Five storylines to watch in the 2023 South Dakota girls state basketball tournaments
Inside: Tournament regulars and newcomers, possible sleepers, Hamlin's quest for perfection and Class AA parity
MITCHELL — With the South Dakota state girls basketball tournaments tipping off Thursday in Sioux Falls, Watertown and Huron, the 2022-23 season is set to reach its dramatic conclusion.
Here are five storylines to consider as the action gets underway:
Of the 24 teams competing this weekend across all three classes, 12 were qualifiers a year ago. Class AA and Class A each have five returning teams, while Class B has a pair.
- Class AA: No. 1 Sioux Falls Washington, No. 3 O’Gorman (defending champion), No. 4 Sioux Falls Jefferson, No. 6 Harrisburg and No. 7 Rapid City Stevens
- Class A: No. 1 Hamlin (defending runner-up), No. 2 Wagner, No. 3 Sioux Falls Christian, No. 4 Red Cloud and No. 5 Lakota Tech
- Class B: No. 3 Viborg-Hurley (defending champion) and No. 5 Wall
All three 2022 state champions appeared in the 2021 tournament field. The last girls state champion not to appear in the prior season's state tournament bracket was 2021 Class B champion White River, which did not qualify in 2020.
It's been a while
Wolsey-Wessington is the lone program making its state tournament debut this season — and as the No. 1 seed in Class B, no less — but four other programs qualified for the first time in at least seven seasons.
Joining the Warbirds in the Class B ranks is their first-round opponent, No. 8 Jones County. The Coyotes last played in a state tournament in 2015 and before that, it was 1995.
Among the Class A field, No. 6 Sisseton and No. 7 Rapid City Christian are each making long-awaited returns. Sisseton’s last appearance came in 2012 with a consolation champion finish, while Rapid City Christian hasn’t been among the final eight since 1996 when the program was in Class B.
In Class AA, No. 8 Watertown is back for the first time since winning the state title in 2009.
A pair of programs — Class A No. 8 Flandreau and Class B No. 6 Howard — were shortchanged in their only recent appearance. The Fliers and Tigers were in their respective 2020 state tournament fields but COVID-19 shut the tournament down after a single day of play. Prior to that, Flandreau’s last appearance came in 1997, while Howard’s was in 1995.
Last season, eighth-seeded Viborg-Hurley was the darling of the girls basketball tournament weekend, knocking off No. 1 Aberdeen Roncalli, No. 4 Corsica-Stickney and No. 2 De Smet to be crowned Class B champions.
As such, one can’t help but wonder if another low seed has a captivating run in them this season. Taking a quick look at the lowest remaining seeds in each of the three classes, there’s some promise in that group.
Starting where Viborg-Hurley’s run came last season, Class B No. 8 Jones County is led by senior forward Mallory Valburg, a Dakota Wesleyan volleyball commit. Valburg will play a vital role not only offensively, but defensively for the Coyotes, as they look to limit Wolsey-Wessington’s 6-foot-4 center, Mallory Miller.
Class A No. 8 Flandreau is perhaps the most intriguing low seed, as the Fliers are coming off a SoDak 16 upset of defending class champion St. Thomas More, a team that had defeated Flandreau by 20 points in an earlier meeting. When it comes to talent, the Fliers aren’t short on it, with a deep junior class headlined by South Dakota State commit Claire Sheppard alongside Lily Klein and Lizzie Pavlis. Flandreau also has the benefit of a familiar quarterfinal opponent, coming from the same region (2A) as No. 1 Hamlin.
Led by standout junior forward Sawyer Stoebner and freshman guard Addie Siemsen, Mitchell pulled a historic upset in the Class AA SoDak 16, becoming the first No. 12 seed (or lower) to win. Now, the Kernels look to do it again. One benefit Mitchell has is Class AA does not re-seed after the state-qualification round, so the Kernels don’t face the top seed in the quarterfinals. Instead, Mitchell will play No. 4 Sioux Falls Jefferson, a team the Kernels fell to by nine points during the regular season.
As the lone undefeated girls basketball team remaining in the state, Hamlin is looking to run the table with three more wins.
The Chargers are no stranger to going deep into the Class A bracket, having finished as the class runner-up in each of the past two seasons. The program does have two Class A championships to its credit, coming in 1996 and 2005.
Hamlin has played the sixth-most difficult schedule in the class based on opponent win percentage (.598) and owns Class A’s best scoring defense, allowing just 31.4 points per game. The Chargers own two wins over other teams in the Class A tournament field — No. 6 Sisseton and No. 8 Flandreau — as well as victories over Class B tournament teams in No. 3 Viborg-Hurley and No. 7 Castlewood.
South Dakota’s last undefeated girls basketball champion in any class came in 2019, when Winner swept through Class A, including defeating fellow undefeated West Central in the title game.
Girls Class AA basketball has been difficult to read all season, with any of the top teams capable of toppling another contender on any given night.
While that’s made it difficult to nail down a true favorite in the bracket, the topsy-turvy nature promises to make the 2023 tournament a memorable one.
Just within the final month of the regular season, Sioux Falls Jefferson defeated Sioux Falls Washington, who defeated O’Gorman, who defeated Jefferson. And the chaos doesn’t stop there, Washington’s other losses to Harrisburg and Brandon Valley, which was a top-five seed but was bounced in the SoDak 16.
We’ll stop there for the sake of brevity and so as not to make heads start to spin.
In total, six teams entered the postseason with between three and five losses, underscoring the parity in the state’s largest enrollment classification.