Shrinking enrollments in rural communities are nothing new. It impacts everything, including high school athletics. In Centerville, student athletes are a critical source for the biggest game in town. It’s easy to see how sports unify and strengthen communities no matter the size of roster or the win/loss record.
High School sports are such a source of pride all across KELOLAND. But which community in South Dakota has one of the smallest enrollments and still fights like the dickens to keep those sports going? Well, we found it. It’s right here in Centerville, South Dakota, home of the tornadoes.
“You almost lost high school athletics? ” asked Mike Huether. “That’s right,” Centerville Tornadoes Coach Tucker Tornberg said. “In Centerville? What…,” Huether responded. “We had a couple of programs that went on JV schedules for a while but we are back at it strong. We have a lot of young kids that are excited to get back at the varsity level and will be able to compete at that level and be on the big stage. We are going to be ready for it. Ready or not, we are coming, you know,” Tornberg said
Communities all across KELOLAND have a passion for their schools and students. With only 58 students at Centerville High, the fight to keep high school sports is an all-encompassing dream. “It’s just a culture thing that everybody is proud to be here, proud to be at Centerville and proud to be a Tornado. It is a shared vision and shared goal and everything that we have in common with each other is that we can come here and play sports and be part of something bigger than ourselves. So, that’s the best part for me, Tornberg said.”
Coach Tucker Tornberg is a Centerville Tornado Alum and now teaches and coaches in middle and high school there. His small-town roots run deep and he knows the true difference that investments in education and extra-curricular activities can make. “What we can do here as a school system and with our athletic programs goes beyond just teaching kids how to win and how to lose the right way. But I think really, it’s developing character and developing life skills and something they can take with them forever,” Tornberg said.
But just how hard a community fights to maintain its own identity and traditions is always a dilemma. Centerville has one of the smallest enrollments in South Dakota and yet still has a football team. It fielded 11 players for this year’s nine-man squad. Hunter Eillis, a Centerville Tornado football player said, “Knowing you are from Centerville and battling the numbers you have and sticking through it and not just giving up and like transferring and doing something easy like that.” “Centerville doesn’t believe in the easy way out,” Huether adds. “Nope, not in Centerville,” Ellis replied.
The wins don’t come easy. In fact, the football team didn’t win a game. For Junior student athlete, Hunter Ellis, the struggle is well worth it. “It’s like, it’s always nice winning, but knowing that everybody is giving their best shot, knowing the situation we’re in, just pushing forward is always the main goal and always trying to get better is what we’re going for right now,” Ellis said.
It is no secret that rural communities are having a hard time attracting new residents, as well as, keeping those already living there. People were leaving Centerville for a while, but now they are returning. “The support you will get from everyone, the small school basis, getting to know everyone and growing in relationships like that. I think that is what keeps people around Centerville,” Ellis said
Kelly Voog, one of the Tornadoes biggest boosters, moved away but then came back with her husband LaValle who was born and raised here. “There was an auction going on. You always need another dresser so we came to buy a dresser and bought a house. And so, I cried going to the car, as I didn’t want to move to Centerville but it was the best thing we ever did,” Voog said.
Six of her nine grandchildren are now student athletes at Centerville schools. She rarely, if ever, misses a chance to cheer on the Tornadoes. “I love the games. I really do. Growing up we never got to play and it was something I wanted so much for my children and they did. My grandchildren are playing and I love all of them, all the games,” said Voog.
She is not alone. In small towns like Edgemont and Bison out west, and Gayville-Volin and Centerville in the east, the games are the place to be. “Now I have been told that the hated, bitter rival is Gayville-Volin. You had a packed house for a middle school game?” Huether asked.” Absolutely. And tonight at 6 and 7 o’clock, we are going to be playing their Junior High team and we’ll have a packed house for that one,” Tornberg said. Huether responded, “Oh, come on! Really?”
“Absolutely,” said Tornberg.
Returns from the sacrifices communities make in their kids and grandkids will never be calculated like they are on a corporate balance sheet. But they are real. “As parents and grandparents, it was kind of hard to sit back and see these poor kids just working their hearts out and just getting hammered and hammered and not winning a game. But you want to know, they never gave up. They never acted like we haven’t won a game. They always went out there and acted like we are going to win this one. You know what? Even though they didn’t, I think they did,” said Voog.
Student athletes like Hunter and his twin brother Hayden are only two of countless examples of how the investment is paying off. Huether asked Hunter Ellis, “So you and Hayden are going to be seniors next year. Your last game at the field. What is that going to be like?” “The last high school experience to play. All of the things we will learn and all of the improvement we will see over the years. That will always be nice. (swallows),” Ellis replied. “I love the emotion,” Huether said. “Yeah. Just how much I will miss it over the years and stuff. so, yeah (pause),” said Ellis.
Thanks for inspiring us Centerville. Proud of you small town KELOLAND.
SINGING: “Be so firm and strong, united are we. Rah rah for Centerville! Rah rah for Centerville! Rah for the CHS.” “Oh my! Thank you,” said Huether. “Good, huh? In unison, too,” replied Tornberg.
Working together, anything can be accomplished. Centerville and small towns all across KELOLAND, are providing proof of that and more. Huether said, “I’m cheering on their spirit and I hope it continues generation to generation.”