The South Dakota High School football playoffs have long exposed some of the state’s geographic challenges.
The towns and teams are far apart, and the football classes are narrow.
This is felt all over the state, but particularly so with class 11A and 11B schools in the southeastern part of the state. The reality is that a lot of teams only get a sampling of the level of competition they will meet in the playoffs, which begin next week.
Consider Sioux Falls Christian’s football program.
The Chargers’ steady buildup from a winless season in 2011 culminated in a 9-2 record in 2015, with both of those losses coming to Madison, the Class 11A state champion. One of those games went to overtime, and the other wasn’t decided until late in the second half. This year, the Chargers are 7-1, with the lone loss coming to Madison, which is again among the state’s powerhouses.
Even considering all that, though, the Chargers’ reputation still might not match their performance.
“I think we are better than people give us credit for,” Sioux Falls Christian head coach Jake Pettengill said.
A large part of that perception could be due to a scheduling quirk that can be found across South Dakota’s high school landscape but has hit the Chargers particularly hard in recent years. Sioux Falls Christian has been in 11A, the state’s third-highest classification, for three years. However, the Chargers still play most of their games — seven out of nine this season — against schools in Class 11B, the smallest 11-man classification.
They’re not the only team to have its schedule shake out unevenly. Milbank Area of Class 11A has the same ratio of 11B games as the Chargers and didn’t face its first in-class opponent until the seventh week of the season. Tri-Valley of Class 11B will end up playing five of its eight games this year against 11A opponents, and 11B’s Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan, in its second year playing 11-man football, will play three 11A opponents, more than Milbank Area or Sioux Falls Christian.
It’s an issue that can seem unfair and senseless. It also can’t be easily resolved.
A significant step towards South Dakota’s current system of scheduling the football season was the adoption of a centralized process in 1998, with former assistant executive director Bob Lowery taking on the job. That helped resolve the difficulties that many schools had filling their schedules, which were due to factors like geographic isolation or peaks and valleys in competitiveness.
One thing that schools were not willing to give up, however, was their longstanding conference affiliations. South Dakota was one of the last states in the country to go to a statewide playoff system, instituting it in 1981. Before that, supremacy in leagues like the Eastern South Dakota Conference and the Dakota XII Conference was the only postseason glory that teams could fight for, although a media poll did crown an unofficial state champion.
“There’s a lot of strong pride and feelings about those championships still in those communities,” said John Krogstrand, who was hired as Lowery’s successor in 2011.
The South Dakota High School Activities Association, at the request of its member schools, tries to preserve those conference alignments in its scheduling process, even if they have no effect on how the postseason unfolds. In the process, schools without those prior affiliations can see their schedules significantly skewed.
Milbank Area has long been a member of the Northeast Conference, but that group has been heavily influenced by demographic forces, with many of its former members dropping down to nine-man football. There are plenty of 11A schools further south down the I-29 corridor that the Bulldogs could face, but with Dakota XII affiliations taking precedence in determining those schedules, there simply aren’t many dates available for Milbank Area.
The Bulldogs have arrangements to play Dell Rapids and Madison, and apart from that, their schedule is filled with 11B teams. Some are from the Northeastern Conference, which Milbank Area has maintained ties to in order to find opponents within a reasonable distance.
“Until the conferences become no more and they make that scheduling happen, that’s kind of where it’s at, I guess,” Bulldogs head coach Jeremy Tostenson said.
Playing the majority of its games against a lower class hasn’t significantly hurt the Bulldogs’ competitiveness, Tostenson said. He doesn’t see a gap between Class 11A and Class 11B as large as the one between 11AAA and 11AA, and results from this season have confirmed that.
Milbank lost in overtime to Groton Area, considered one of the top teams in 11B, and had a 14-7 win over Sioux Valley, whom Sioux Falls Christian needed a second-half comeback to top. Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan has competitive losses to Sioux Falls Christian, West Central and Tea Area, the current No. 1 team in Class 11A. Teams don’t get more or fewer power points for game played across classes, but 11A and 11B are close enough in strength to prevent that from being a huge issue.
“I think that most years the top end of 11A and the top of 11B are similar,” Tri-Valley head coach Steve Bazata said in an email. “You’d be crazy to think that Madison vs. Winner wouldn’t be one heck of a ballgame.”
Completely even scheduling, with schools only playing opponents within their own classes, is a virtual impossibility, mainly because the geographic realities of the state would force schools to assume intense travel schedules. The fairest scenario could be to abolish the conference alignments and make travel distance the top deciding factor, resulting in an more equal balance of 11A/11B matchups, but Krogstrand said that proposals to move in that direction haven’t found significant support.
“They’ve got a good thing going down there in that conference,” Tostenson said. “So it’s just what it is.”
Schools just have to accept the current situation, which isn’t a widely reviled one. Tostenson said the state’s postseason structure is the best it’s ever been, with 11A recently doing away with the regions that 11B still has and going to a strictly power point-based system for determining playoff matchups. The regions determine first-round matchups in the 11B playoffs, which can hurt some schools that may be in a particularly strong area of the state. Madison, for example, fell victim to that when schools like Vermillion and West Central went on runs of success in the 1990s and 2000s.
The current system isn’t perfect. Pettengill said it “probably would have helped” for Sioux Falls Christian to have played more 11A games before facing Madison, and the lack of looks that 11A coaches got at the Chargers last year might have hurt their players in the selection process for All-State teams.
Radical changes appear unlikely, though. Tradition still weighs heavily, and teams don’t have unlimited travel budgets.
“Sometimes, it feels like the schedule is putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle with only 750 pieces,” Krogstrand said. “And you really have to do some creative things to make everybody get ultimately what is our goal, and that’s getting everybody a full schedule. Whether that’s out-of-state games, or out-of-region games, or out-of-class games, they’re just necessary evils.”
Follow Ian Frazer on Twitter at @IanMcFrazer .