Lake Norden couple has attended every SDSU Summit League tourney game

Published: Mar. 6, 2023 at 9:45 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Over two hours before the start of a women’s basketball game in the middle of a Monday, the South Dakota State alumni party in a giant Convention Center room was packed with hundreds of Jackrabbit fans jubilantly decked in blue and yellow.

At 10 a.m., smiles were forming, laughter was flying, and beer was flowing. Hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, down the hallway from the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.

The Jackrabbit women were about to beat Oral Roberts in that arena. The men’s team was to square off later in the evening against rival North Dakota State.

It’s an annual rite of passage, these Jackrabbit jamborees on Monday. And usually Tuesday, too. Half of the 14 years the event has been in Sioux Falls prior to this, both squads have reached the finals. Only once in 15 years has Championship Tuesday not included at least one SDSU team.

And for those who make these four-day-long Summit League Tournament parties an annual event, it’s about way more than basketball.

“It’s a vacation,” said SDSU fan Rusty Antonen, a long-time resident of Lake Norden, near Watertown. “There’s kind of a community that’s been coming for a few years that’s developed with these people coming.”

Antonen and his wife Sherry both graduated from SDSU, are decades-long season ticket holders at Frost Arena, and have been in Sioux Falls for every SDSU men’s and women’s game in the Summit tourneys since they moved to South Dakota in 2009.

That’s 15 years and about 75 SDSU games. And they, like many regular Jacks fans at the event, stick around to watch a bundle of games not involving their alma mater.

They take the 90-mile drive and stay four or five days at a hotel near the arena. It is a room Sherry makes sure to book on the first day the hotel allows reservations to be made for the early March Summit tourney dates. This past year, she was up and at ‘em on the morning of July 1 to make that call.

“It’s just fun,” Sherry Antonen said. “I just love coming here and coming to Sioux Falls, not only for the ballgames, but going out to eat, going shopping. I don’t know if the Summit League Tournament was anywhere else that’d it’d be the same.”

History shows it has not. Over 5,500 people ended up attending Monday’s 12:30 p.m. game.

We repeat — This was on a Monday over the lunch hours.

The Summit League men’s tournament has been around for 40 years. The women’s tourney, over 30 years. There were over 11 other sites, including campus venues, before they came to Sioux Falls in 2009.

Each of the top five most-attended Summit events (all games included), on both the men’s and women’s sides, have occurred in the PREMIER Center, since it opened for this event in 2015.

Each of the top five women’s championship game crowds since the first tourney in 1993 have come in the PREMIER Center, and each pitted SDSU against in-state rival South Dakota. Each game drew over 6,900 fans, peaking at 8,704 on a Tuesday afternoon in 2018.

SDSU’s win on Monday meant it will be playing for their 10th title in the 15 Summit tourneys in Sioux Falls. Only three times have the Jacks not reached the championship game. The Coyotes have captured four of the other five crowns, including the three consecutive before this season.

SDSU’s men have reached the championship game in seven of the past 14 tourneys in Sioux Falls, winning six — more than any other team during that time.

Not coincidentally, the top four games for men’s attendance in league championship history that dates back to 1983 have also all come since 2015 at The Denny — all four involving the Jackrabbits. Each of those four saw crowds of over 9,400, reaching the zenith in 2018 with a count of 11,114 for an SDSU win in a 97-87 shootout for the ages against — you guessed it — South Dakota.

The local teams’ crowds help bring the wins. The wins bring back the crowds.

Many SDSU fans take days off of work to be able to attend the women’s games on Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday’s final for the women will be at 1 p.m.

Antonen works in sales, so he said he doesn’t have to take days off.

“I make make a few phone calls and work remotely, if I really need it,” Rusty said.

What the Nordens enjoy the most, besides basketball, is seeing familiar faces at the hotel, at breakfast, at the fan parties, the games, and restaurants and watering holes afterward.

“You see people that maybe you don’t see or visit with throughout the year at Frost Arena, but you can see them at the Summit League Tournament.” Sherry said. “It’s just fun to connect. It’s more fun when SDSU wins, but you can come and cheer on other teams, also. It’s just like no other (event).”

