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DEAL: 15 sports bucket list events for South Dakotans

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Dakota Wesleyan University's Samuel McCloud (23) and Concordia University's Chuol Biel (30) both reach for the opening tipoff of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament championship game on Tuesday at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

South Dakota is vast and diverse.

We’ve got the Black Hills and wild terrain in the west, while it flattens out east of the Missouri River. Each portion of the state offers something different.

The state’s sports scene also has plenty of variety. Prep sports pump life into smaller communities, college athletics complement the larger cities and there’s a host of recreational sports to go around.

No matter your cup of tea, it seems like there’s a sporting event for you in South Dakota. So here’s a look at 15 sports bucket list items for any South Dakotan (listed in alphabetical order):

Basketball at the Corn Palace

It doesn’t matter if it’s to watch the Mitchell Kernels, Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers or a high school classic, basketball at the Corn Palace is a must. The venue comes alive for multiple days and nights each winter. You can’t top a Great Plains Athletic Conference doubleheader, a Mitchell-Huron rivalry game or one of the many high school classics on the calendar. For travelers, The World’s Only Corn Palace is a tourist destination, but for South Dakotans, it’s the ultimate basketball attraction.

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Black Hills Brawl

It’s one of the longest running college football rivalries in the nation. The Black Hills Brawl is an annual football game between Black Hills State University and South Dakota School of Mines. Also known as The Battle for the Homestake Trophy, it dates back to 1895 and has been played 134 times. It’s the most played rivalry game in NCAA Division II and it’s tied for the oldest rivalry in Division II. Only Harvard-Yale, Princeton-Yale and Lehigh-Lafayette have longer rivalries in college football. The Hardrockers lead the all-time series by a 63-60-11 margin, but the Yellow Jackets won last year’s contest.

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North Dakota State's Derrek Tuszka sacks South Dakota State quarterback Keaton Heide at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 26, in Brookings.

Dakota Marker

FCS powerhouses South Dakota State University and North Dakota State University meet every other year in Brookings, with major playoff implications at stake. The series dates back to 1903, but it ramped up when both teams jumped to Division I in 2004. The winner is awarded the Dakota Marker traveling trophy and bragging rights for the year. SDSU won the 2004 contest, however, NDSU owns a 10-6 record in the annual series. The Bison won the 2019 contest in Brookings, which also served as host for ESPN’s popular College GameDay. NDSU leads the all-time series, 63-42-5.

Days of ’76 in Deadwood

Rodeo is the official sport of South Dakota and The Days of ’76 Rodeo is the premier event in the state. The annual West River rodeo has been a staple in historic Deadwood since 1924. Nestled in the Black Hills, the PRCA rodeo is in mid-July and brings in hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls each year. It’s the 13-time winner of the Badlands Circuit Rodeo of the Year, was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2011 and recognized as the PRCA’s best mid-sized rodeo for the past 17 years.

Golf at Sutton Bay

It’s golf, hunting and fishing rolled into one. Golf, however, is most synonymous with the resort. Built in 2003, the private course has been featured in multiple national media outlets and it’s widely considered the best course in South Dakota. Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River, provides breathtaking views for golfers. The course, which is roughly 40 miles northwest of Pierre, features more than 7,200 yards of challenging golf. It was designed by Australian golfer Graham Marsh.

I Hate Winter at Northern State University

Bikinis, beach towels, hot tubs and, oh yeah, basketball. Northern State University’s annual I Hate Winter weekend basketball doubleheader dates back to the 1980s. It’s half party and half hoops colliding at Aberdeen’s Wachs Arena. The party includes two hot tubs, while there’s some usually pretty good basketball on the court. The Wolves are traditional powers in NCAA Division II and their die-hard fans always circle this weekend on the calendar.

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White River and Bennett County compete for the opening tip-off marking the start of the first game of the 50th Jones County Invitational Tournament in 2018 in the Harold Thune Auditorium in Murdo.

