Damon Wilkinson the 'focal point' of revamped De Smet squad searching for third-straight state title

The senior has turned into what coach Jeff Gruenhagen called the “focal point” of the offense, after he averaged 21.3 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.

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De Smet's Damon Wilkinson backs down Viborg-Hurley's Nick Hanson during a high school boys basketball Class B state quarterfinal game against Faith on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Aberdeen.
Zech Lambert / Mitchell Republic

ABERDEEN — Two years, two nets cut down.

That’s how it’s gone for De Smet, but last year’s win marked the final game for five De Smet seniors, including star Kalen Garry.

But the Bulldogs returned a key piece in 2022-23 in Damon Wilkinson. The senior has turned into what coach Jeff Gruenhagen called the “focal point” of the offense, after he averaged 21.3 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.

“This year, he draws more double coverage or zone. … He’s handled that really well,” head coach Jeff Gruenhagen said of Wilkinson. “... He’s keeping his cool a little better but he’s also giving more directions.”

Third-seeded De Smet began its trek for a third consecutive Class B state title Thursday night with a 51-47 come-from-behind win over sixth-seeded Viborg-Hurley. Wilkinson was matched up with the Cougars’ star big man Nick Hanson, who helped Viborg-Hurley jump out to a 27-17 lead at halftime with 13 first-half points, two blocks and five rebounds.


But Wilkinson, who admittedly has been one of the vocal leaders for the Bulldogs this season, rallied the troops at halftime, helping set the stage for a Bulldogs’ comeback.

“At halftime, we were down 10, I was like, ‘We got two more quarters, just keep going,’” Wilkinson said. “We play 100%, we’re going to win this.’

The battle between Hanson and Wilkinson was a microcosm of the game as a whole, with Hanson doing the bulk of his damage in the first half, while Wilkinson picked up nine of his 14 points in the second half, as the Bulldogs outscored the Cougars 34-20 over the final 16 minutes.

The battle against Hanson is something Wilkinson enjoyed, as the 6-foot-10 senior, who’s also a standout on the football field, said he likes banging down low with other bigs.

“I like that better because you’re not worried about getting a charge or something like that,” he said. “(With) a bigger guy, you’re more likely to get a one-on-one.”

He’s more than just a force down low, though. He’s no stranger to highlight dunks, including a putback jam he had against the Cougars in the opening round.

On top of that, he can step out and shoot the 3-pointer and is a willing and capable passer out of the post, and despite the absence of a bulk of last year’s starting lineup, the likes of George Jensen, Kasen Janssen, Gannon Gruenhagen Kadyn Fast, and Tom Aughenbaugh have emerged as consistent contributors in the Bulldog lineup, making them almost just as dangerous as they have been in years past.

“They've been here, they've experienced the excitement for the guys on the floor. So now I think the pressure of, ‘Hey, you guys are good enough. We're good enough to win at all. It's up to you guys to go and do it,’” Gruenhagen said. “And I think they feel that little bit of pressure of following the footsteps, but yet they want to be the ones to do it and that's what's kind of driving them to get this done.”

Zech Lambert is a sports reporter for the Mitchell Republic. He graduated from Penn State University in May 2022 and began at the Mitchell Republic in July 2022. He can be reached at or on Twitter @Zech_Lambert.
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