Is it time for South Dakota to sanction high school baseball?
Softball is in its first year as a sanctioned sport, and early returns are positive. Is baseball next?
SIOUX FALLS — When South Dakota's high school activities association approved the sanctioning of softball for the 2022-23 school year, they anticipated as many as 20 schools to field varsity teams. They got almost 50.
And by all accounts, the first year of sanctioned softball has been a success. The players are truly representing their school. They have transportation to and from games instead of riding in parents' vans and SUVs. And out-of-pocket costs to play are a thing of the past.
So is baseball next?
Right now, high school baseball in South Dakota is a club sport. The teams use the nicknames and logos of their schools, but they are not governed by the South Dakota High School Activities Association, nor does that organization oversee their state championships. And the teams and players are not included in their schools' state-funded athletic budgets.
None of which is to say high school baseball in South Dakota, which did not debut until the early 2000s, is a rouge, poorly run sport. The independent South Dakota High School Baseball Association currently runs high school baseball, and there are few complaints about the job the organization does. Many coaches are perfectly happy with the status quo and don't see a pressing need to get sanctioned.
But there are plenty of coaches who do want to see it, and players seem to overwhelmingly support the idea, too.
"It would be really exciting and a really good thing for our public schools," said Roosevelt coach Erik DeJong. "I just think it would be a great thing for the kids."
Adds Chris Brown of the Brandon Valley baseball association: "It would be a good thing for the sport. In many ways."
Cost the primary factor
As a club sport, high school baseball teams have to raise their own money for equipment, umpires, uniforms and travel, and facility usage. That means out of pocket costs for players and families.
"Club baseball ends up being a sport of means," DeJong said. "I know there are more kids in our schools who would play if it wasn't for the expense."
Brown agreed, and pointed out the problems potentially run deeper than just basic costs.
"There's always some things that come into play with paying to play," Brown said. "One, obviously, is can the family afford it, and if they can't, are they willing to step forward and ask for help? A lot of times they're not. In our association if you want to play you get to play. We scholarship kids every year. But I always wonder if there are kids out there where it's a real burden on the family but they still put up those dollars to play because they don't want to ask for help.
"And then also, sometimes if a family is paying for something there's somewhat of an expectation that comes with that," Brown added. "OK, I'm cutting a check for this, my kid should be playing every day. That's not how it's supposed to work in varsity sports. That can be really tough on the coach."
Part of the program
From the players' standpoint, club sport status can feel a little like second-class citizenship. Some schools don't hang banners in their gyms for championships won in club sports. The athletes notice. Baseball is not treated the same way as sanctioned sports, and some coaches speculate that gives some good athletes a reason not to play.
"It's definitely different," said Jack Radel, a pitcher for Roosevelt. "The basketball games, you have tons of students and fans that come out. The baseball games a lot of times people don't even know about the games. There's a lot of guys that aren't playing (baseball) that should. They do track because it's more supported by the school."
Many club teams aren't able to use school facilities, and while sanctioned teams are bussed to games, club teams are driven by car-pooling parents and coaches. And because baseball games are not a school activity, teams aren't excused to leave class early for games like other sports. That means they can't hit the road until after school, leading to later game times on weeknights.
"If we were sanctioned, we wouldn't have gotten back from Yankton the other night at 12:30 (a.m.)," said Mitchell coach Luke Norden. "We'd have the opportunity to get out of school earlier. Softball games are now starting at 4:00 and they get in and get out and the kids get to bed."
Still, Norden is one coach who isn't convinced sanctioning is the way to go. He's not opposed to it, necessarily, but has concerns that it could end up weakening a strong status quo.
"If the spring season isn't going to maintain its same timeframe — if the high school season isn't going to be done when it's done right now so that Legion baseball can stay on its same schedule, then I'm against it," Norden said.
Indeed, the calendar is a major part of the discussion. Right now, the high school state tournament is the same weekend at the state track meet. If sanctioned, that would have to change. In Minnesota, the high school baseball state tournament is in June, which, Norden points out, would chop a significant number of games off the Legion schedule. While Minnesota has Legion baseball, too, it's considered secondary to high school. Nobody wants that here.
"We have an excellent thing going in South Dakota with high school and Legion baseball," said Joel Sage, who coached the Roosevelt high school team and the Post 15 West Legion team. "It's kind of the best of both worlds. I would hope if sanctioning happens, they'd find a way to keep them from interfering."
And while Norden made clear he's sympathetic to situations where cost is a factor, he pointed out that Mitchell is one of several towns that have one organization that oversees all organized baseball in that city, which makes for a uniform system that can handle everything from costs to umpires to facilities.
"All of our kids are the same kids under the same umbrella," Norden said. "All of our funding, through spring and summer, are all under one umbrella. So we don't have to compete dollar-wise to raise money for high school ball or Legion ball — it's all one deal for us."
That's not the case in Sioux Falls, where summer options for kids include multiple legion teams and the independent Sioux Falls Cyclones.
Which brings up another potential risk in sanctioning: Doing so would put high school baseball under the purview of the activities association, and while no one is suggesting that's a bad thing, it would mean oversight from people who are also responsible for all the other sports the state sponsors. Right now, high school baseball is ruled by the SDHSBA, for whom baseball is their sole focus. That has allowed high school baseball more flexibility with rules around bat rules, pitch counts and playing on Wednesdays or Sundays, days where competition is not allowed by the SDHSAA.
"Right now, you've got baseball people running it," Brown said. "If it's sanctioned, it's run by people with all the other sports to worry about. That could create hurdles. The SDHSBA has done a great job. It's well-run. They care about baseball and that's important. I guess you could lose that and it would become just another sport."
Making it happen
Soccer was once a club sport. It eventually became sanctioned. When South Dakota finally took the plunge on softball, Wyoming was the only other state that hadn't done it yet. Now Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota are the only sports that don't sanction baseball.
Dan Swartos, the director of the activities association, said his organization is already putting in a formal process, which the state has lacked previously, for officially submitting a process to add sanctioned sports and that baseball is very much on the table.
"We've begun preliminary discussions about it," Swartos said. "At the end of the day, we want to know from our membership if it's something they want or not. We're going to finalize that (application) process, start working through that policy to see what the interest is and go from there."
Swartos said the state would want to figure out a schedule that didn't conflict with American Legion baseball, but that also didn't conflict with the state track meet. Running it concurrently with state softball might be an option. Staffing for an additional state tournament could be an issue, and one concern some have raised is the possibility of club sports coaches not being allowed to coach sanctioned teams. So long as those coaches took required certification courses in first aid, CPR, concussion protocols, etc., however, they'd be fine.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," Swartos said. "We'd figure it out. We had concerns with softball, too. At the end of the day, schools weighed the costs and benefits and decided it was worth it to go ahead with it. If they come to the same conclusion for baseball, then that's what we'll do."