Playoffs During A Pandemic

A DakotaDome view shows action during one of last week’s South Dakota high school football championship games. The shot also captures the increased seating on the west side after recent renovations and the social distancing of ticket sales because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canistota/Freeman won its third straight state football title Thursday at the DakotaDome, but Kristina Sage saw the program achieving another major victory during a pandemic.

Unlike a number of South Dakota schools, the Canistota/Freeman team — known as the “Pride” — finished its entire season without missing a game because of the coronavirus, said Sage, the Freeman Public Schools athletic director.

The feat of avoiding COVID cancellations became even more notable because the co-op team members come from multiple communities and faced opponents from around the state.

“We would be ready for anything every week in our program,” Sage said.

Canistota/Freeman school officials implemented a number of measures to heighten student and staff health and safety. Each school took their athletes to contests on separate buses. Masks were required on the buses, and seating arrangements were used to restrict player contact and to ease contact tracing, if needed.

At Freeman Public, students can take virtual classes or a hybrid course combining remote and in-person instruction, Sage said. “During the last weeks (of the season), our football players did online learning to reduce their chance of getting COVID,” she said.

For pandemic reasons, the Freeman Public schools didn’t charge admission this fall for football games and volleyball matches, Sage said.

“If we charged admission, we would have needed someone to take money and handle being with a lot of people (creating possible COVID exposure),” she said. “And for a lot of people, this is already a really financially challenging time. We didn’t want to make it any harder for them. People really appreciated it.”

Some traditions continued but in a different form because of COVID, Sage said. Rather than host visiting teams for a post-game meal, the Freeman schools sent along pizzas or sack lunches for the ride home.

Even the community welcome after the state championship fell victim to the pandemic, Sage said.

“We said there was no way to do it this year,” she said. “We had pizzas delivered to the team (after the championship game). The coaches said, ‘Boys, there’s one pizza for two of you, so who’s your partner in eating one of them?’”

It’s all part of dealing with a pandemic, but it didn’t dampen the excitement of winning the “three-peat” championship, Sage said. She credited the teamwork of the administrators, coaches and athletes in navigating through a season that many wondered would even occur.

“It was a relief for us. There was great jubilation in that we finished the season on a high note,” she said. “We won another championship during a season with a lot of uncertainty.”

MAKING IT A REALITY

When COVID hit the state last March, the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) canceled remaining winter competition and, subsequently, all of the spring sports.

The SDHSAA recalibrated and moved forward with fall sports, including football. Because of COVID, the season included postponements and cancellations. In some cases, teams scheduled each other as replacements for original opponents hit by COVID.

SDHSAA officials were prepared for COVID cases affecting the title contests, even on game day. However, the season reached the finish line last week with the seven championship games on the University of South Dakota (USD) campus.

The Dome had hosted all of the state football championship games since they began in 1981. During last year’s Dome renovations, the finals were moved to South Dakota State University in Brookings but returned this year.

While work was in progress, the Dome’s fan seating was reduced by about half. The new improvements have not only returned the Dome to roughly its prior number of seats but also put the facility in good shape to meet COVID requirements.

SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos noted those features.

“The renovations helped tremendously in hosting this year, largely due to the additional side of seating,” he said. “It allowed us to separate the fan bases on each side of the Dome and use different entrances. The renovations are incredible and will be enjoyed by South Dakotans for years to come.”

SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand echoed those sentiments.

“For us specifically, the addition of 3,000-plus seats on the west side allows us to seat communities opposite one another and create a better environment and setup for our championship games,” he said. “With the both-sides of the Dome option, we were able to accommodate about 1,000 more fans with the socially-distant policies of ticketing as we would have been able to do without the renovations.”

USD also handled ticket sales, implementing social distancing measures and limiting ticket sales, if needed.

As part of its COVID policy, the South Dakota Board of Regents requires masks inside facilities at the public universities, including the DakotaDome. Those who arrived at the Dome for last weekend’s games without masks were provided one.

“For the most part, people have been understanding (of the policy), though getting everybody to keep them on during the game has been a challenge,” said USD Athletic Director David Herbster.

Swartos, who was quarantining during the football finals because of close contact with a COVID case, said he wasn’t aware of any issues with enforcing masks at the DakotaDome gates.

