“AA Divide” Series Rewind

BY JEREMY HOECK
jeremy.hoeck@yankton.net

Now that the Press & Dakotan has completed its 3-part “AA Divide” high school football series this past Saturday, we continue to receive significant feedback (which of course, was part of the point).

Sports editor James Cimburek wrote the first story on the rise of Sioux Falls football  over the last few years. I wrote the second installment on the decline of the ESD. And Bucks beat writer Chris Riley tackled the Yankton-focused final story.

A number of the comments we’ve gotten already have cenetered on two key issues: Coaching and player commitments (which could include off-season conditioning, etc.).

Both topics are worth exploring further, if we didn’t touch on them enough in our stories.

Coaching Longevity
This is, no doubt, a key to success, the coaches we interviewed said (especially the former ones in the ESD version I wrote).

Stability leads to tradition, and tradition — with other resources, obviously — leads to success. And from there, success breads success. That’s how you build a winning mold. You don’t do it by constantly changing coaches.

Yankton, for example, has been a stable athletic program. From football to girls’ basketball to volleyball to golf to wrestling, the head coaches have lengthy histories at the schools. Perhaps the bigger key has been lower-level coaches; most of them are veterans, which of course gives the younger grades a familiar face and the programs a consistent style.

In the case of the Sioux Falls schools, each of the four football programs (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington and O’Gorman) are led by familiar faces. Not only are the head coaches firmly entrenched, the assistants have for the most part remained stable.

Steve Kueter at O’Gorman has been there for a long time, while Brian Hermanson at Washington and Aaron Beavers at Lincoln are familiar faces. Even Kim Nelson, in his second year at Roosevelt, is a recognizable face to players — he was at Washington for several years and returned to Sioux Falls after a stint in Minnesota.

You could make the argument, though, that those coaches have the resources to not only remain at their schools, but their families have more opportunities for jobs and more school options for their children.

Success, of course, brings its own kind of stability. When you’ve been able to do what each of those four programs have done, why make a change?

When I think about longevity, though, I can’t help but think times have changed. Whether it’s at the high school, college or professional level, coaches are more mobile now; they don’t tend to stay in one place for very long. High school coaches are no different. The days of one coach staying at the same school for 20 years are a rarity these days.

But from a player’s perspective, stability can make all the difference in the world. When a coach is trying to establish (or in some cases, continue) a tradition, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why players feel more comfortable with the same faces guiding them through the season, through practices and through the off-season. If you’ve suddenly got a new coach telling you new things, the process begins again.

One of the dangers of longevity, though, is a willingness to adapt (which is something a reader mentioned in an email to me). The successful coaches adapt to the talent at hand. What worked for you 8-10 years ago might not work today, especially when you take into account the changing tide of football. The early 90’s power game showcased by many of the best South Dakota high school teams, in mosts cases, have given way to spread offenses and an emphasis on speed over power.

Consider the ESD: The longest-tenured coach is Mike Flakus at Aberdeen Central, who has guided the Golden Eagles to three Class 11AA title games since 2000 — in 2000, 2003 and 2009, losing each time. The next coach on that list is Arlin Likness at Yankton. He took the reins in 1999 and has led the Bucks to three championship games (1999, 2002, 2005) and one title, in 2002.

Player Commitments
One of the consistent arguments we’ve heard about why the Sioux Falls schools have been successful centers on access to conditioning and acceleration programs.

Sure, that may be true in Sioux Falls, which boasts more than a handful of such opportunities, but at the same time, keep in mind: Players aren’t forced to go.

The same is true in a town like Yankton. Football players, in particular, aren’t dragged into the gym, thrown at the weights, with the doors locked. It’s optional. It’s on the players themselves to have the drive to want to get bigger, faster and stronger.

(This brings up the whole “entitlement” argument with me, but that can be a topic for a future blog).

Conditioning plays a key in that, as well. Sure, those top teams still have the big guys on the line and the bruising fullbacks, but the players today are stronger and faster. You could make an argument that quarterbacks are more mobile these days, though those old-time power teams probably had quarterbacks whose primary focus was running.

Either way, conditioning only gets you so far. At the end of the day, by the time you step on the field, it’s still 11 against 11. Depth and two-way players will eventually be a concern, sure, but make adjustments. If you’re a smaller school that doesn’t boast the numbers that a Sioux Falls school has, you should be working even harder to improve what you do have, make adjustments with your schemes and push your kids even harder.

There again, though, it can’t be all on the coaches. Players are the ones dealing personally with a 50-point loss, and coaches will always tell you players are more resilient. If that’s the case, maybe players should be the ones driving themselves to the gym during the summer, improving themselves and their teammates.

It’s easy for me to say that, having never played football. Sure, you’ve got one on me there, but you’ll never convince me that trying the same thing every time and getting the same results doesn’t itself speak of a bigger issue.

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