Into The Swarm

Head coach Tom O'Boyle dives into a swarm of his Vermillion Tanagers football players as they celebrate their 21-7 victory over Tri-Valley Thursday, Oct. 28 in the DakotaDome. Vermillion met Milbank in its next playoff game the following week in the Dome. Milbank was victorious and earned a spot in this year’s South Dakota High School playoffs played last weekend.

The 1981 lawsuit leading to high school football playoffs created a great change for South Dakota, and those changes have continued for the past 40 years.

The DakotaDome, which has hosted the playoffs for most of its history, has even seen major changes in recent years. The Dome, which opened in 1979 on the University of South Dakota campus, provided a major boost to ushering in post-season play, according to SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos.

“The DakotaDome almost directly led to the addition of football championships in 1981,” he said. “Without the DakotaDome, the conversation around football championships could very well have taken many more years and would likely look very different than what we currently have.”

The championship weekend has changed with the addition of football classes. This year, three games were played both Thursday and Friday, with the Class 11AAA title contest played Saturday.

The Dome will actually hosted two major football contests Saturday with the USD Coyotes hosting South Dakota State University (SDSU) in a rivalry game with major conference and national playoff implications during the afternoon. Saturday night, the Class 11AAA will champion was determined on DakotaDome gridiron in the game between Harrisburg and Brandon Valley.


For USD athletic director David Herbster, last week included non-stop action for several days, with Coyote activities sandwiched in between the high school contests.

Even with all the activity, the SDHSAA and USD operate a finely-tuned schedule. With one exception, the DakotaDome has hosted the football championship games during their entire history. The lone absence came during DakotaDome renovations when games were moved to Brookings for one year.

As a permanent host, USD and the DakotaDome offer stability and a solid working relationship with the SDHSAA and others, Herbster said. Each entity has taken on its specific roles, and strong communication — with flexibility as needed — has made for smooth operations each year, he added.

As the playoffs have grown, so has the staff and resources for handling it, Swartos said. He noted the important role of USD as hosts.

“It takes great coordination with the excellent team at USD. In recent years, they have been adding the help of their sports management students. Those students get real-life experience at managing an event, and we get great additional help,” he said.

“Randy Soma from our (SDHSAA) office has had many meetings with the USD team, starting in the summer and continuing through the fall, to ensure everything is planned accordingly and that we can keep the event moving.”

The addition of the college game to the weekend brings another dimension, Swartos said.

“I don’t know how many times in the past our championships have coincided with the USD/SDSU game in Vermillion, but it certainly adds excitement,” he said. “Dave Herbster from USD is amazing to work with, and we are happy to have this partnership in place.”


During the past four decades, the playoffs have seen a number of major changes, Swartos said.

“I recently took a pretty good look at that history and learned a lot, from the first game in South Dakota in 1896 to a ban on playoffs from 1926-1980, to a lawsuit, to now 40 years of playoff football,” he said.

“We’ve had shifts from 6-man football to 8-man football to 9-man football, shifts in classifications from 5 to 6 to 7, shifts in playoff structures, and incredible advancements in how we understand and approach head injuries and heat illnesses.”

The playoff structure itself has changed significantly because of changing enrollments that will likely continue, Swartos added.

“That is always hard to predict,” he said. “Our nine-man numbers of teams are down significantly this year — 58 actively playing, I believe —so that is something we will need to discuss.”

The SDHSAA has always received proposals for classification changes, Swartos said. Some of it has been fueled by enrollment changes, co-ops and consolidations. Other times, it’s the rise of new schools, he noted. The past two years have seen the opening of Sioux Falls Jefferson, Lakota Tech, Sioux Falls Lutheran, Elk Mountain and Black Hills Christian Academy.

Those changes will likely continue in the future, Swartos added.

“Adding schools is always a good thing, but we cannot ignore the shifting demographics of our state,” he said.

He cited the historical trends which have led to a decrease in teams.

“As I looked back at football playoff history, there were over 340 member schools in the 1950s. Right now we have 182 member schools,” he said.

“I think we will likely continue to see consolidations in our smaller communities as it becomes more difficult to put out enough kids, particularly in the team sports like football, basketball and volleyball.”


Referee availability has created a major issue in recent years, Swartos said. Because of it, games have been scheduled away from the traditional “Friday night lights” to include other weekdays, afternoons and weekends.

“Our officials numbers are relatively flat, which is better than declining, but we have severe shortages geographically in different areas of the state,” he said.