Jones County Invitational in Murdo

It’s like the movie “Hoosiers” in South Dakota. Eight West River communities cram into Murdo’s tiny Harold Thune Auditorium for three days of small-town boys basketball. The Jones County Invitational, which is South Dakota’s longest-running basketball tournament, celebrated its 52nd annual event this January. The semifinal and championship rounds are usually overflowing with 1,000-plus people, making it one of the best atmospheres in South Dakota.

Key to the City in Sioux Falls

Augustana University and the University of Sioux Falls battle each year for city bragging rights and the relatively new Key to the City football traveling trophy. The rivalry dates back to 1916, but the neighboring colleges have only matched up 27 times on the gridiron. The rivalry was put on hiatus for more than four decades, and after briefly playing in the 1980s, it resumed in 2012 with both teams in NCAA Division II. Augie won the 2019 contest and it leads the all-time series, 20-7. The Cougars lead the Key to the City series, 6-2.

Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City

It started as an eight-team boys basketball tournament in 1976, but now features around 40 schools from Native American reservations in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. It hosts multiple high school events in Rapid City and the Black Hills throughout the school year. But the basketball tournament each December is still the main attraction. It features 32 teams -- 16 boys and 16 girls -- playing four straight days of basketball. The multi-cultural event was featured in Sports Illustrated in 2003, while NBA legend Bill Russell has attended the event twice.

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Fitzgerald Stadium workers work on the field in between games during the 2017 Class A state Legion baseball tournament in Rapid City.

Post 22 baseball in Rapid City

Post 22 is South Dakota’s premier American Legion baseball program and its venue for home games is second to none. Fitzgerald Stadium, with a picturesque view of the Black Hills as a backdrop, was built in the mid-1950s as a minor league ballpark. Post 22, which boasts 42 state titles, hosts the annual Firecracker tournament that brings in multiple Legion powerhouses each year over Independence Day. The stadium is set to undergo renovations and its new artificial turf field will be named after Dave Ploof, the program’s long-time manager.

SDSU and USD rivalry

It doesn’t get much better than in-state college rivalries, and this one tops them all in South Dakota. The Jackrabbits and Coyotes were bitter North Central Conference rivals for years and it’s carried over to the Division I days (minus a dead coyote or jackrabbit thrown on the court). The rivalry was put on hold in 2003 when SDSU moved to Division I athletics, while USD remained Division II. The ‘Yotes joined Division I in 2011-12, which picked things back up again. You can’t go wrong with any sport between the foes, but basketball and football highlight the yearly matchups.

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Fans watch the action during the first game of the 2017 South Dakota amateur baseball tournament at Cadwell Park in Mitchell.

State amateur baseball tournament at Cadwell Park

It’s 12 straight days of baseball, burgers, bingo and beer. Mitchell is in the heart of amateur baseball country, making it the perfect spot for the tournament. The area’s baseball-crazed communities swarm to Cadwell Park and pack the stands from beginning to end. Championship Sunday is a can’t miss for any sports fan in the state.

State B’s in Aberdeen

It doesn’t get much better than the State B boys basketball tournament in Aberdeen. Class B boys basketball players and coaches dream of playing at Wachs Arena each year. Fans flock to the Hub City like no other South Dakota high school tournament, making it a truly special event. With the exception of this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been in the Hub City every year since 1995. It’s small-town basketball at its finest.

State football in Vermillion

Prep sports are king in South Dakota and Friday Night Lights breathe life into towns across the state. It all comes to a head for three days in Vermillion in November for the state football championships. It starts with the nine-man teams and builds to the state’s larger classes. But no matter the class, it’s the ultimate showcase for prep football stars. University of South Dakota’s DakotaDome has hosted the title games every year since 1981, with the exception of this past fall due to renovations.

Summit League basketball tournament in Sioux Falls

It didn’t take long for South Dakotans to make this an extremely popular tournament. The Summit League moved its basketball tournament to Sioux Falls in 2009 and it hasn’t looked back. The combined men’s and women’s tournament features four days of mid-major basketball, with the title games aired on ESPN. Rivals South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota regularly duke it out, adding to the aura of the event.

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