Traxler: Keep working at football classes, but seven will do for now
The carousel that is the South Dakota high school football classification debate stopped last week right where it started.
It was at seven classes, then down to five, back up to six and brought back around to seven classes when the South Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors approved to move forward with a modified seven-class plan for the 2021 season.
That plan, as it stands now, really only affects only a handful of schools. In Class 11AAA, it moves Aberdeen Central and Watertown out of the top division and slots in new school Sioux Falls Jefferson, bringing the top division to nine schools. In 11AA, Aberdeen Central and Watertown move in and Tea Area moves up from Class 11A to make the class into a 11-team division. The next 14 largest schools, which right now includes Chamberlain, would be in the new 11A division.
As is the case in 2020, there was consternation about the change online, with some upset that schools were hand-picked to be in the largest class or taken out, and others upset that the board essentially reneged on its declaration earlier this year to shrink to five or six classes.
There might not be a more heavily discussed topic surrounding high school sports in the state. And as was pointed out by SDHSAA leaders last week, it’s been one of the issues talked about since the playoffs came into creation in 1981.
So for the 2021 plan? It’s actually a good compromise. There was a discussion during the recent SDHSAA meetings about the topic of what makes up competitiveness, and it would seem that these changes should make those top classes competitively balanced, both on recent successes or struggles and the enrollment of their schools. But some coaches pointed out that competitiveness can also include having a strong roster and having a chance to matchup with some of the teams on their schedule.
Some programs are stronger than others, but each of the 19 teams in the top-two divisions should be able to look at their classes with an opportunity.
In the most basic way, no, seven classes of football isn’t great for a state with less than 900,000 people, especially when other states with more people have as many classes or fewer. But spend some time with the state’s enrollment figures and a map and it’s not difficult to figure out why it’s set up the way it is. There are only so many communities that have 10,000 or 50,000 people or more, and only so many schools in those cities.
In the recent SDHSAA meetings, SDHSAA board member Tom Culver, who is Avon’s football coach and superintendent, rightly pointed out that the automatic decision on nine-man classes will eventually arrive on its own, with rural South Dakota not growing as fast as the rest of the state and more cooperatives and consolidations shrinking the number of nine-man programs. SDHSAA bylaws call for the state’s number of nine-man classes to automatically drop from three to two once the number of nine-man teams drops under 64. (There were 67 active nine-man teams this season.)
Another reason why it’s easy to support this slight alteration for 2021 is because South Dakota will have a one-year classification cycle, which will allow it to better align with neighboring states and make creating schedules easier. Hopefully, South Dakota’s football advocates will spend that time thinking about what other proposals they can bring to the table. The plan from Sioux Falls Roosevelt’s administrators to group schools on success rather than just enrollment is a good idea, but a concrete and objective way of placing schools in a given class.
Finding the right breakdown of classes is difficult. Try this out in 2021 and see what happens and if it has to be changed, that will be fine too. We know this is not likely to be a topic that goes away anytime soon.