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Varsity Football Returns to Centerville After Low Enrollment Numbers Recover

Gary Ellenbolt
South Dakota Public Broadcasting

This weekend brings the third week of high school football in South Dakota.  Teams from across the state are settling into a form of routine as they work toward a November weekend at the Dakota Dome.  One school in southeast South Dakota last played in a State Title game in the Clinton Administration. Since then it’s been a difficult stretch. Last year, enrollment issues and low player numbers forced the Centerville Tornadoes to drop varsity football.  After a season of meeting Junior Varsity squads, the Tornadoes are back under Friday Night Varsity Lights.  Today on “In the Moment,” South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Gary Ellenbolt looks at the re-birth of varsity football in a small Turner County town.

In 19-82, Jack “Treetop” Straus was involved in the World Series of Poker.  He had one 25 dollar chip left in the game—but with that chip, he came back and won the whole thing.  Someone remarked, “All you need is a chip and a chair,” and the phrase became a popular expression.

On this sunny evening at Larsen Park in Centerville, the Tornado football team is filling the chairs and benches in a picnic shelter.  The team has just finished practice, and they’re bonding with a meal of barbecue pork and potato chips.

“You know, I think they’re excited about playing varsity football again.  I think the town is excited about playing varsity football; moms and dads have worked with them a lot, and explaining what does that mean to the community, what does that mean to the parents, and what it should mean to the school—and yeah, I think they’ve kinda bought into it.”

Pat Sees grew up in nearby Irene—he’s the head football coach in Centerville.

This week’s football game is the first event of the school year at Centerville, though classes won’t begin for another four days.  The school is directed by its third superintendent in three years.  Eric Knight comes to the district from Chester, northwest of Sioux Falls.  Knight likes what he sees in his new district; especially with enrollment figures.

“You know," Knight says, "we’re gonna have an enrollment larger than it’s been the last 10 years already this year—and we’ll just look for those to continue to grow.  And when you have those numbers, the kids maybe get a little better opportunity, a little more opportunity; but in small towns, things like that are cyclical anyway.  So we’re just gonna rise and continue to provide opportunities for those kids, and try to make it work.”

The Tornadoes will need every available body Friday night at Stan Schmiedt Field.  The return to varsity play puts Centerville against the Colome Cowboys.  A big, very talented team pulls into Centerville, completing a 150-mile trip. 

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
The Colome Cowboys line up for player introductions in Centerville, SD, Friday August 18th, 2017. Colome is the defending State 9-B Champion.

The Cowboys are dressed in white jerseys with Kelly green pants and helmets.  There’s not really a swagger to the young men—but it’s a very confident team, bringing a sort of lunch pail mentality to the effort tonight.

The Centerville team nods to tradition and runs to the field from the high school—crossing Larsen Park, past the pool and Tornado Alley Disc Golf course to get to the field.  As they get to the playing surface, Journey’s song, “Don’t Stop Believing,” faintly greets them from the press box.

The Tornadoes are in purple jerseys tonight—it’s a color the local teams have worn since the late 1920s, when a school vote gave them the name of “Purple Tornadoes.”  There’s not a lot of size to the team.  Players from seventh grade to the senior level are warming up for the game.  Head Coach Pat Sees says his players are just happy to hit the field.

Sees explains, “You know, I think the biggest thing is—we just have, I think it’s more about the age level we have right now.  It’s not like J-V or Varsity or anything like that.  It’s more about the maturity of our kids, and where we’re at.  Just being our age, in terms of our age.  Just going out and being ready to go, and learning how to execute every single day.”

It's 45 minutes before the 7:00 kickoff, so both sets of stands aren’t occupied yet.  Superintendent Eric Knight knows his new district and its students have been through a lot lately.

Knight says,  “For those kids to not have a varsity opportunity for a while, you know, my heart goes out to those kiddoes; but happy that this group can bring varsity football to a prideful town that we are—and I’m excited for it.”

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Centerville cheerleaders stand attention for the Presentation of the Colors and the National Anthem at Stan Schmeidt Field in Centerville, South Dakota.

Centerville wins the coin toss, and elects to take the football to start the game.  The initial drive stalls, and the Tornadoes give up the ball.  The best seat at Stan Schmeidt Field belongs to a man who spends his days selling insurance from an office on Broadway Street.  Describing the action at the field—and throughout the town of 900 people—is public address announcer Brad Preheim. 

“There are people who sit on their back decks and listen to the PA, and they ask me to announce the score more often, because everyone here can see the scoreboard and I kinda neglect that.  So I’ve been asked to say the score more often so that the people listening at home can kinda listen on their patios.  Of course, the goal on that is that as the program develops, those people listening out on the patios will come out and watch the game in person.”

The first quarter, and for part of the second half, the Tornadoes are hanging tough with the defending 9-B state champions.  But it’s a warm night, and a big, experienced opponent, and the Cowboys have a 44-0 lead at half time.   Both teams better get used to this match-up—they’re members of the new Great Plains Football Conference.  The league includes Corsica-Stickney, Tripp-Delmont-Armour-Andes Central/Dakota Christian, Gayville-Volin and a few other schools in the southeast part of the state.  Centerville’s high school principal and athletic director, Doug Edberg, says everyone needs to be patient with the Tornadoes as they roll-out a new varsity season.

“I think—just being competitive tonight; our boys going out and giving their all and not giving up early.  Just understanding it’s gonna take a little bit.  We’re not gonna expect a state championship in the first year.  It’s gonna take time, and we’re obviously very young yet,” Edberg says.

Edberg says the Tornadoes need room to grow; he says that’s the case for the new league, too.

“At this time," Edberg points out, "the Great Plains Conference is only football; but, yes, that’s our intention by 2018-’19, we will have everything incorporated—cross country, volleyball, everything across the board.”

Colome starts the second half six points from winning the game through the Mercy Rule.  In high school games in the state, the game is over if one team has a 50-point lead at halftime, or takes a lead of 50 points anytime in the second half.  Of course, the team wearing the home purple and gold uniforms are disappointed in the result.  But Doug Edberg says this is a team that will show improvement, that will be in a lot of their games this season.

Edberg says, “You know, you look at our schedule; out of the eight games, we have six teams that are going to be very comparable to what we are; so, we’re very pleased.  You know, before, we had eight games where everybody was bigger than us; now we have three-quarters of our schedule with teams pretty much the same as ours.”

The Tornadoes and Cowboys are sharing pizza at the high school after the game—under the bylaws of the new conference, the home team has to feed the visiting team.  Coach Sees, Doug Edberg, the 22 members of the Tornado football team now get ready for Scotland, Gayville-Volin, and the rest of this year’s schedule.  They’re hoping for a few wins on the varsity slate—but all they really want, when you get down to it, is a place to play, a level playing field against their opponents, and a chance to be competitive.

In short—all they want—all they need—is a chip and a chair.

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