“We have plans on some targeted recruiting in different areas in our state, as well as developing programs in the state’s post-secondary institutions to continue to replenish our supply of officials.”

The SDHSAA and its member schools have taken steps to meet those challenges, Swartos said.

“In terms of general steps to ensure that we always have officials — sportsmanship and perspective are two of the most important factors,” he said.

“To be frank, officials are treated pretty terribly by fans too often. We strive to see sportsmanship in our youth, we ought to model it ourselves as adults and never lose perspective that it is not life or death and it is not war.”

The perspective needs to return to fun and learning, along with respect for officials and the game, Swartos said.

“These are kids and they are playing a game for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of the fans. The officials are there to do their best to enforce the rules,” he said.


Recent years have brought another change, as football isn’t just a boy’s game. Girls are showing up on rosters, as well, with Garretson’s Jenna VanHolland taking on kicking duties for the Blue Dragons football team.

Earlier this fall, she first gained statewide attention by kicking the winning extra point in an overtime game. Last Friday, she became the first girl named to a South Dakota all-state football team.

Swartos applauded the introduction of girls to the South Dakota gridiron.

“I think it is great! There have been a number of female kickers. I know Pierre had a female kicker who played on their championship team a few years ago,” he said.

“In terms of rapid growth of female football players — I don’t know if I see that on the horizon, but the opportunity is there for females who want to give it a try. We have amazing athletes in our state, both male and female, and anytime those kids get to do what they love that is a good thing.”

In a similar manner, the All Nations Conference — which held its championship games last week in the Dome — grew out of a desire to create more opportunities for schools with predominantly Native American populations increase participation and build up their football programs, Swartos said.

“The All-Nations Conference has been incredibly important,” he said.

A number of those schools are federally run and/or are run as boarding schools, he said. They often don’t have students on campus until several weeks into the season.

The new conference worked well with those circumstances, Swartos said.

“The All-Nations Conference schedule allowed for those schools to start a bit later without starting 10 steps behind every year, as other schools had their students during the summer and were able to do team camps and other activities,” he said. “It has led to tremendous participation growth and we are absolutely thrilled to support it.”

The DakotaDome has hosted the All Nations championship game and sees it as an important role for USD, Herbster said.

“This is a great outreach to Native American athletes and tribes. It’s also vitally important to provide an opportunity to compete for and experience a championship,” he said.

“These schools may not have the same resources as the bigger schools but that doesn’t mean they should not have the same opportunities to earn a title against like schools.”


USD takes pride in hosting the football playoffs, Herbster said. Players look forward not only to battling for the state crown but also the experience of playing inside the DakotaDome, he noted.

“It is a great showcase for USD, the state and the region to have the championships here and with remodeled Dome, offers expanded seating and helps us better manage multiple teams playing in the same session from a seat allocation perspective,” he said.

Many teams and fans will see the DakotaDome improvements in person for the first time, Herbster noted before last weekend’s playoff games kicked off. The upgrades include entrances from both east and west sides, a new sound system and lights, and more restrooms and concession stands.

Both the teams and fans can enjoy the amenities, Herbster said.

“With fans on both sides, the crowd noise will be louder and more intense. We have a full service kitchen which helps to better serve the concession stands and allows us to increase the variety of menu offerings,” he said. “We have also expanded parking south of the Sanford Coyote Sports Center, which provides closer more convenient parking.”

Swartos appreciates the Game Day improvements. “The renovations are incredible and have made an already great venue that much better,” he said.


The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for hosting the games, Herbster said. The USD facilities observed strict protocols last year and have kept some in place.

“The athletes have really appreciated the lifting of the attendance restrictions and to be able to play in front of bigger crowds and, in some instances, just a crowd,” he said. “The fans have been great at coming back, and they have as much relief to be able to watch the games in person as the athletes have to play in front of fans.”

Swartos also welcomed the ability to hold events in a more traditional format.

“It certainly has been much more of a ‘normal’ fall feel to it this year, and that is a wonderful thing,” he said. “We have protocols for students who test positive in regards to their return to play. All playing rule modifications from last year have been lifted.”

Since its inception in 1981, the football playoffs and games in general have come a long way, Swartos said. He expects change will remain a constant in the years ahead.

“The game has evolved a lot, and our job is to continue to evolve with it,” he said. “I am very excited for the next 40 years of playoff football in South Dakota.”

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