“I think, by and large, (fans) complied fairly well,” he said. “We did not have the staffing available to be going through the crowd and making sure everyone had one on for every minute of the game.”

Herbster noted the Dome now holds 9,100 fans and provided more space for social distancing during last week’s finals. However, the additional entrances created staffing challenges.

“I think what we have found challenging is spreading out our staff and crew to manage two sides and entrances,” he said. “For previous years’ football games, we only had to manage the east side and the student entrance.”

During the playoff weekend, USD staff cleaned the locker rooms after each game and continuously cleaned or attended to all the public spaces, Herbster said. The field was sanitized daily through the playoffs.  

“The challenge comes with adding that extra layer of cleaning on top of everything else with the same amount of staff,” he said. “We are working harder and longer to ensure the health and safety of everybody.”

For last weekend’s state football finals, the competing teams were kept to minimum contact for COVID reasons, Herbster said. “The teams have had very specific times on when they can enter the facility, and we try to get them out quickly so we can clean out the locker rooms,” he said

For Canistota/Freeman head football coach James Strang, the atmosphere during a pandemic was different than his previous trips to the Dome. “Not having a full crowd was different, but it was no different in terms of preparation,” he said.

However, the COVID protocols created some challenges with the locker-room setup, Strang said.

“We didn’t have locker room space available until around 6:10 (p.m.) for a (7 p.m.) game. We had to wait until Dell Rapids was out (from the previous game) and the locker room had been cleaned,” he said.

“There weren’t other locker rooms available to dress in. We went over to a gym space in the basketball facility to dress and then bring all of our stuff back to the field. By my understanding it was a lack of locker space and COVID precautions.”

However, those pre-game adjustments didn’t take away from the overall experience of playing in the state title game, Strang said.

“I won my seventh title as a coach and fourth as a head coach and capped off being three-time state champ in Class 9A, so it was great to be able to play it,” he said.

OTHER “PLAYERS”

The football teams weren’t the only ones who experienced the thrill of the state spotlight during last week’s championship games.

Menno High School senior Caden Fischer sang the national anthem before Thursday’s opening game. He had auditioned for the honor since he was a freshman, and he was chosen this year after sending an audition tape.

“Singing the national anthem at the state football (finals) was exhilarating! The pandemic did not seem to affect how I did my performance, but the pandemic has made music-making difficult,” he said.

“Many of the conferences that host honors choirs, school concerts and contests, and other music events have been canceled. Music-making can continue, but with precautions. I was not asked to sing with a mask, but they require that we wear masks anywhere else. I didn’t see much social distancing, but mask-wearing was apparent.”

As a freshman, Fischer sang the national anthem at the State B girls basketball tournament. However, performing at the 50-yard-line in a large domed stadium was a different experience in terms of acoustics. He admitted to nerves but viewed the Dome performance as a fantastic experience.

Fischer dedicated his performance to veterans.

“I sing the national anthem because it is the least I can do to respect the people who protect this great nation every day,” he said. “Without our military and veterans, we would not have the freedoms we do today. It is because of their great sacrifice that we can live in the United States of America.”

The Dome playoffs also provide a meaningful experience for the referees, who consider it one of the top honors of their career.

For the crew working Saturday night’s Class 11AAA game, it also marked a swan song. The crew consists of Jason Selchert and Brian Ryken of Gayville, Trey Krier of Yankton, Mike King of Irene and Randy Bertram of Vermillion with Steve Krier of Sioux Falls as the alternate.

“Our crew was honored to work our fourth championship game and what will be our last as after 19 years, our crew is retiring. The experience was as exciting as it was in 2005 when we worked our first,” Selchert said.

“The day and whole year was noticeably different. Social distancing and masks, although a necessity, changed the complexion of communication and interaction with coaches and players.”

Selchert compared last weekend’s experience to a previous year.

“We worked the 11AAA game in 2015, and it was a noticeable change in crowd size and noise level,” he said. “The new (Dome) upgrades make for a better fan experience as was noticed by the fans attending who were supporting the officials only.”

Selchert considered working Saturday’s title game for the state’s largest schools as a great end to his crew’s refereeing — even during a pandemic.

“We had a great run with too many memories to count and exciting stories to tell,” he said. “But we will never probably forget our last year officiating in COVID and culminating with a championship appearance. (It’s) not how we would have pictured the last year, but surely memorable.”

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