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State's Smaller Schools Find Difficulty Fielding Football Teams

Gary Ellenbolt

Friday night, the lights will go on at high school football fields across South Dakota.  Teams in the state’s seven classes begin play with an eye toward state championships in mid-November.  But this season, and in 2016, the lights won’t go on in a southeast South Dakota town that once was a football powerhouse.

I’m going to ask you to work with me here for a minute—this is a football crowd; just not the way you’re used to hearing it.  For instance, it’s pretty unusual to have a young man in a purple and gold football jersey come up to someone in the crowd and say “Tonight’s special is barbecue ribs—half-rack or full-rack.”

Tyrell Martz wears Number Three for the Centerville High School Tornadoes—he’s taking part in an annual football fund-raiser at the Centerville Steakhouse.  Any tips given to the players go to support the Tornado football team.  It’s a 9-B program, and Head Coach Pat Sees will go into the season without a lot of players.

According to Sees, "We’ve kinda been up and down a little bit—a couple years ago we were right around 25—and we’re right around 17 right now; and we’re kind of at a downturn at this point.  Hopefully, in the next couple years, we won’t fall below 15 or 16, but hopefully we’ll recover over a period of about four or five years, our numbers are looking much better.”

That creates a precarious situation for the Tornadoes, who open the season in Parker Friday night.  But, it’s a better scenario than what teams from Freeman and Highmore-Harrold are up against this year.  Those teams won’t carry their colors into games at all in 2015.  Don Hotchkiss is the long-time superintendent in Freeman; and he’s the athletic director.  Hotchkiss says he can tell the start of school has a little different feel from previous years.

Hotchkiss observes, “I think it’s kind of a subdued mood right now, but we’re only in the third day of school, so it’s kind of hard to put a measuring stick on that.  We have a cross country meet coming up this week, and so, we’ll have a home volleyball match on Thursday, so we’ll have a better gauge on that.  But yeah, I think there’s a general disappointment, I think, the kids.”

Hotchkiss has compiled player numbers since 1981, the year the state started post-season playoffs.  In a 10-year run from 1994 to 2004, as many as 30 players wore the Flyers’ maroon-and-white uniforms.  The Flyers won four consecutive state titles in the late 90s.    17 players were available in 2013—15 last year—and for the first practice this year, ten players showed up.

Freeman is a town of about 13 hundred people, obviously with a proud football tradition.  With all that in mind—where are the players? 

Don Hotchkiss can name that tune in seven notes:  “I think we’ve got a lot of X-box players, but I think we’re generally like everybody else.  We’ve got a low interest in football right now, I think our numbers reflect that, and we’re trying to get a youth program started, and I think that will bring back some interest and enthusiasm for football.”

Freeman’s administration basically had no choice but to cancel this season—with numbers not looking much better next year, the 2016 season went away as well.  But, clinging to a hope the available players at Freeman may be able to play at another school, Coach Chris Sayler still holds nightly practices.

Sayler says, “I’m still holding practice as normal, but it’s hard to keep the kids motivated when they don’t know the fate and everybody else is getting ready for this weekend.”

One other program has given up football for this year, but boys who want to play football will get their opportunity.  Highmore-Harrold had fewer than a dozen players come out to wear the Pirates colors this fall.  Those players were invited to compete with Miller High School; they petitioned the State High School Activities Association, and were approved to absorb into the Miller program.  John Krogstrand with the Activities Association says Highmore-Harrold’s leaders put together a compelling case for the board.

According to Krogstrand, “Yeah, maybe it’s no different than a hardship case, or items like that, where the school or the administrators from the school have to show that there was an unforeseen circumstance where, really the kids kinda get caught in the middle a little bit.”

Comparing the case of nine-man football to a prison movie, players, coaches and fans in Freeman are hoping for their own last-minute call that would halt the program’s execution.  Canistota has invited the 10 Freeman players to come play for the Hawks this season.  Freeman Superintendent Don Hotchkiss says all he can do is try to plead his school’s case—but he’s not hopeful.

He says, “Well, I believe after the Highmore-Harrold decision a couple, three weeks ago, I think there’s been some negativity regarding that situation.  And I’m not particularly confident that they’re gonna change their mind and let Canistota stay in nine-man—at least in 9-A.  So I’m not going out there with any pre-conceived ideas—I’ve talked to the staff of the Activities Association, and I think they’ll probably oppose this.”

If the answer is no—Hotchkiss and Coach Sayler have a possible contingency plan that would give their student-athletes at least a few games.

Hotchkiss says “Well, we’re gonna take the nine or ten kids that we have now and try to play a JV schedule.  And, if that JV schedule is with another school, fine.  The results of our meeting a week ago had parents say ‘we’d like to have a JV schedule with Freeman Flyers if we can.  And that’ll be first and foremost, if we can, do to that.  But again, with nine or ten kids out, one or two injuries and you can’t even play a JV schedule.”

The Activities Association re-worked the nine-man schedule to accommodate the eight teams that lost games when Highmore-Harrold decided they couldn’t field a team this year.  Now, the eight opponents scheduled to face Freeman are trying to avoid another hole in their schedules.  Centerville had Freeman on its schedule, and had a chance to play 9-Double-A power Wolsey-Wessington in Wolsey.  That would have left the Tornadoes with three home games, since Freeman was scheduled to come to Centerville in October.  Centerville’s athletic director, Doug Edberg, says that would be a difficult test for a 9-B school with 17 players.  Edberg and athletic directors from Alcester-Hudson and Hanson, worked out an agreement between the three schools, and with some juggling, put the Tornadoes up against Hanson in the next to last week of the regular season.  Edberg says lining up against the Hanson Beavers should provide more favorable competition for Centerville.

Edberg warns,  “They’re not gonna be a gimme by any means—but a 9-A as opposed to a 9-Double-A…they told me they have 25 athletes, we have 17, so it sounds more ideal for us in this situation.  And the state has gave us the option to go ahead and try that, or do whatever we want.  And they’re doing whatever they can for something they really couldn’t forsee happening.  Nobody had gave them a heads-up and it’s not their fault either.”

Centerville’s coach, Pat Sees, will do the best he can with his numbers this year, while realizing his program might have to take a hard look at things if rosters continue to decline.  Sees says the state can step in if too many teams face that option.

Sees points out, "If a certain number of nine-man teams fall below that—we will actually reduce a class, and we’d only have two.  In the Activities Association handbook, that might be a real thing that could happen.”

Centerville opens at Parker Friday night, with the home opener next week against Garretson.  No matter how the season turns out for the Tornadoes, they’ll still have an opportunity the players in Freeman and Highmore-Harrold would love to have as well.