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Members of the Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan football team participate in warm-ups prior to last year’s Class 9AA championship game at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

Seahawks about more than winning tradition

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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

EMERY -- Since 1999, when the Class 9AA football division was first created, the Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan Seahawk football team has won six state championships and that isn't what head coach Jeff VanLeur is most proud of.

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"There are so many lessons learned out there on the football field," VanLeur said. "It enhances their education. Being responsible for your own job and doing the best job that you can goes a long way to teaching these kids what it's like being out there in the real world when you're expected to do something."

Assistant coach Tim Hawkins said success on the field and success after football and high school goes hand-in-hand.

"When you get a group of kids dedicated to a goal and they're not afraid to go out and work for that goal, that work ethic just carries on into life," Hawkins said. "Going back and visiting with a lot of our old players, they are out there doing good things because of that work ethic."

The football program has developed some strong teams throughout the years and 2013 was no different, as the Seahawks took home the 9AA title with a 36-6 win over Arlington.

"It's always our goal to get our kids there and give them a chance," said VanLeur about winning six state titles. "Just to see the kids' expressions when they get there is always very rewarding for us coaches, but I think we get a lot more out of it than just state championships. Our kids learn how to work and be great players on and off the field."

Hawkins said winning six 9AA state titles shows that the team is consistent with coaching no matter what grade level they are coaching.

"We do everything exactly the same whether or not were talking about junior high or high school," Hawkins said. "Kids in seventh grade start learning exactly what the program is all about. It never ever changes."

The program's first 9AA state championship came in 2001, when it was just Ethan/Emery. The team won its other titles in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2013, along with a runner-up finish in 2009.

Although winning has been a big part of teaching success, VanLeur added it's important to teach players valuable lessons in losing years.

"Sometimes the best lessons you learn are when you're out there and you lose a game," VanLeur said. "It's how you come back after that loss that says a lot about our kids' character."

Winning titles and being competitive nearly every season shows how the program is able to successfully develop players for the varsity game. That development starts with VanLeur, who has coached the Seahawks for 34 years, surpassing over 200 wins.

"I give a lot of the credit to my assistant coaches in Jason Bailey and Tim Hawkins, as well as Griffith VanLeur and Andy Erickson. Those guys just do a fantastic job," VanLeur said. "Jason and Griffith work with our young kids and teach them fundamentals, fundamentals and fundamentals. We push that and our kids' work ethic goes a long way."

Hawkins added players understand that doing a few things right, repeatedly, goes a long way.

"When you do the same things over and over, you get good at it," Hawkins said. "Usually, it's going to lead to some success."

Having a strong work ethic was something both VanLeur and Hawkins mentioned often about how the program has seen so much success throughout the years.

"I don't think it's any secret that we are expecting kids to work hard," Hawkins said. "We just demand it."

"Our kids just put a lot time into the game and work hard in the offseason," VanLeur said. "Sometimes I think success breeds a little success, and we have had some kids that keep pushing other kids. Practicing a good football team everyday just makes you better."

Hawkins added kids can't be afraid to go to work during the offseason in the football program.

"Along with that, we have had great parents supporting the program, and they have been willing to help out with getting kids to camps. That goes a long ways," Hawkins said.

With Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan's success in the last decade, VanLeur has earned a reputation as one of the top high school football coaches in the state and was voted in the top eight nationwide in a USA Today high school football coaching search.

"It's been awesome," Hawkins said about coaching with VanLeur for the past 22 years. "Plain and simple, he does things right. It's been really easy to work with him, and it's been an absolute honor."

The Seahawks open their 2014 season on Friday against Mount Vernon/Plankinton in Ethan, and VanLeur said his team will be working to replace a lot of players from the 2013 championship group.

"We've got some big holes to fill, and it's going to take us a little while," VanLeur said. "Hopefully, we just keep getting better and better, week in and week out."

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