VERMILLION — A year ago, Lance Witte was concerned at the trend he was seeing among Native American football teams in South Dakota.
The Lower Brule superintendent noticed fewer players and struggling programs. Usually, those schools found themselves woefully overmatched in their games. Some programs went dormant or were disbanded altogether.
Witte discussed the issue with Lower Brule athletic director Leonard “Yamni” Jack and football coach Zeke Prado.
“We continued to see the participation numbers being an issue in many of our tribal schools — (Class) 11B and 11A schools having 15 or fewer players going against some real powerhouse schools,” Witte said. “We saw a need across tribal schools to increase participation levels and provide a safer and better experience for student/athletes.”
The Lower Brule trio looked for a way to boost the player numbers — and maybe even revive some school’s programs — while hopefully preventing injuries for outsized and outnumbered teams.
They developed the idea of a separate football conference for tribal schools as well as public schools with at least 50 percent Native American enrollment. The result — the All Nations Football Conference (ANFC) — launched its first season this fall with 12 teams divided into two divisions with playoffs.
History will be made tonight (Friday) when Lower Brule and Crow Creek clash for the first All Nations championship at 7 p.m. in the DakotaDome on the University of South Dakota campus.
In its first season, the ANC has already created a major difference, Prado said.
“The greatest impact is raising the bar in order to compete for the ANFC championship,” he said. “The final four teams have revved up participation and roster numbers. It’s great.”
Crow Creek superintendent Scott Klaudt, who also coaches the football team, has seen similar results.
“What I see, is this conference has built enthusiasm for football in Indian Country,” he said. “Here at Crow Creek, our numbers have tripled from previous years as well as our kids now have a desire to win.”
Because they competed in different classifications, Lower Brule and Crow Creek didn’t previously play each other in football even though they are located only 15 miles apart.
Because of the new conference, the two neighboring schools are playing each other. And they’re willing to drive — basically follow each other — three hours to Vermillion for tonight’s title showdown.
Klaudt hasn’t made any changes in preparing for tonight’s game. However, he acknowledged the special atmosphere that awaits his team.
“I know the players are all excited about having the opportunity to play in the DakotaDome,” he said. “This will be the first time for my coaches and players to experience the feeling of playing there.”
Klaudt likens tonight’s experience to the Lakota Nation Invitational, a multi-day basketball tournament in Rapid City that draws major crowds and has grown to include cultural events.
“The atmosphere rivals our teams going to the LNI and even to the state basketball tournament,” he said. “We hosted our first playoff game at Crow Creek since 1998 and won two playoff games for the first time in Crow Creek’s history. Having an opportunity for these athletes to win the first ever All Nation championship is something they will remember their entire life.”
Prado agreed, noting the conference has provided an opportunity sought by all high school players.
“As a coach, you always want to be part of post-season play and reach the end all. The championship game and here we are! We set a few goals and accomplished them this year,” he said.
“Playing in the Dome is a dream come true for my guys. We’re enjoying every minute of it. The whole community is behind us. It’s exciting and surreal.”
Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game, there are only winners, Prado said.
“The results have been above and beyond,” he said. “Participation is up and excitement is at a new high for football in our Tribal schools. It’s pretty cool.”
Tonight’s pre-game activity begins with the 5:30 p.m. line-up for the grand entry. The procession includes the drum group, dancers and All-Conference players in their respective team jerseys.
The 5:45 p.m. grand entry includes a welcome by USD President Sheila Gestring. The field will be cleared for team warm-ups, followed by team introductions at 6:50 p.m. The pre-game concludes with the flag song and colors presented by the Flandreau Jr. ROTC and the coin flip presented by the South Dakota National Guard.
The coaches and players aren’t the only ones excited to step on the field. The refereeing crew will also play a part in making history.
The crew includes Scott Andal of Salem, referee; Greg Kludt of Montrose, umpire; Pat Dockendorf of Corsica, head linesman; Jon Coler of Delmont, line judge; Austin Streyle of Scotland, back judge; and Donovan DeBoer of Parker, alternate.
Kludt said he looks forward to the energy and excitement of the “roam in the Dome.”
“The All Nations championship provides a historic and fun opportunity for everyone involved,” he said. “I feel quite honored to have a small part by being selected as officiating crew. Congratulations to both teams for earning their way to the title game.”
Dockendorf sees the crew’s selection for the historic game as literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s a big honor for me to be working the inaugural All Nations Football Conference Championship. I think it is an honor for the entire crew,” he said, “We have worked hard at trying to get better as a crew, hoping to get a playoff game and maybe even a championship game.
“I am looking forward to working the game. I think it should be a good, competitive game between two pretty good teams.”
Tonight’s pre-game events provide a showcase for Native American culture, Dockendorf said.
“Looking at the schedule for the day, it looks like it may be more than just a football game, more like a celebration,” he added.
Through the years, Prado has noticed the absence of Native teams who qualified for the state football title games in the DakotaDome.
“From what I know there hasn’t been a school with a large Native representation playing for a state (football) championship in the last 25 years,” he said. “I think we’re missing something.”
The conference schools are members of the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA), Witte said. However, the ANFC members opted out of the SDHSAA football classifications to form the new conference.
The All Nations conference was formed with the cooperation of the state association, Witte said. SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand has arranged referees for the conference throughout the season, he added.
The idea of such a conference had been considered for years, Krogstrand said. Ultimately, Witte, Jack and Prado formalized the proposal and brought it to the NAAC, Football Advisory Committee and others, Krogstrand said.
The SDHSAA viewed the ANC formation in a positive light, Krogstrand said.
“From the state office perspective, it is all about supporting the member schools, as well as the opportunities for participation,” he said. The ANC members are treated as playing “independent” SDHSAA football, which is allowed in the football handbook, he said. The school must still follow SDHSAA eligibility rules.
The West Division consists of Red Cloud, Oelrich, Crazy Horse, Takini, Cheyenne-Eagle Butte and Little Wound. The East Division is comprised of Lower Brule, St. Francis, Marty, Flandreau, Tiospa Zina and Crow Creek.
Chamberlain, Pine Ridge and Todd County received invites, but declined the option, Prado said.
USD athletic staff and Witte, on behalf of the conference, began conversations last spring about using the DakotaDome, according to USD Athletic Director David Herbster. Hosting the first All Nations Football conference championship has created some additional work to make sure everything is prepared, Herbster said.
“I do think it’s a step in the right direction to give these young student-athletes a meaningful and positive football experience,” he said.
The SDHSAA sees the ANFC’s first year as a successful one in at least one aspect, Krogstrand said.
“We have more kids participating in an activity than before, which has to be seen as a win. There are discussions ongoing to where the league will likely expand to a multi-state organization in the near future, with as many as 16 teams or more being part of the conference,” he said. “Those decisions will rest with the administrators of the schools participating within the conference, and we will continue to provide guidance and support as best we can.”
So what does it mean to be part of tonight’s historic game?
“It is exactly that...historic. This is the game that will be talked about for years — two schools with family ties and a rivalry,” he said. “What better way to kick off the inaugural ANFC championship.”
The Grand Entry and game are on Youtube.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.