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11AAA Football...Really?

High school football in South Dakota, much like the rest of the country, is the pride of the prep sports scene. Participation and popularity seem to be ever-climbing, leaving very few people without some sort of connection to the sport. That makes it all but impossible for changes made within the game to go unnoticed.

There have been several significant changes in South Dakota high school football over the past few years, with playoff formats being the primary target.

In 2009, the South Dakota High School Activities Association approved a measure to seed teams in the state’s biggest class (11AA) from Nos. 1-16. That eliminated a system in which postseason matchups were determined by geography instead of wins and losses. A year later, the SDHSAA followed suit in the five remaining classes. And while both moves were met with vast approval, the changes haven’t stopped there.

Starting with the 2011 season, only the top-12 teams will qualify for the playoffs (based on power points). Teams will now be seeded Nos. 1-12, with the top four schools receiving first-round byes (there were no byes under the old format).

There is still one more potential change on the table, and it could be the biggest yet. The SDHSAA is now contemplating whether to divide the state’s biggest schools into two separate classes, 11AAA and 11AA, based on an enrollment number of 800. Here's how that would break down with schools that are currently playing at the 11AA level:

11AAA

Aberdeen Central, Brandon Valley, Rapid City Central, Rapid City Stevens, Sioux Falls Lincoln, Sioux Falls Roosevelt, Sioux Falls Washington, Watertown, Yankton

11AA

Brookings, Huron, Pierre, Mitchell, Sioux Falls O'Gorman (OG is likely to petition up to 11AAA)

Ask anyone in authority, and you’ll hear that this is designed to alleviate a perceived lack of competitive balance between the state's largest schools.

Translation: People are sick of being dominated by Sioux Falls schools.

When you look at it from a wins and losses perspective, it’s easy to validate that frustration. After all, a Sioux Falls high school has claimed the 11AA championship every year since 2004 (Washington 2009-2010, Lincoln 2008, Roosevelt 2006-07, O’Gorman 2004-2005). During that run, another Sioux Falls team has finished runner-up five times. Throw in the fact that last season’s 11AA semifinals were an all Sioux Falls affair and that many expect the same this fall, and it’s easy to see why some coaches/fans/administrators are crying foul.

I understand that Sioux Falls is the biggest city in the state and, therefore, has some of the biggest schools in the state. But the suggestion that those numbers create an unfair advantage for those programs is ridiculous. This day and age, every team/player can secure some sort of agility and skill training, and they certainly have access to their school’s weight room.

With all of these opportunities available to everyone in some capacity, there is no excuse that validates failure.

There’s no question that Sioux Falls has experienced an influx of talent in recent years, but the city’s current dynasty of dominance is built on strength of program, not strength in numbers. Mention tradition to Washington head coach Brian Hermanson, and he doesn't even try to hide his smile. "That was real important for our staff, to get that tradition back, the excitement back on the eastside," Hermanson said during a recent interview with MidcoSN. "Our kids are really excited about football here at Washington High School, not only the football players but the student body. And it really helps in the atmosphere of the school as you go throughout the school year."

This excitement is something that can be replicated at every school, regardless of size. But it takes effort. Believe it or not, Sioux Falls programs have experience their share of struggles. Before Roosevelt claimed the first of back-to-back titles in 2006, none of the city's public high schools had won a championship in the playoff era, which began in 1981. I'm sure there were internal frustrations, but they were never voiced publicly. Instead, the coaching staffs focused on what they could do to make things better. It took years, but their efforts are clearly being rewarded.

Let me make it clear that I am always a proponent of change, if it’s in the best interest of the game. For the most part, it seems like the recent series of alterations to South Dakota’s playoff formats have enhanced the competitive experience for student-athletes and fans alike. But, as I'm sure you can see by now, I strongly disagree with this latest proposal.

Not everyone can, or should, get a trophy. If you want to win, make the investment. Since 1981, teams from the "new 11AA" have figured out how to not only compete with, but knock down, South Dakota's "giants" five times. That's the same number of titles presently owned by Sioux Falls public schools. It can be done.

“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.”

-Vince Lombardi

Author's Note: Hope you enjoyed what will be the first of many posts on www.midcosportsnet.com. I've already started thinking about the next one. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@ElsenMidcoSN) for more frequent updates on regional sports news, MidcoSN programming, etc.

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