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Jefferson takes SD by storm in second year, 'and we haven’t even scratched the surface,' coach says

Less than two years since their very first meeting, coach Vince Benedetto has his team rolling through the state's top league. The Cavaliers had a statement win in their anticipated homecoming matchup with O'Gorman, widely considered among their toughest competition for a state title.

Nelson Wright
Sioux Falls Jefferson running back Nelson Wright bursts through a hole during one of Jefferson's three first-half touchdown drives on Sept. 30, 2022 at Howard Wood Field. Despite a lingering ankle injury, Wright notched 43 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
Jason Harward / Mitchell Republic
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It was twilight as Thursday’s practice came to a close on the grass field at Sioux Falls Jefferson High School. The varsity players — wearing a hodgepodge of black, white and gold practice jerseys — took a knee facing their head coach, Vince Benedetto.

“The only team that can beat us is ourselves. You’ve got to believe that,” he told them, imploring them to tune out the noise that had reached a fever pitch during their 5-0 start.

The following day was the team’s Sept. 30 homecoming date with O’Gorman, a battle of the two top teams in South Dakota’s top division. For Jefferson’s senior-heavy roster, it was also a chance at redemption.

“We got beat by them 49-6 last year. So we weren't gonna let that happen again,” said Griffin Wilde, the standout wide receiver and cornerback headed to South Dakota State next year. “We really locked it in this week.”

But what was dubbed as a heavyweight matchup quickly turned into a statement by Jefferson. After allowing a field goal by O’Gorman on the game’s first drive, the Cavaliers responded in dominant fashion.

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Before the bell sounded on the first quarter, Jefferson quarterback Taylen Ashley found Wilde for a 63-yard score, defensive back Beau Giblin returned an interception for a touchdown and running back Nelson Wright capped off a drive on a short field with a four-yard scamper.

The exclamation point on a near-perfect first half came in the form of a physically-imposing 13-play, 80-yard drive, with Ashley finding tight end Sam Siegfried on a short rollout to put Jefferson up 35-3 going into the break.

Quarterback Taylen Ashely
Quarterback Taylen Ashley rolls out, surveying the field before finding his tight end for a 7-yard score. Ashley finished the day completing 17 of 21 passes for 176 yards and two scores. He added 54 yards on the ground.
Jason Harward / Mitchell Republic

“It was a big win against a good team. We praised the defense, praised the guys for playing hard and doing the things we asked,” Coach Benedetto said of his message to the team after the 42-17 victory. “But with high school kids, when they have a lot of success, you have to remind them that we have a long way to go. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of how good we can be.”

Improvement comes quickly

Four-hundred-eighty-six days earlier, on June 1, 2021, the varsity football team at Jefferson met for the first time. For Benedetto, who had made the move from leading the program at West Central, that first summer was a learning experience.

“You have an idea of the offensive and defense you want to run,” he said. “But then you start to get to know the kids and you have to change and evolve.”

However, the program did not start from scratch. With a bit of dividing-line luck and the ensuing chance to open enroll, Benedetto inherited nearly the entire class of rising juniors from Roosevelt High School, including Ashley, who started at quarterback as a sophomore for the 8-1 Rough Riders.

“I lived in the Sioux Falls Roosevelt district, but I decided to follow a bunch of my friends and go to Sioux Falls Jefferson,” said Wilde, who split time at receiver as a sophomore at Roosevelt.

Despite the influx of talent, the first season of Jefferson football was not an immediate success. The Cavaliers went 4-6, dropping their final five games due to several injuries and the lack of senior experience, a result of Roosevelt’s rising senior class having the option to decide which school to attend.

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Benedetto says his team’s attitude during the skid gave him confidence that, with every starter returning, they had a chance to put it all together this season. His players felt the same way.

“I think what last year really taught us is that we need to be able to take a hit and keep moving forward from it. And this year, that's shown in multiple games,” Wilde said.

Receiver Griffin Wilde
Receiver Griffin Wilde makes two defenders miss en route to a 63-yard touchdown. Wilde finished with five receptions for 102 yards and one score.
Jason Harward / Mitchell Republic

With the offseason additions of a handful of Roosevelt players, including running back Nelson Wright, Jefferson entered the season with high expectations, notching third place in the preseason South Dakota Prep Media Football Poll.

“Transferring to Jefferson was probably the biggest moment of my life,” Wright said. “I've been playing with all those guys since Memorial Middle School, so transferring to Jefferson and playing with them my senior year was what I really wanted.”

O’Gorman victory shows a team with few weaknesses

Looking closer at the intricacies of the O’Gorman game, it’s clear that the Cavaliers have the physical and mental tools to compete with any team in the state.

Right from the start, the mental toughness of a team full of senior experience was on full display. On the first play from scrimmage, an O’Gorman receiver found a soft spot in the Jefferson defense on a short crosser, sprinting up the left hash for a 54-yard catch-and-run that brought the Knights deep in Jefferson territory.

According to Wilde, who made the touchdown-saving tackle, there was no panic in the ensuing defensive huddle. Three plays later, O’Gorman had to settle for a field goal.

“That’s literally what our coaches and myself were preaching this week is if they get one big one on us, don’t let it beat us a second play,” Benedetto said. “And our defense was able to buckle down, get that stop and hold them to three. It was huge because three is a lot different of a feeling than seven.”

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Defensive Back Beau GIblin
Defensive back Beau Giblin returns an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter against O'Gorman. Giblin led the defense with six total tackles.
Jason Harward / Mitchell Republic

If there are any worries for a Jefferson team that has rolled through their opening six games to the tune of 262-58, it’s that the adversity faced on the first drive against O’Gorman has been the exception rather than the norm.

“We really haven't had a four-quarter game yet, which as a head coach concerns you,” Benedetto said.

As for expectations, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking the season is state championship or bust. But for the players, anything beyond their upcoming Oct. 7 matchup against Rapid City Stevens may as well not exist.

“Going 1-0 every week is what we want as a team,” Wilde said. “And I think we've really bought into that. I think that's why we're being successful and why we're doing what we're doing.”

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
On Nov. 8, South Dakotans rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state among anyone 21 years and over. Now, the more than 100 businesses clamoring for a piece of this industry will have to attempt to sustain themselves on a few thousand medical patients.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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