With no gyms due to tornado, Castlewood athletes find new ways to prepare for next season

Roger Merriam
Watertown Public Opinion

CASTLEWOOD — It's only been a little more than three weeks since a tornado ravaged the northeastern South Dakota community of Castlewood and caused severe damage to the town's school.

So community leaders, school officials and pretty much everybody else are currently sitting in limbo while waiting to see what the future holds.

"Right now, there's a lot of questions and not a lot of answers," said Castlewood School principal/athletic director Angela Keszler.

Among the people awaiting word from structural engineers and insurance companies as to how to proceed are the school's athletes — many of whom not only saw the 2021-22 school year come to an unexpected halt, but are now also trying to adjust to a different offseason approach to their 2022-23 athletic seasons.

The old Castlewood School gymnasium was wiped out by a tornado that hit on May 12, 2022.

The tornado destroyed much of the school's elementary wing as well as the old school gymnasium that was used for lower-level practices and games. It also caused roof damage to the entire facility and additional damage to the new gymnasium/school addition that was built in 1996. It also wiped out locker rooms, coaches' offices and the weight room.

For the foreseeable future, there is no operational gymnasium available for the Warrior athletes.

"We just don't know anything right now. What we're trying to find out is how much square footage we're going to have accessible to us by the time school starts," said Keszler.

Parts of the wood floor in the new gymnasium at the Castlewood School suffered water damage after a tornado hit the school on May 12, 2022.

The night things changed in Castlewood

The tornado that hit Castlewood around 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, was part of fast-moving storm system that created havoc throughout the eastern part of the state.

The tornado not only caused extensive damage to the school, but also wrecked buildings and houses in the vicinity of the school.

The western part of town, which is home to the community's baseball and softball complex and new football field, was spared for the most part.

The football field, built through funds raised by the Grow Castlewood committee, was used for the first time last fall. The installation of bleachers and a new press box are still in the works for this summer. Football players did dress in the locker rooms at the school before being bussed over to the field for games, but it appears that the Castlewood football players won't be affected quite as much as the athletes who play indoors.

"We're hoping the gym will be accessible at some point, for sure," said Keszler. "We haven't started talking to other teams about potential changes in the schedule. There's a chance we might have to play road games until we get our gym back, but we really haven't had those discussions yet."

The outside of the new gymnasium at the Castlewood School is shown in the background. The school suffered significant damage after being hit by a tornado on May 12, 2022.

As is often the case, the tragedy has brought this community of 582 together.

"I live in Watertown and as soon the storm was done I looked around my own place and saw nothing had happened," said Castlewood High School girls basketball coach Tyler Snaza. "Then I saw what happened in Castlewood and my first response was ­— 'You better go help, because you're in a better place.' I drove down that night and also the next couple of days to help people and also helped clean up at the school. That's one nice thing about people in small communities, they really come together."

Earlier:Castlewood School badly damaged by tornado; Noem declares state of emergency

Life goes on for the Castlewood athletes

The Castlewood athletes, especially those slated to play volleyball this fall or even potentially girls or boys basketball in the winter, don't yet know what the fate of the school's gym will be for the 2022-23 school year.

But like their counterparts throughout the state, the summer months are a time where athletes everywhere put in the time preparing for what they hope will be successful fall, winter and even spring seasons.

"You know, it's going to be weird because I live a block and a half from school," said Castlewood senior-to-be Booker Schooley. "After I get home from work, I'd usually head up the gym to lift or go hoop. I'd just go to find something to do."

In small schools, such as Castlewood, many of the same athletes compete in a variety of sports.

Castlewood High School girls basketball coach Tyler Snaza demonstrates a dribbling drill during an open gym held earlier this week in the Watertown City Auditorium.

The off-season training for these athletes aren't limited to in-town activities, but Castlewood's athletes this summer won't have the chance to head to the school to lift weights, shoot hoops or anything else they may have done in previous summers.

Snaza and Castlewood's new head volleyball coach Breanna DeKam plan to hold early morning workouts for players on Mondays and Wednesdays at the City Auditorium in Watertown. Snaza began the basketball workouts on Wednesday.

"We normally would have workouts around the same time at the school gym and probably would have hosted a team camp tournament like we did last summer, but obviously we can't do that," said DeKam, a 2013 Castlewood graduate who played both volleyball and basketball with the Warriors. "Still, we're going to try to do as much as we possibly can for the girls."

Snaza said not having a home gym will limit some opportunities, especially for those girls basketball players who wanted to use it for their own individual workouts.

Still, many high school volleyball and basketball players are involved with summer AAU programs or teams that travel throughout the state and the upper Midwest. 

"A lot of our guys are playing AAU ball somewhere," said new head Castlewood boys basketball coach Paul Raasch, a 1982 Castlewood graduate and 37-year coaching veteran who has amassed 555 career basketball wins. "Personally, I'd like the guys to play together as much as possible, but it's good they're playing somewhere."

More:As Castlewood school decides what's next, Johnson vows to fight for FEMA funding

'It's going to be a change' 

It appears likely that the biggest concern, at least in regard to the Castlewood athletes, is whether or not the gym will be useable from the start of the school year or whether it's going to take some additional time before that will happen.

Castlewood's girls basketball players will compete in the revived high school league that will be held at the Prairie Lakes Wellness Center in Watertown this summer — after a couple of years off due to COVID-19.

Raasch, for one, has had discussions with coaches from other area schools (Estelline, Hamlin and Deuel among them) as a means of creating opportunities in the gym for Castlewood athletes.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., discusses the damage to the Castlewood School gymnasium with Superintendent Peter Books.

An intriguing part of the equation is that Castlewood is expecting a pretty good year ahead in high school athletics. The girls volleyball and basketball teams return their entire lineups from a year ago — the volleyball team just missed a berth in the SoDak 16, losing to Wolsey-Wessington in the semifinals of the Region 3B tourney and the basketball team fell to eventual state champion Viborg-Hurley in a SoDak 16 state-qualifying game.

More:De Smet, Castlewood, Waubay-Summit and Sioux Valley qualify for state boys basketball tourneys

The boys basketball team also returns a talented group of players who finished sixth in the state Class B tournament — Castlewood's first trip to state since 2012.

"We're pretty optimistic about the talent of teams we have for volleyball and boys and girls basketball," said Keszler. "Obviously, we're kind of a basketball school, so people are gung-ho about doing what we can to get our gym accessible."

Maddie Horn, another talented all-around athlete getting ready for her senior season, believes the Castlewood athletes will adjust and do what they need to do to get ready for the next school year.

"It's going to be a change, but I don't think it's going to be that much different. We're used to having open gyms and things like that," she said. "We'll still have those, it's just going to require a little more driving."

Damage to the Castlewood school gym caused by a Thursday evening tornado.

Schooley, like Horn, changes from one uniform to another depending on the season. He's spending the summer playing baseball and also getting ready for football. 

He thinks his fellow basketball teammates — as well as those in other sports — are going to prove something this summer to anybody who's watching.

"I think we'll be just fine," said Schooley. "It baffles me sometimes how there are a lot of guys who get it done no matter what it takes. We have guys who love this game a lot and they're going to put a lot of time in. I think this summer will show just how far the guys are willing to go."