South Dakota girls’ athletics getting just third administrator ever

Dana Hess, For the South Dakota NewsMedia Association

Jo Auch

Kristina Sage

PIERRE — Girls’ high school athletics in South Dakota is getting a new champion.  

Jo Auch, assistant executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, is retiring in July after 16 years of serving as the administrator for girls’ athletics.  

Auch’s replacement is former Freeman Public Schools athletic director Kristina Sage who has 35 years of service in Freeman. She has served as the AD there since 2017.  

SDHSAA is responsible for state tournaments, the playoffs prior to state tournaments, student-athlete eligibility and the creation of rules and regulations. Auch’s portfolio of sports includes competitive cheer, competitive dance, sideline cheer, boys’ and girls’ tennis, volleyball, boys’ and girls’ basketball, gymnastics and softball.


Similar backgrounds

Auch grew up in Scotland, S.D. She was lucky enough to be a high school freshman in 1974 when Title IX kicked in and opened the door to girls’ athletics.

“That was when girls’ basketball started in the state of South Dakota,” Auch said. “We played nine games our first year, just on kind of a trial basis.” 

Auch went on to play basketball and softball at the University of South Dakota. 

Sage’s background is similar. She played basketball and ran track for Montrose High School, where those were the only girls’ sports offered when she was in school. She went on to compete in both of those sports at Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell. 

Like Sage, Auch was a coach and AD. Her time at Menno High School lasted 26 years. 


On to the association

Auch loved education, but was drawn to work for the association out of her desire for more administrative responsibilities and her association with Ruth Rehn. Rehn was the first administrator for girls’ athletics.  

“She was the one who got everything started for the state of South Dakota in girls’ athletics,” Auch said. “It’s kind of interesting that there have only been two people in this position.” 

Working with the association in her capacity as an athletic director was a catalyst for Sage seeking her new job.  

“I have a lot of respect for what the association does,” Sage said. “In working with them in my job as an AD, I just felt like that was really in my wheelhouse.”


Both have seen

changes in sports

The biggest change Sage has seen in girls’ athletics is the growth in the number of opportunities since the days when she was limited to two sports in Montrose. Through the years, she has also witnessed a change in coaching.

“There weren’t many female coaches when I was a high school athlete,” Sage recalled. “Even when I started out teaching and coaching, in the majority of our small schools, the coaches were men.” 

During Auch’s tenure with SDHSAA, new sports have included girls’ wrestling, girls’ soccer and softball.  

“Our board has kind of asked us to slow down a little bit,” Auch said. “Schools need a chance to breathe and catch up financially.” 

To that end, the association has implemented a formal process through which new sports must be suggested by member schools. 


Officials, sportsmanship linked

Part of Auch’s responsibilities, soon to be inherited by Sage, will be the recruitment and retention of sports officials. 

As an AD, Sage was noted for treating officials with respect. 

“I thought it was important, the way we treated them when they came here,” Sage said. “If there was a new, young official, I always tried to hire those people.” 

On a statewide basis, Auch has seen the struggle of trying to keep sports officials.

“One of the things we hear over and over again is, we’re losing officials because of (poor) sportsmanship,” Auch said.  

To meet that challenge, the association hopes to recruit more officials through a program called RefReps and getting the administrators at member schools to take a stand against poor sportsmanship, whether it comes from coaches, players or fans.  

RefReps is a course in officiating offered in high schools and colleges. Thirty-two students recently took the RefReps course at USD, learning how to be officials for football and volleyball. Auch hopes they sign up to work junior varsity games.  

“That’s 32 people that we didn’t have last year,” Auch said. “I’m hoping that’s going to continue to move.”

Sage described her experience with poor sportsmanship as “pretty discouraging,” particularly when dealing with adults.

“You just have to be willing to speak up,” Sage said. “It has to come from other fans to say, “I’m not comfortable with that.’ We need to think about how we’re treating people.”

Auch notes that fans often forget that officials are taking time away from their jobs and their families to give back to a sport they love.  

“People need to be reminded that, sitting in the stands, we’re still role models,” Auch said. “I always say, without officials, it’s just recess.”


Many benefits of participation

Despite the recent need for an emphasis on sportsmanship, Auch and Sage agree that participation in high school athletics has many benefits.  

“I just think it’s one of the best parts of being in school for kids,” Sage said. “They learn so much just by being a member of a team.” 

High school activities are full of life lessons, according to Auch. “I think kids that are involved in athletics just turn out to be much better people.” 

Auch said high school athletes learn about making a commitment while honing their leadership skills.

“There will be mistakes along the way because they’re kids,” Auch said. “We’ll work through those mistakes and move through that so we can become better individuals.”


Softball Auch’s career highligh

As she tries to predict the future for a job she hasn’t started yet, Sage said she hopes for continued growth in participation in girls’ athletics. She has seen that growth recently in the state’s two-year-old softball program.

“Even in the second year, we had more teams just in our own area,” Sage said. “We’ll continue to see that growth, which is great.” 

Auch points the implementation of softball as a sport for girls as the personal highpoint of her 16 years with the association. Softball was in discussions for four years before it was implemented two years ago. Since the sport was sanctioned, it has grown from 48 schools to about 60 schools.

“We’ve talked about it so long and to finally get it two years ago was a real highpoint,” Auch said. 


Missed event hastened retirement

After years of running playoff tournaments and state athletic events, it was a missed event that convinced Auch it was time for retirement. 

When she couldn’t attend a Grandparents’ Day event at her granddaughter’s school in Dickinson, N.D., the girl’s reaction changed Auch’s mind about working for another year. She vowed to be able to make it to the next Grandparents’ Day. 

“When I’m sitting in the nursing home I’m not going to remember that I worked another year,” Auch predicted, “but I am going to know that I missed her event.”



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