The Sanford Pentagon has established a niche in the world of basketball with its retro feel and its capacity to attract high-profile college games since it opened in 2013.
When the pandemic hit, it became much more than a unique place to watch and play a basketball game, however.
It was now also a necessary one.
The Summit League men’s and women’s basketball tournaments have taken place in Sioux Falls every year since 2009. For that streak to continue in 2021, organizers were going need an option that would deliver safety.
They found it at the Pentagon. So have others who were looking for a safe place for their athletes to compete.
Health care system-supported
“We’re so fortunate to have a great facility that also has the support of our health care system,” said Jesse Smith, vice president of operations for the Sanford Sports Complex. “It has put us in a unique position to be able to help keep teams and athletes stay safe while they’re fulfilling their college seasons.”
With COVID-19 concerns serving as a constant reminder that things are not yet back to the way they used to be, pushing along a college basketball season that was cut short by the pandemic a year ago has been a challenge throughout the country.
That’s where the Sanford Pentagon comes in. This 3,250-capacity throwback arena hosted 22 NCAA Division I games in less than a month this season with teams from all over the nation appearing.
The guidelines used included insights of Sanford chief medical officer Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, who is part of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory board that has devised a pandemic plan for college basketball enacted across the nation.
‘Designed for pandemic basketball’
“It’s like the Pentagon was designed for pandemic basketball because we can do everything under one roof,” Smith said. “We have all the practice courts, we have the competition floor, we have rooms for teams to study and have meals delivered to them. This takes place while being guided by Dr. Cauwels, who has been extremely engaged in helping us design and implement the protocols.”
The overall safety package, then, hit the right targets for the Summit League.
“In conversations with our presidents we established the goals were to mitigate the virus, make it safe for the teams and get the games played,” said Summit League commissioner Tom Douple.
It’s the year for contemplating other options, of course. In this case, there was one obvious alternative right from the beginning. It would not include fans but it would include the teams those fans follow.
“We considered all the games they were able to play here in the fall and how much room the Pentagon has for practices,” Douple said. “Plus, we’d have enough room to set up four testing stations at a basketball-centric venue. That’s when we made the decision to move the tournament to the Pentagon. It was a perfect fit for us.”
The Pentagon and its staff quickly established a reputation late in the fall of 2020 by scheduling the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic for men and women in November.
The staff was able to add the CU Mortgage Direct Dakota Classic, consisting of the Division I schools in the Dakotas and, also while executing pandemic protocol, was site to a Saturday, Dec. 19, contest that matched No. 1 Gonzaga vs. then third-ranked Iowa on CBS.
Helping coaches and players feel safe
The word got around that the Pentagon and its staff had the expertise and experience to offer teams looking for opportunities to compete.
“With Sanford Health running the events, and owning the building, you feel like all the measures that can be taken are going to be taken,” said South Dakota State men’s basketball coach Eric Henderson, whose Jackrabbits have played six games at the Pentagon this season, all with pandemic protocols in place.
“We definitely have felt comfortable when we’ve been in there this season. Obviously, we know we can’t really outsmart the pandemic but we can be confident at the Pentagon knowing we’re going to be in the best situation possible.”
As the season advances with pandemic conditions still dictating much of how and where sports are played, teams move forward knowing it’s all going to seem a little weird in comparison to what fans, players and coaches associated with life before COVID-19.
The next step then is looking for ways to make these new situations as familiar as possible.
“We really felt the staff at the Pentagon went out of its way to make sure all the teams felt comfortable,” said USD women’s coach Dawn Plitzuweit, whose Coyotes opened the season with two games at the Pentagon as part of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic.
“I think everyone understood this was going to feel like a strange setting in some ways and did what they could to help with that. It was all really well done.”
Top programs join Pentagon schedule
Several top programs made the decision to come to Sioux Falls for games after the pandemic claimed contests that had originally been scheduled elsewhere. Many of these teams were also dealing with COVID-19 issues within their own programs at various junctures during what would traditionally make up the non-conference portion of their schedules.
If the teams involved in those 22 games shared one thing in common, it was this: They were happy to get the chance to play basketball.
“I talked to the guys after practice about how fortunate we are to be here,” said Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway, a former NBA star who brought his Tigers here for the Crossover Classic. “Nine months ago we were canceling our conference tournament and the NCAA tournament and not knowing if we were going to have a season. To be able to be here right now and be able to play — especially when tournaments around the country are being canceled because of COVID situations — is very fortunate.”
A year ago, the Summit League tournament at the Denny Sanford Premier Center was the last fully completed big-time college sporting event in the Sioux Falls area before COVID-19 began closing arena doors all over.
The return of the Summit League tournament does not signify a return to normal by any stretch but it does represent a return to the on-court excitement of college basketball.
“Working with the Pentagon crew has been a really positive part of this,” Douple said. “We have developed an excellent relationship with them. And we’re still looking forward to a great tournament. We’re still going to have games that go down to the last shot and probably a few overtime games and we’re going to be able to play these games at a place that can handle all the logistics of having 16 teams at the same place at the same time.”
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