Say goodbye to seven classes of football

It’s starting to look like South Dakota’s ill-fated experiment with seven classes of high school football will be short-lived.

After public backlash regarding the new system, which created Class 11AAA in a desperate attempt to counteract recent dominance by the Sioux Falls schools, plans are already in place to change the classification structure starting in 2015.

Rather than going to five classes, as I suggested in a recent column, the South Dakota High School Activities Association staff is planning to propose a new six-class system with four 11-man classes and two 9-man divisions.

Class 11AAA would be based on 12 schools rather than eight, restoring some of the traditional flavor of top-class football while eliminating the most serious enrollment-variance issues.

Using current enrollment figures, Class 11AAA would consist of Roosevelt, Rapid City Central, Lincoln, Washington, Rapid City Stevens, Aberdeen Central, Watertown, Brandon Valley, Yankton, Brookings, Pierre and Mitchell.

O’Gorman would petition up and nobody would be allowed to move down, which means the top class will likely consist of 13 schools.

The basic structure after that would be 12 teams for Class 11AA and 24 each for Class 11A and 11B, although some of those divisions could be adjusted if needed. The remaining schools would likely be divided in half to account for Class 9A and 9B, reducing the 9-man divisions from three to two.

This plan, similar to one proposed by retired assistant activities director Bob Lowery, is being formulated by SDHSAA staff after no consensus was reached in football advisory board meetings with coaches.

“One thing we discovered was that if you ask 141 football coaches, you’ll get 141 different plans,” said assistant director John Krogstrand.

The six-class proposal will be presented as a discussion item at the state activities board meeting in January and could be voted on by the board of directors as early as March 5.

“We’d like to address the new classifications as early as possible because schools may have to make some changes,” said Krogstrand. “We’d like to give them full and fair notice of where they’re going to be.”

The problem is that the eight-member board includes three ESD representatives, and many of the sentiments that led the group to approve the seven-class system are still festering.

Asking the board to place ESD schools such as Yankton, Watertown, Mitchell, Pierre and Brookings back with Sioux Falls could re-ignite some of that “we can’t compete” consternation.

But clearly something must be done, and not just at the top. This past season, we saw classes stretched to the point where there weren’t enough good teams to fill out a schedule or playoff bracket, which affects quality of play, diminishes fan experience and cheats student-athletes.

It’s time to put selfish interests aside to make South Dakota prep football something that we can take pride in once again. Five classes would better accomplish that goal, but six would be a step back toward sanity.

“We need to look at what’s best for the whole rather than the parts,” said Krogstrand. “Whether you’re a board member from the largest or smallest school districts, the challenge is to look at what’s best for all 141 football teams, not just the one from your community.”

That approach also extends to basketball and volleyball, where new Class AA postseason formulas have been explored for the past several years.

The stated goal is to find ways get the best teams into the state tournament to provide competitive integrity, but even that simple directive has been skewed by special interests.

One of the proposals to come out of the ESD camp would realign the districts and eliminate regional play, with District 1 consisting solely of the four Sioux Falls schools. District champions would qualify for the state tournament, while the second- and third-place teams would square off against other districts (on a rotating basis) for play-in games.

The plan would mathematically prevent Sioux Falls from getting four teams into the tournament while benefitting the ESD schools (Yankton, Watertown, Brookings, Brandon Valley and Harrisburg) that would comprise District 2.

If the mission is to get the best teams into the state tournament while providing some statewide representation, why not leave the districts alone and still allow the four champions to automatically advance? That ensures that even District 4, the West River bloc that has struggled mightily in recent years, is represented in the Big Dance each year.

The fourth-place teams are eliminated, which leaves eight remaining schools to be seeded statewide to determine the rest of the field. This plan gives more weight to the regular season and is undeniably a more appropriate competitive formula, as long as you take emotions and self interest out of the mix.

Of course, steady bickering about these basketball/volleyball proposals makes it unlikely that any plan will emerge as a front-runner to be presented to the board, so get ready for more of the same.

In South Dakota, the land that time forgot, that’s the easiest solution of all.