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Revamped All Nations Football Conference

Red Cloud’s Ale Rama racing around the Pine Ridge defense. Red Cloud is in the ANFC, and Pine Ridge elected to not join, so for the forseeable future, fans wont be able to see this crosstown rivalry.
Photo by James Giago Davies

RAPID CITY— All Nations Football Conference (ANFC) teams will have a couple of extra weeks to get their teams ready for the first week of play, on the weekend of September 6-7. Lower Brule Head Coach Zeke Prado, said the six-game late start compared to the rest of the state’s high school football teams helps the ANFC with participation woes. Prado, along with Lance Witte and Yamni Jack, were instrumental in getting the ANFC off the ground.

“Some of the boarding schools can’t get their kids on campus until after this Labor Day weekend,” Prado said. “And so they struggle filling the roster spots.”

Participation was the rationale for the creation of the ANFC, although many still mistakenly believe it was about race. Prado: “Once we pulled out of the regular state schedule, (SD high School Activities Association) were kind of scared they were going to have some backlash on race, but they’ve done surveys and they’ve talked to other coaches around the state and they’ve all been supportive. Even the football advisory board has been 100% supportive, and when they look at it, how positive everything has been, securing LNI weekend, and the Dome, (they see) this is about football and the football experience.”

The simple truth is reservation football is but a shell of what it was a half century ago, and many programs are dying. Not only has the ANFC pulled some programs back from the brink, like St Francis and Crow Creek, it has allowed schools that did not even have a program, like Takini and Oelrichs, to put teams on the field this fall.

“In Indian country basketball means a lot to a lot of kids,’ Prado said. “And when it comes to football, it’s not basketball, and so we don’t have a lot of participation. If we have football tryouts, we’ll have like 15, 20 kids. If we have basketball try outs, we’ll have 50 kids come out, and so there’s a lot of students that aren’t participating. We struggle, our depth charts aren’t very big, we’ll show up to a game with 15 kids and play a Bonhomme or Parkston that has 45 kids. We needed to get ourselves into a league where we have the same caliber of student athletes and began to build participation, and make it fun again, because my kids weren’t having fun when they’re losing the last four games in a combined score of 242 to 16.”

Red Cloud has a new coach, Art Vitalis, and just about everything else about the once 11-man program will be new. As football has declined in Lakota country so has the quality of the field. Whether Red Cloud or St Francis or Crow Creek have the worst football field in the state, is probably a tossup, but what they have always had is the athletic potential to be a good football team if they could get in a competitive conference and increase participation.

Vitalis is old school Pine Ridge and he may bring some of the old school football swagger back to this year’s Crusader team.

“I was born and raised here in Pine Ridge, lived here my whole life,” Vitalis said. “I just recently moved back from Colorado where I went to school at Fort Lewis. I got a Bachelors in public health. Football wise I played for Red Cloud all four years. In Eighth Grade we didn’t have a football program in middle school, so I went up to with a bunch of my classmates, and we played with the JV team. We had a big enough team to have a JV back then. I’ve always been a student of the game.”

It is probably too early to tell just what kind of team Vitalis will have, but his team is probably the preseason favorite to win the title.

“Talent wise, from what I see, we only had a few days of practice so far, I like it,” Vitalis said. “We have some nice young talent. The upper classmen that we have, I haven’t got to see the full pool yet, because I don’t think everyone got the memo about practice last week. As far as who was there, we got some good solid players, got some natural athletes, the young guys that came out are looking promising. It’s a fresh start and I was preaching this to them in practice, the way to look at it is were starting new everywhere, it’s a whole new system, it’s nine-man now, we’re in the All Nations Conference, got new coaches, new staff, new freshmen coming in, so it’s kind of a learning process for everyone. Learn from what we’re doing, take our time, we’re building an identity that is what I am trying to get across. It’s looking good. I am pretty optimistic about what we have.”

One rivalry that will no longer be played, is Red Cloud v Pine Ridge. The Thorpes have elected not to participate in the ANFC at this juncture. Vitalis has a nephew, DJ that played for Pine Ridge last year, and was an outstanding defensive back, now playing for Minnesota West. Unfortunately, DJ ran into some problems before he left for school earlier this month: “I hurt my foot the day before I left for college, during a skateboard competition on August 3. I have been watching and learning everyday at practice. I am hoping to return to practice this Tuesday. Though I have not seen the field yet because of injury, I am thankful to be here and be a part of the Blue jay family. I have to stay patient and let myself get back to 100%.”

DJ Vitalis represents the kind of ballplayer that the ANFC can showcase. The ANFC will give Native football players a chance to come to the attention of potential scouts for college programs in the five state area. DJ’s playing style was order made for a high speed nine-man league where the teams are highly competitive with each other.

Art Vitalis spoke to some of the other concerns about the ANFC: “Community wise, a lot of people are looking at it as we aren’t good enough to compete with other schools, but it’s more about bringing that pride and confidence back. If we can get that love for the game and that competitiveness back out there, this is the way to do it, with this conference.”

He also addressed the refereeing: “You take out the bias in officiating, and you got a whole new focus, you’re not worried about how the officials are going to ref the game.”

Beyond all the other concerns and considerations, Vitalis has a good feeling about the format the ANFC will operate under: “Nine-man offers us a chance to create our own brand and showcase it, and I think we’re perfect for it. The way we play, that up tempo, fast, quick style, I think is going to manifest itself in nine-man and it is going to be fun to watch.”

Vitalis will journey east to play Lower Brule in the first game of the season, on Saturday, September 7. Prado realizes he will have it tougher against the former 11-man teams, but not as bad as when he was being mercy ruled by halftime by the likes of Bonhomme: “Red Cloud, Cheyenne-Eagle Butte, Little Wound, those are kind of like my top three teams that I feel like they’re gonna have more bodies. They’ll have one or two more guys on the depth chart, that’s where it hurts. We’re missing a lot of students in our junior and sophomore class. We just got hit hard by a dropout rate and things like that. So we have a large senior class and a large freshman class that are comin’ in so there’s gonna be a lot of inexperience.

Having teams start a program is pretty exciting, and having schools like Marty and Flandreau Indian who were just JV teams, go and play a varsity schedule I think that will be huge.”

Prado said McLaughlin will be in the ANFC “two years from now, Omaha Nation and Winnebago are done with their two-year rotation next year” and they will join the ANFC as well.

“In a conference, there’s two divisions, East and West,” Prado said. “The top two seeds will get a bye in week one (four teams), and five through 12 will play in that first round. After that first round, there will be a reseeding with the top four having the home preference.”

WEEK ONE SCHEDULE
Friday, Sept 6, all 6 pm mountain

Crazy Horse at C-EB

Little Wound at Crow Creek

Oelrichs at St Francis

Saturday, Sept 7

Marty at Tiospa Zina, 1:30 pm Mountain

Takini at Flandreau Indian, 3 pm, mountain

Red Cloud at Lower Brule, 1 pm, mountain

Conferences alignments are as follows:
EAST
Lower Brule
St Francis
Marty
Flandreau Indian
Tiospa Zina
Crow Creek
WEST
Red Cloud
Oelrichs
Crazy Horse
Takini
C-EB
Little Wound

(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com)

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