Mar. 31—MITCHELL — The long wait for high school softball as a sanctioned sport in South Dakota is finally over.
Despite the best efforts of the cold and snow, a few games were able to break in the sport this week. With the sport reaching a new level, it's a good chance to hit a refresher on how South Dakota got here and how it's all going to work this spring.
Here's what to know about the new high school sport this season:
South Dakota's high school softball story starts in 1999, when USA Softball South Dakota helped get a fall high school league up and running. Gary Young, the organization's state commissioner,
told the Mitchell Republic in 2022 that softball leaders
approached the SDHSAA about sanctioning the sport but there wasn't much interest at the time. Young said he hoped that the SDHSAA would add the sport a few years later — much like soccer and competitive cheer and dance — but the wait ended up being more than 20 years.
The road to South Dakota's successful sanctioning of softball in South Dakota picked up in 2019, when the SDHSAA began assessing interest in the sport with schools. In 2021, the SDHSAA created a steering committee, alongside efforts for e-sports.
"We're the only one left that doesn't do it," SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos said in April 2021, noting South Dakota was the last holdout among states for sanctioning the sport after Wyoming added it.
South Dakota will be one of 45 states to play softball in the spring, while the other five play in the fall or summer. In August 2021, 16 schools had committed to play in 2022-23, and that figure climbed to as many as 35. In January, the SDHSAA affirmed its rules for the first spring of play.
The creation of softball in the SDHSAA structure has already doubled the number of participating schools. In 2021, South Dakota had 24 teams in the fall high school season and 49 teams are signed up for the inaugural spring campaign in 2023, with additional schools lined up to add the sport in 2024.
* Pitchers are not restricted on the number of innings they can pitch in a day, meaning they can throw both games of a doubleheader or well into extra innings.
* Games will have a 10-run rule after five innings and a 15-run rule after three innings. That rule applies to regular and postseason contests.
* Games that go to extra-innings will use the international tie-breaker rule, which involves each team starting the inning with a runner at second base.
* Fields will be equipped with a double first base to allow for athlete safety between runners and fielders.
* Like in basketball, teams are capped at a maximum of 20 regular-season games.
* Teams have to play at least eight games to be considered for postseason play and in order to be seeded.
* Teams have to complete five full innings (or 4 1/2 innings if the home team leads) in order for a game to be considered official. Games that have to be stopped before that point due to darkness or weather can be suspended and picked up at a later date. Games played past five innings that end without both teams getting the same turns at bat will revert to the score when the last inning started.
* Players can't participate for a high school team and their club team simultaneously, and have to wait until their team is eliminated to join a travel team.
In Class A — which will be the state's largest division with 19 teams — Wagner and Winner Area are the area communities with softball teams in this inaugural season. In Class B, Avon, Bon Homme, Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy, Hanson and Scotland/Menno are all participating in a class that has 14 schools as of now.
In Class AA, there are 16 teams playing this season, including Mitchell. The 16-team number means every team will participate in the postseason. (Douglas, Huron and Spearfish are the traditional Class AA schools that aren't playing this season.)
Like high school football, the postseason will be seeded 1-through-16, with only those 16 teams making the postseason. Region tournaments might be added in future years. The SoDak 16 games will be played on Tuesday, May 23 at the high seeds.
Unlike many softball tournaments at various levels, South Dakota's high school tournament will be single-elimination, following the format of the state's other state events with eight teams playing out championship and consolation brackets over three days.
Aberdeen is set to host the inaugural championships on June 1-3. The SDHSAA has tentatively scheduled for the Class AA tournament to take place at Koehler Hall of Fame Field at Northern State, while the Class A and Class B tournaments will take place at the Players Complex in Aberdeen.
The fall 2022 club season, which was diminished because many schools did not play and prepared for the high school spring season, was won by Watertown, followed by the Rapid City Reds as runner-up and Sturgis taking third and Pierre fourth in an invitational tournament.
Among Class AA schools, Sioux Falls Lincoln won two of the final three club large-division titles, winning in 2019 and 2021, with the latter being over Harrisburg. The Tigers won the state title in 2020. (In the club format, South Dakota had two divisions: Class A and Class B, which we'll refrain from using here to avoid any additional confusion.) O'Gorman, Roosevelt and Brandon Valley have been among the other annual contenders, while Rapid City Central and Rapid City Stevens both bring solid traditions from the club level to the season.
The Class A champion discussion will start with West Central, which has won six championships in a row dating back to 2016. The Trojans won the 2021 championship over Dell Rapids.
The Class B state championship pursuit figures to be a wide open one, given that none of the schools involved participated in the fall 2021 high school state tournament.