It’s not often that National Signing Day in Sioux Falls turns into a discussion about open enrollment, but it made sense as we examined which players were signed, sealed and delivered Wednesday.
Washington senior Nate Gerry was clearly the most prized recruit in South Dakota, and his career at Nebraska will be closely followed as he tries to follow in the major-college footsteps of Josh Heupel, Chad Greenway and Riley Reiff.
Gerry attended Memorial Middle School, just like his older brother Matt, who is now a wide receiver at Augustana. That means the brothers were slated to go to Roosevelt, as their older sister did.
But the state’s open enrollment law allowed Matt to choose Washington, where he felt he would get a chance to play earlier, according to his mom.
He quickly embraced what we now call the Warrior Way, and younger brother Nate decided to go along for the ride, starting with his freshman year of 2009.
The Husker recruit ended up playing in four state championship games with Washington, winning four of them and losing just three games (all as a junior) during his high school career.
“I’m a little bit mixed about open enrollment,” said Brian Gerry, Nate’s father, “but we’re a family that participated in it. Coach Hermanson is a quality guy, and Matt’s experience rubbed off strongly on Nate. There was never hesitancy on his part about whether he was going to go to Washington.”
In all, the Warriors under Brian Hermanson have advanced to six consecutive state title games, unprecedented in Class 11AA history.
University of Kansas baseball/football recruit Jon Hander was the quarterback for the last two Washington seasons, and his older brother starred at Lincoln.
Playing for the Warriors was a choice that Jon and his family made based on a variety of factors, including Jon’s friendship with Nate Gerry and Montana recruit Chris Parker.
“When kids grow up, one of the biggest things is that they want to stay with their friends,” said Hermanson, whose daughter actually attended Lincoln while he was coaching Washington.
“Nate, Jon and (Montana recruit) Chris Parker were really good friends growing up with some of these other guys, and that group wanted to stay together. There’s also a lot of tradition at Washington, and the parents knew that.”
Of course, all this intracity migration is perfectly within the rules set forth by the state Legislature and the South Dakota High School Activities Association.
But it also raises questions about programs that exploit open enrollment for athletic purposes, and how that affects the competitive balance.
For years, people complained about O’Gorman’s alleged recruiting techniques and how that strategy gave the Catholic school an unfair advantage. That’s silly when you think about it, since private schools have no established district and would have to close their doors if they didn’t seek out students to a certain extent.
Now open enrollment is the new recruiting, and just as players used to be drawn to the allure of chasing a title with the mighty Knights, now they’re flocking to powerful Washington.
This trend is reflected in the signing day numbers, which show which players are most coveted and get a chance continue their football careers.
Washington has sent 51 players to play college football since Hermanson took over in 2005, including eight out of 30 seniors this year. Of those 51 college recruits during the Hermanson era, 22 signed with Division I programs, with four going to bowl-eligible schools.
The program that produced Big 12 offensive linemen Tom Farniok (Iowa State) and Derek Farniok (Oklahoma) has also had signing-day success with Division I players such as Trevor Cook (Miami of Ohio), Trevor Gebhart (North Dakota State) and Matt Hermanson (Montana).
This year, Gerry was among six D-I recruits, including Hander (who signed for baseball), Parker, Austin Kuhnert (NDSU), Grant Lewis (St. Cloud State) and Austin Benson (SDSU walk-on). Running back Sam Cooke is undecided but will go at least Division II.
That’s a testament to the job Hermanson and his staff have done to inspire their players, maximize their abilities and put them in a system that prepares for them for the next level.
It’s also a symbol of the recent rise in Sioux Falls football, which has produced nine consecutive state champions after the public schools failed to claim a title for the first 25 years of the playoff era.
O’Gorman, however, didn’t produce a single NCAA recruit from its 2013 senior class, but there doesn’t seem to be panic setting in.
The Knights have always been about team execution more than individual flair (though Mike Hardie is doing fine with national champion NDSU and Will Powell had a solid career with USD), and they’ve been a near permanent fixture in the state semifinals.
A larger question involves whether open enrollment will become a problem for Sioux Falls down the road, to a point where district boundaries mean nothing and players simply head to the school that suits their individual needs.
Last April, SDHSAA member schools voted on a constitutional amendment that would require students to sit out one year if they transfer schools without a bona fide change of residence.
But that only affects athletes who make the move after starting their high school career, and the amendment was voted down.
So we’re probably stuck with player movement for a while, which means it’s every program for itself. Just like in the Class 11AAA debate, the best solution is to make your program the best it can be rather than trying to change the rules to bring others down to your level.
That used to be called the American way. In Sioux Falls, we’ll just call it the Warrior way until the next best thing comes along.