The time has come to close the book on basketball season. (Don’t worry NBA fans, we get a few more months.) Tournaments, from high school to college, are all wrapped up, and with Sunday’s South Dakota Basketball Coaches Association All-Star game at the Sanford Pentagon, the state’s premier prep seniors got a chance to write the final words.
The participating players Sunday hailed from schools across the state’s three classes, suiting up for Team White and Team Blue. When it was all done, White had the edge on the girls side, winning 95-89 on the strength of 27 points and 12 rebounds from Ciara Duffy, a St. Thomas More senior and University of South Dakota recruit who Saturday night took home Argus Leader First Five Player of the Year honors.
On the boys side, eight players reached double figures for Team Blue, which got 14 points and 10 rebounds from future USF recruit Tristan Teichmeier on the way to a 112-107 win.
There’s a theme developing here: Many of our best high school players are sticking around, finding a home at successful programs from NAIA to NCAA right here in South Dakota. Several others will continue playing within a half-day’s drive from home, in North Dakota and Minnesota.
Credit the women’s game in South Dakota for being a driving force and for carrying the banner. One needs only to look at attendance records at the Summit League tournament.
“You just look at, especially the two D-I schools the past few years — probably back the past 10 years — it’s just unbelievable,” said Winner’s Larry Aaker, who coached the Team White girls. “And most of the that is being done with South Dakota girls. You have give kudos to those coaches for recruiting those kids and keeping them at home. That’s good to see.”
It’s not as though those programs haven’t already been historically reliant on in-state talent — to a degree they have. But there’s a line to be drawn from the impact of local recruits on the overall programs, which makes attracting out of state recruits easier. And when South Dakota gets an import like Nicole Seekamp, we tend to claim her as one of our own.
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“Our history has always been having a pretty strong core of South Dakota kids carrying the torch for their school and leading it,” said Dakota Wesleyan men’s basketball coach Matt Wilber, who was at the Pentagon on Sunday. “Now, we want to win basketball games so it’s not just about getting kids from a certain area — we want the good ones.”
Something is clearly working.
South Dakota college teams across levels reached new heights this season, combining for 422 wins between the NCAA and NAIA ranks. The Augie men won a national championship, the USD women won the WNIT, the SDSU women very nearly pushed into the Sweet 16 while the men made Terps fan/ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt know their name.
Our friends in the Peace Garden State have taken notice as well, as Inforum’s Kevin Schnepf wrote last week: “It would be hard to find another state in the country that has experienced this much March Madness in the last 30 days.”
(That was before the Coyotes added a punctuation mark to the DakotaDome era.)
That’s also just scratching the surface. Dakota Wesleyan, USF, Black Hills State and Northern State made their names known as well.
“You go watch Augustana at the Pentagon and see a sold-out place. You go over to the Corn Palace and see some of the crowds we get. And then South Dakota State and USD — we’re pretty unique,” Wilber said. “Per capita, we don’t have a huge population to support them all, and [the players] all get supported at a really high level. I just feel pretty lucky to be a part of all of that.”
In part because of rising success — and because there are benefits to remaining among a small but vital basketball community — the good ones are deciding to stick around.
“It’s really cool to be able to stay in your home state, but still compete at a really high level,” Duffy said. “You get to play in front of the people you know a but also play against the best.”
With Sunday’s all-star contest, the opportunity was there to mix it up with the best from around the state. It was a unique experience for Red Cloud senior guard Kobey O’Rourke.
“I don’t know most of these guys — I’m the only one from West River on this team, so it’s something special to represent West River,” O’Rourke said. “I’ve never played against these guys so I’m trying to impress them — see how my game is against theirs.”
O’Rourke, who was a crisp 7-for-9 from the field for 14 points Sunday, said he’ll play college ball, but he’s not sure where yet. Still, he’s proud to be a part of a group that’s taking their talents to the next level.
On the topic of continued success, if it can be counted on for South Dakota collegiate programs — and I’m inclined to think it will — then keep in mind that many of the same faces who mixed it up at at the Pentagon will play a part in those future triumphs.
“We’ve got a lot of kids in this state who have and will continue to put South Dakota on the map for basketball,” said Team Blue boys coach Jeff Halseth. “And I’m glad they’re sticking around, because they’re made a huge difference in the colleges that we’ve got here.”