDome had hosted the championship finals since their inception in 1981.

The rent for the SDHSAA for two days in Brookings is a mere $15,000, reducing the crunch on the association financially. And decent weather means decent attendance, and the chance to make it all work this week in Brookings.

“We figured we would lose some fans, and it was cheaper to play here as opposed to down at the Dome, so that takes care of some tickets,” he said. “You know, you have to kind of trust that people are going to follow their teams and there are some that can’t come out in the cold or don’t want to be out in the cold and that’s why we have a TV contract.”

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Bon Homme head football coach Byron Pudwill and the Cavaliers walk to the other side of the field at the end of the third quarter during the Class 9AA state championship game against Viborg-Hurley on Thursday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The SDHSAA counts on the state football playoffs — and the championship games in particular — to deliver a key part of its revenue annually. Since moving to the seven-class, three-day championship format in 2013, the average net profit of the football title games has been $151,205. In the SDHSAA’s fiscal year ending in June 2018, the entire football playoffs account for about 15 percent of the association's annual operating revenue in a budget of about $3.1 million. That 15 percent share is the most of any single sport. (The combined boys and girls basketball playoffs — with both sub-state and state events — makes up about 30 percent of the annual revenue.)

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Heading into this year, the SDHSAA decreased its expected gate receipt budget by $15,000 to $215,000. In 2018, the association brought in $220,437 in gate receipts at the football finals.

The SDHSAA has indicated it plans to continue playing games at the DakotaDome in future years. In 2012, it signed a lease agreement with the University of South Dakota to play championship games through 2026.

USD is currently renovating the DakotaDome, with one side of the dome out of commission as USD builds a new permanent grandstand, suites and a new locker room for the Coyotes. USD has seated as many as 5,255 people for regular season games this year, but the seating capacity of 5,279 would have been difficult for state title games that drew a big crowd, leading to the change.

Official attendance figures were not immediately available, but it seemed safe to say that the crowds during Thursday’s nine-man and 11A championships would have fit in the DakotaDome. But it can all depend on the matchup. Brookings, playing in its home stadium against undefeated Pierre for the Class 11AA championship on Friday, while Brandon Valley and Sioux Falls O’Gorman were meeting in the Class 11AAA championship, which is usually the best-attended contest.

SDSU offered club level seating for $50 per day and loge level seating — which are covered outdoor seats — for $75 per day, but those sections were dotted with just a handful of fans each on the opening day. General admission tickets were $15 per day for adults and $10 per day for students.

Embracing the elements

The opinions on how well the outdoor championship games went and whether it was a good idea hinged on who was asked.

Blaine Saarie was dressed for the occasion. He was wearing his camouflage coveralls, equipped to spend the morning in a duck blind or deer stand. But the Pride fan from Freeman said the 30-degree weather made it pretty reasonable in the stands.

Saarie, of Freeman, said if he was given a choice, he’d take the domed venue. But he said for one year, the weather held up and it was a good time.

“This was my first time here, so I really enjoyed it,” said Saarie of the $65 million venue SDSU built in 2016 over the previous Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.

The Pride’s coach, James Strang, has a typical gameday look, which includes his distinctive beard and wearing a backward hat. It also usually includes wearing shorts, something he said he didn’t think twice about on Thursday.

“Nope, had to wear the shorts. I felt pretty good. I don’t know if it had anything do to with the artificial turf," he said. "I think I need to bug my athletic director about artificial turf if that’s the case.”

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Canistota/Freeman cheerleaders do jumping jacks following a Pride touchdown during the Class 9A state championship game against Britton-Hecla on Thursday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The managers of the Pride football team had no issues getting in front of one of those sideline heaters before their game against Britton-Hecla. Cayden Scott, an eighth-grader from Canistota, said he likes helping the team, so as long as they’re still playing, he will be working the sideline. Sawyer Wipf, a seventh-grader from Freeman, was wearing a handwarmer, but he plays center on the Pride’s junior-high team, so that was not a special purchase for Thursday.

“I was ready,” Wipf said.

Jerry Stiegelmeier, of Selby, said he’s a fan of outdoor football, but admitted his brother — SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier — might have had an influence on his opinion.

“Football is meant to be played outside,” he said, decked out in an SDSU hat and scarf. “It’s an outdoor sport, so I’ve always loved watching these games outdoors. It’s not bad to switch it up.”

Kahli Gall’s reasons for preferring SDSU’s venue were both practical and personal. A senior cheerleader in her third year cheering for Canistota/Freeman, she said there was more room to operate on the sidelines than at the DakotaDome. But her parents went to school at SDSU, too.

“I’ve always liked SDSU more,” she said. “But it’s exciting to be here as a senior and get to cheer one more time.”

When Bon Homme took the field, nearly everyone in the cheering section had red hats on. In the student section at halftime, senior Allisan Van Winkle was vocally leading the Cavalier contingent.

“We’re in the sun, so it’s not too bad with the cold,” Van Winkle said. “But it’s like Coach (Byron) Pudwill always says, 'The sun always shines on Bon Homme.' So, we’re going to be OK with a little cold.”

For his part, Pudwill said he’d be more than happy to come back and play at SDSU again, even though he prefers a dome venue for a championship game.

“It was really amazing to play in a place like this,” Pudwill said.

Swartos said he appreciated the attitude teams and coaches took toward playing the games in Brookings.

“We haven’t had much in terms of negative feedback to playing here as opposed to the Dome,” he said. “They’ve taken it as a challenge and embraced it and hats off to them.”

They said it

Here’s a sampling of other opinions on Dykhouse Stadium as a host to the state football championships:

Rob Kessler, Viborg-Hurley coach: “(The team) would have liked to play inside, because every kid in South Dakota dreams about playing in the Dome but honestly, as far as cramping and all of that stuff, you don’t get that playing out here. … We don’t really care what field it’s on, you just want to go play.”

Dan Haug, Castlewood assistant coach: “(SDSU) did a great job of taking care of the football coaches that were here. The hospitality was really good, and that is something you notice.”

Trey Ortman, Canistota/Freeman quarterback: “I would have preferred the Dome, but it was fun to play out there regardless.”

Lane Everson, Hamlin junior and state football fan: “It hasn’t been too bad. You dress for the cold. We liked the shorter drive, but we go every year.”

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Britton-Hecla fans stand for the national anthem prior to the Class 9A state championship against Canistota/Freeman on Thursday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

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 mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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