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TRAXLER: Expect a bumpier Road to the Dome this year

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Playing in the DakotaDome this year for the South Dakota high school football championships will be a special accomplishment for the teams that make it, considering the challenges of COVID-19 impacting schools around the state. (Republic file photo)

The road to the Dome.

That’s the way many South Dakota high school football teams like to look at the playoffs each year, the pinnacle of a prep football career.

But in 2020, not every team is going to have a smooth road to get to Vermillion.

There will be roadblocks. And it’s because of COVID-19.

South Dakota’s teams forged ahead with a football season relatively close to normal this season. Not much was changed about how the games were administered or how teams approached their contests when they were able to play.

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But dozens of games have been called off during the regular season, and given South Dakota’s coronavirus case count continues to quickly trend upward, this will be a playoffs unlike any other.

There is a real chance that there will be a forfeit that impacts the playoff bracket and ends a team’s season, if the team cannot play. That is one of the many consequences of playing during a pandemic.

Whether one thinks South Dakota should have played football in a pandemic is now immaterial. The state’s high schools did it, and we’ve seen the results.

Four classes concluded their regular seasons on Oct. 16, and one-third of the teams in those divisions did not play a complete schedule of at least eight games this season.

It did not go perfectly, and that was expected. And nobody should expect perfection in the playoffs either. That’s what South Dakota signed on for when it forged ahead.

Surrounding states are grappling with this same issue. In Minnesota, the state’s football teams didn’t start playing until mid-October, and will play a maximum of nine games, ending the season after the section playoffs and without a state tournament or championship game.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about not playing for a state championship in Minnesota. Yes, championships are meaningful, but it seems to indicate a lack of understanding about what the priorities of high school sports should be. (By the way, that sentiment seems to be coming from parents, not students. Per usual, there are a lot of young people who are pretty bright and understanding.)

In North Dakota, one of the top-seeded boys soccer teams — West Fargo Sheyenne — was forced to quarantine its varsity team members due to exposure to the virus, despite an undefeated season to that point. The North Dakota High School Activities Association continued the tournament, and Sheyenne used its junior-varsity team to field a roster in the state semifinals. (The team finished fourth with two losses after the quarantine.)

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The South Dakota High School Activities Association’s rule on postseason play amid COVID-19, created this past summer, is clear: “any postseason contests that are unable to be played will be considered a forfeit.”

If a school’s championship run has to be stopped due to cases of COVID-19, there will be complaints about what is fair. But the SDHSAA has to act within reason and conduct this championship fairly and equitably for the other, healthy teams in the tournament. High school coaches around the state likely will be preaching to their players to be responsible and avoid going to parties or hanging in crowds. It could be the difference between playing for a championship or quarantining and wondering what could have been.

There is quite a bit of confidence in the state’s school leaders and coaches to do the right thing and hold players and teams out of competition — even in the playoffs — if that’s what’s necessary with COVID-19. The health of South Dakota is at stake, and we’ve seen a lot of coaches and administrators responsibly balance extracurricular events and public health.

Provided everything works out, South Dakota will crown high school football champions in the fall and mostly on schedule. That will be an accomplishment not every state will achieve this year.

But there’s no guarantee that it will be a comfortable ride on the road to the DakotaDome for all playoff participants.

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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