Once there was only one high school in Rapid City, the Rapid City Tigers, and the city was only on the east side of the Gap—a quarter mile wide gap cut through a pine-mantled ridgeline by Rapid Creek, source of sweet, cold water unequaled anywhere in the state. This water made the city grow, and city planners expected it to grow east, out across the accommodating prairie, which is why East and West Boulevard are both on the east side of town.
Mostly, the city has grown west, back through the Gap, swallowing up little places like Baken Park, until the city was physically and culturally split into two halves. The east half was Old Rapid City, with most of the poor living in North Rapid, and most of the working class living in South Rapid, separated from the other by Downtown Rapid.
The Tigers had been renamed the Cobblers to honor Coach Cobb, and by 1969, Rapid City High School had its greatest basketball coach, Dave Strain, in his coaching prime, with his greatest team, the 1969 Cobblers, who cruised to a state title, and are quite probably the finest team South Dakota ever produced.
On the west side of Rapid a new high school went up, Stevens, and they were blue to the Cobbler red, and they called themselves the Raiders, and the old Cobbler high school became Central. The blue collar working stiffs and the Lakota remained at Central, but those with better jobs, almost all of them white, relocated to Stevens.
From the very beginning the rivalry was intense, and the Raiders boasted athletes like Dave Collins, who went on to be a successful Major Leaguer known for his blinding foot speed. That first year as separate schools, 1970, Stevens nearly upset the defending state champion Cobblers, being turned back on a last second shot from Jack Tennyson. Throughout the 1970’s, Stevens had some of the finest basketball teams ever produced in this state, but time and again they failed to get out of the sectional, blocked by a Central team under Coach Strain, that often barely played .500 ball.
Had the teams worn the same uniform, you would have been able to guess which school most players attended. Stevens was all white, and Central was often half Lakota. When asked if he had ever had a team that didn’t have Lakota ballplayers on it, Strain said, “Never a good one.”
Eventually Rapid City began to change. Chris Stoebner took over as Stevens Boys basketball coach, hailing from East River, where he was a standout player for Harrisburg and SDSU. Stevens hired TJ Hay, a former Cobbler who played for Strain, and Hay spent more than a decade failing to achieve success at Stevens before coming back as head coach at Central. Last year Stevens had more Lakota ballplayers on their team than even Strain ever had, and they finished fifth at state, after a heartbreaking upset loss to Pierre. Any resemblance to the Stevens of forty years ago is minimal. Stevens looks old school Rapid City. Coach Stoebner, and Head Girls Coach Michael Brooks, have altered the face of Raider basketball forever. They have killed the uppity image that North and South Rapid loved to hate.
The symbol of physical separation still exists, the Gap is still there, but with open enrollment, and the advent of St Thomas More, that separation, as expressed by diametric halves, is disappearing.
This season, TJ Hay has his once-beaten Cobblers on top of the Class AA standings, and right behind them are Stoebner’s Raiders.
Losing all those players to graduation last year should have hurt Stoebner, but the kids he has left have far more talent and grit than people gave them credit. Central and Stevens have almost identical records, they are close in power points, and they both recently beat a very tough Scottsbluff Bearcats squad. The table is set for a Friday night showdown at Stevens. The strengths of Central are a structured coaching staff, Kailleb Walton-Blanden, one of the top ballplayers in the state, fiery point guard Dylan Hay, and rock solid role players, embodied by the quality contributions of Cameron Hall.
Stevens counters with a resilient and experienced crew comprised of a dozen kids who know their job and are determined to get it done. You think you are outplaying them, like Scottsbluff did, and then you look up at the scoreboard to find you trail by a bucket. Stoebner is an extremely emotional coach, not in the loud, bossy, angry way, but Stoebner pours his heart into his job, into his players, and into this rivalry.
Hay is the Generation X field general and Stoebner is the Millennial team builder. These clashing styles will be evident on the floor, and the game should be the best entertainment South Dakota has to offer on a Friday night.
You don’t want to miss this game.
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at email@example.com)