State high school talent helps fuel success of SDSU, USD and Summit tourney

Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 8:41 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Mahlli Abdouch was very much in the present on Wednesday, practicing in the Pentagon with her O’Gorman High School teammates for Thursday’s first round of the Class AA girls state basketball tournament.

The day before, the lifelong South Dakota State fan couldn’t help but look ahead with excitement for the future, two years down the road.

An athletic, sure-fire all-state guard, the junior has been committed to play at SDSU since the summer after her freshman season.

On Tuesday, Abdouch was in a suite at the Denny Sanford Premier Center, watching her future team win a 10th Summit League tourney title in 15 years, which qualifies the Jackrabbits for an 11th trip to women’s college athletics’ biggest stage, the nationally-televised NCAA Tournament. The game was played in front over 6,000 rollicking fans, most of them comprising the sea of SDSU blue on a Tuesday afternoon.

“It was really cool to see them play, and see where I’ll be in a few years, and see the crowd I’ll get to experience in a few years,” Abdouch told Dakota News Now.

It’s the kind of scene that might make it difficult for a talented South Dakota kid to leave the borders.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play at SDSU,” Abdouch said. “Living in South Dakota, it’s always your dream to play in your home state where all the girls you have look up to played.”

Last season, the Summit League ranked third out of 32 conferences in the nation in women’s championship game attendance, with 8,117 turning out for a Tuesday afternoon game between the Jackrabbits and the University of South Dakota.

Only title games in the ACC (9,253) and Big Ten (8,709) — two of the largest conferences in the nation, with far larger fan bases — drew more fans for a women’s final. The All-South Dakota showdown in Sioux Falls outdrew Power 5 league events in far larger cities like the SEC (Nashville), Pac 12 (Las Vegas), and Big 12 (Kansas City).

Asked if he uses the opportunity to play in Summit League Tournament as a recruiting tool to lure some of South Dakota’s best prep players to Brookings, 23rd-year SDSU coach Aaron Johnston said, “absolutely.”

“So many people grow up as a fan of South Dakota State or other schools,” Johnston said, “and it means something to those players to represent their families and communities.”

It goes both ways. South Dakota natives have been the biggest stars in the most recent Summit outings.

SDSU or USD have won 14 of the 15 Summit events staged in Sioux Falls, including each of the last six titles. In each of those seasons, the conference Player of the Year played high school ball in South Dakota — from Mitchell (Macy Miller, SDSU, twice) to Rapid City (Ciara Duffy, USD) to Onida (Chloe Lamb), to Letcher (Myah Selland, SDSU, twice).

“Women’s basketball has always been a priority in South Dakota,” Johnston said, “and that’s something we’ve always benefited from, because the talent level in our area is really good. Because, when you look out on that floor and see so many people from the state of South Dakota playing, it’s a reflection of how largely the state values it.”

Johnston’s historical perspective is worth noting. Documentaries have been done about the state’s fervor for prep girls hoops dating back to the 1970′s, well before it was fashionable nationally. A full, or at least rocking, gymnasium for girls games was not uncommon — both at the high school level and college. Doubleheaders in the old North Central Conference — where the women would play before the men — brought attention to the women’s game.

But SDSU athletics director Justin Sell said the popularity of girls and women’s hoops has “exploded” since the Summit League Tournament — and those Seas of Blue — first came to Sioux Falls in 2009. That event brought with it the first two nationally-televised live sporting events in the history of the state on the same day — the women’s final, followed later by the men’s title game. And it brought the state’s first chance for a school to earn a ticket to the NCAA Div. I Tournament, to be a part of the sensation of March Madness. That was a driving force behind the move to Div. I athletics in the first place.

Both the Jackrabbits (2019) and Coyotes (2022) have advanced to the Sweet 16. USD beat perennial powerhouse Baylor to reach that round last March, and fell four points shy of a spot in the Elite 8. All of it played out to national TV audiences on ESPN channels.

Even in seasons when they didn’t qualify for “March Madness,” both USD and SDSU have experienced the euphoria of several mammoth home crowds in runs to WNIT Championships. In 2016, the DakotaDome was sold out for the final basketball home game of its history, with a crowd of 7,415 roaring USD to the title. Six years later, a sellout of 5,263 watched SDSU seize the WNIT trophy in Brookings.

“We packed Frost Arena for six games — a whole extra month,” Sell said. “And the pride that people had in that experience speaks volumes about the support of women’s basketball. It’s exciting, it’s fun to watch. Those student-athletes do great in school and get great grades, and it’s something that everybody takes a sense of pride, and you’re seeing it nationally. Women’s basketball is growing. But, it’s been there in South Dakota for quite a while.”

Johnston noted consistent success at other college level in South Dakota, like NCAA Div. II (Augustana, Northern State and USF) and NAIA (Dakota State and Dakota Wesleyan).

And just across the border in Iowa, South Dakota and northwest Iowa players fuel NAIA powerhouses Northwestern and Dordt.

The two Div. I schools from the Rushmore State have consistently had at least three in-state players on their rosters since the Summit League tourney moved to Sioux Falls in 2009. Typically, at least one South Dakota product is among the top three scorers on those championship, or championship-contending, Jacks and Yotes squads.

Most of the out-of-state players don’t come from far away — Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

It’s worth noting that some of South Dakota’s best players do sometimes go elsewhere, especially if they are courted at higher levels. The last two Class AA Players of the Year both went to Power 5 schools — Sydni Schetnan (Louisville, ACC), and Njakalenga Mwenentanda (Texas, Big 12). Both starred at Sioux Falls Washington. Mwenentanda played in 26 games for the No. 15-ranked Longhorns as a true freshman this season, while Schetnan has moved back home to play volleyball at SDSU after spending a season on the bench with both the Cardinals’ volleyball and basketball teams in 2021-22.

O’Gorman 2022 graduate Hanna Ronsiek is a currently a freshman at Colorado State, the old stomping ground of Rapid City native Becky Hammond, the former 6-time WNBA All-Star who was an assistant coach for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs before leading the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA title in her first season as a head coach this past summer.

Ronsiek’s sister, Emma, is a junior at Creighton, where she has started for all of her three seasons and was the Bluejays’ scoring leader on a team that reached the Elite 8 last season.

But SDSU and USD are the most consistent landing spots for most of the state’s top prep talent.

A new wave of in-state studs from the Sioux Falls metropolitan area is coming to SDSU.

Brandon Valley senior Hilary Behrens, Jefferson junior Jaidyn Dunn, and Tea Area junior Katie Vasecka have all committed to join Abdouch in a couple years.

”To play with girls of that caliber, especially because they’re all from around here, and I’ve played with all of the girls that I’m going to be going there with for a while — it just sounds like a great place.”

On Saturday, Abdouch and O’Gorman might be playing for back-to-back titles on the state’s biggest stage. Dunn’s Cavaliers might get that shot a state championship, as well.

The next day, the Jacks will learn where they’ll be going in their 11th trip to the NCAA Tournament, in a nationally-televised selection show.

Chances are, Abdouch will be watching and picturing herself on that stage, as well.