Central High School's Chelsey Biegler (22) drives to the bucket as Spearfish High School's Taylor Sands (25) defends during a basketball game at CHS on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

The Eastern South Dakota Conference has denied admission to four South Dakota high schools seeking entry into the conference, the league announced Thursday.

Just one school in the conference — Aberdeen Central — voted to admit any new members. Rapid City Central, Rapid City Stevens, Sturgis and Harrisburg high schools were all applying to join the league.

“After much discussion and deliberation over the pros and cons to additional members of the ESD Conference, it has been decided that we will remain an eight-school conference at this time,” the conference said in a statement signed by Randy Marso, Brandon Valley’s activities director and the conference’s secretary-treasurer, along with Aberdeen Central activities director and conference president Gene Brownell. “This decision is not a reflection on the respective administration or schools, as we know the bright future that these schools have and look forward to assisting them in many ways.”

Each of the seven remaining conference members — Brandon Valley, Brookings, Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Watertown and Yankton — elected to leave the league as is. School activities directors and superintendents were given the option on a ballot to welcome any or all of the school districts into the 83-year-old conference. Six “yes” votes were required for a school to gain admittance.

The decision does not come as a surprise. Brownell had said in November he was “quite sure we don’t have the other votes” when the schools were still making up their minds. Ballots were issued to the schools in October after a lengthy expansion meeting.

The writing seemed to be on the wall last month when several activities directors within the ESD stressed the importance of the stability and the familial nature of the conference, the members of which have remained largely unchanged over the years.

The three West River schools that were seeking membership are currently part of the Greater Dakota Conference, which will be dissolving after the 2012-13 school year. The Sioux Falls schools are planning to create their own Metro Conference and leave the GDC, which was formed in 1998. The GDC is already losing Spearfish to the Black Hills Conference after the current academic year.

Brownell said he was hopeful that a 12-team league could have filled the void left by the dissolution of the GDC. He said, however, that the remainder of the league wasn’t yet ready for such a drastic change.

“I think the majority of the ESD hasn’t come to grips yet that there will be change,” he said. “They understand it, but maybe the haven’t come to grips with the fact that this is not a maybe. Things are going to change. We’re just not sure what those changes are going to be.”

Brownell also said the conference will likely table any further talk of expansion until the GDC is no more.

“I really don’t even know if we’re disappointed, necessarily,” Rapid City Central activities director Darren Paulson said. “It was simply an option we wanted to explore. It didn’t work out, and we understand that. We know we’re going to play those schools. It just won’t be in a conference affiliation.”

Acceptance into the ESD was far from a guarantee. Sioux Falls O’Gorman, Vermillion and Winner were all denied membership in 1975 because the conference was not interested in expansion, according to the ESD’s

website. Brandon Valley became a full member of the conference in 1992, but only after the departure of Madison in the early 1980s.

The Sioux Falls schools have also applied for membership and were denied in 1994.

The other options for the West River schools in a post-GDC landscape involve a combination of playing South Dakota schools as an independent or looking outside the state for games. Both Paulson and Sturgis activities director Mike Paris have said that these options are undesirable, but playing some out-of-state games in most sports is feasible.

Paulson said, however, that other states’ requirements for conference affiliation have made interstate travel in football a shakier proposition.

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“Honestly, out-of-state opponents is an option in all sports but football,” he said. “For example, can we go to Wyoming for a basketball game or two? That’s an option. But out-of-state opponents is not an option in football.”

Plans are already being made to address post-GDC football scheduling within the state. Paulson, Marso, Mark Meile of the Sioux Falls Instructional Planning Center and Bob Lowery, the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s assistant executive director, are all on a committee that is attempting to put competent football schedules together.

Several ESD activities directors have said they remain dedicated to providing the West River schools with scheduling opportunities when possible.

“We will do what we can to help the ‘AA’ schools fill their schedules,” Yankton activities director Wally Bosch has said. “We’ve played the Rapid City (schools) and other Black Hills schools over the years, and … there’s no desire to stop scheduling them.”

Brownell believes the next opportunity for real movement within the state’s Class AA conference landscape is dependent upon three factors. He said Brandon Valley’s eventual departure from the ESD to the Metro Conference is the primary domino. For the time being, Brandon Valley has pledged to maintain membership in both conferences.

Next, Brownell said the immediate impact of the GDC’s breakup may need to be felt before some schools and activities directors can assess the state’s athletic environment. Finally, he said the success or failure of ongoing scheduling negotiations may also have a substantial effect on everyone’s next move.

“What’s going to happen is anybody’s guess,” Brownell said. “The one thing you can be guaranteed of is there will be change. It’s just a matter of what and when.”

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