The Antonens used to take their four children to the annual Jackrabbit jamborees. But now, their two sons and two daughters are ages 22 to 32 and “living their own lives,” Rusty said, so it’s just a couples getaway now. They rarely took vacations with their kids — unless you consider Summit League tournaments and trips to Major League Baseball parks vacations, which Rusty sure does.

One of their sons worked for USD’s athletic department for a while, so Sherry would wear Coyote red to USD Summit tourney games — when the Jacks weren’t the opponent, of course. Her husband, however, refused to ever sport the rivals’ color or apparel.

Rusty grew up in a serious sporting family in Lake Norden — 40 miles from the SDSU campus in Brookings — where his father founded the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. His brother, Mel, was a Major League baseball reporter, writer, and broadcaster for over 30 years before dying from a rare acute auto-immune disease and complications of Covid-19 at age 64 in 2021.

Sherry grew up with “all girls” in Lake Norden and wasn’t much of a sports fan until she met Rusty. The two went to SDSU together, and have been going to Jackrabbit games — hundreds if not thousands — for over 40 years.

“Frost Arena is a special place,” Rusty said of SDSU’s home venue in Brookings, which holds about 6,000 fans when all the upper bleachers are folded out. He remembers when sellouts came with regularity in the old days of the North Central Conference, back when SDSU was in Div. II with USD and both North Dakota schools.

SDSU and NDSU joined the Div. I ranks in 2003, and both UND and USD would follow a few years later.

“But in in Division One, the Summit League Tournament is a whole new experience.”

Over 8,600 came out on Saturday night for the team’s first round win over lowly, last-place Omaha.

The Jacks are used to a fierce home court advantage. In fact, in Brookings, the men have had the best one in the nation since 2011, if you go by home record.

SDSU has gone undefeated at Frost Arena in seven of the last 11 seasons — including this most recent one — compiling a 141-7 mark there during that span. That’s a 95 percent home winning percentage, putting the Jacks ahead of all of the other 330-plus Div. I teams during that span. Just below SDSU on the list are blue blood powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas, which play in three of the most hallowed venues in the history of the sport.

That clip isn’t as high in the conference tourney, and in some recent years, the Jacks men have stubbed their toes and wilted under the pressure of being a tournament favorite to win.

On Saturday, SDSU was on the ropes for much of the game, but down the stretch, the Sea of Blue would erupt for almost every SDSU bucket and defensive stand to form a tidal wave of momentum for the players.

The PREMIER Center has been nicknamed “Frost Arena South” for good reason.

“We talk about a lot of the electricity in Frost Arena, but when you come down here, it’s the same thing,” SDSU senior guard Alex Arians said. “Like I’ve alluded to in the past, we’ve got some of the best fans in all of college basketball, and everyone in the arena can see that.”

Justin Sell has been SDSU’s athletic director since 2009, the year the event first came to Sioux Falls. Both the men’s and women’s teams either sold out the 6,000-seat Sioux Falls Arena, or nearly sold it out, whenever SDSU played in the first six years of the event.

When the tourneys moved to the PREMIER Center in 2015, Sell recalls people wondered how many seats would be empty, even for SDSU games, in a venue twice the Arena’s capacity at 12,000.

“And we had more come,” Sell said. “(SDSU fans) are here every session, not just ours.”

For Sell, the SDSU athletic department, and SDSU Alumni Association, the Summit League showcase is their Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, State Fair, and homecoming reunion all rolled into one.

Those are this reporter’s words, not his. Sell called it merely the “highlight of the entire year.”

His eyes grew like saucers and his grin a mile wide as he explained the annual scene on Saturday, the first day of the tournaments, when the women’s team usually plays around noon as the No. 1 seed, garnering them the tip-off game of the extravaganza.

“When our women run on that floor and you hear the fight song playing, the hair on the back of your neck stands up,” Sell said. “And, the pride that you have for you have your school, your state, being a part of something bigger than yourself, means something, and you’re sharing these experiences with a lot of people that you just love.”

For the Antonens, does it ever get old?

“No, it hasn’t so far,” Rusty said, with a smile that suggested that his gleeful anticipation for Monday’s game, his 75th SDSU Summit tourney game (or so), was as high as that first one in 2009.