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South Dakota Gridiron Report: Pierre welcomes new year, new run for another Class 11AA title

A look at the five-time defending champions in Class 11AA leads the Mitchell Republic's web-exclusive look at high school football in South Dakota.

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Pierre's Jack Merkwan carries the ball during the 2021 Class 11AA championship game on Nov. 12, 2021 against Tea Area at the DakotaDome in Vermillion.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting photo
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PIERRE — As the Class 11AA football season got underway across the state on Friday, one question loomed greater than the rest: Can anyone stop Pierre's quest for a sixth-straight state championship?

The definitive answer is a minimum of nine weeks out, but at present — following a 54-15 season-opening statement against Aberdeen Central — the Governors are overwhelming favorites to make South Dakota high school football history.

In the playoff era, which dates back to 1981, there have been 35 instances of a team repeating champions (within the same class as the prior season), but rarely does a program find a way to roll their streak beyond back-to-back. Of the 35 repeats, just 10 won more than two in a row, with eight of the 10 ending at three-straight.

That leaves the current Pierre regime trailing only one program for the most consecutive state championships, with an opportunity to draw level should everything fall into place for the Governors in 2022.

From 1996 to 2007, West Central ran roughshod over Class 11A, winning 10 titles in 12 years, including six straight between 2000 and 2005. Pierre has a chance to be the second member of that elite club and appears to have plenty slanting in a favorable direction as it begins the title pursuit.

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The Governors return a host of starters, most notably quarterback Lincoln Kienholz, a University of Washington commit who has a considerable claim to the title of state's best player. Further, of Pierre's four games against the other preseason ranked teams — No. 2 Tea Area, No. 3 Yankton, No. 4 Brookings and No. 5 Mitchell — three are at home, and though the Govs have five away games, two are against teams that missed the postseason in 2021.

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Pierre's Lincoln Kienholz avoids a sack by Mitchell's Joe Van Overschelde on Friday, September 3, 2021 at the Hollister Football Field in Pierre.
Pierre Capital Journal photo

But it has taken far more than talent and the occasional kind schedule to string together five consecutive victorious trips to the DakotaDome.

“It's been a wild ride, it's been a lot of fun and I think it's been very different every year,” said Pierre coach Steve Steele, who took over the program in 2016. “That's probably the most overlooked thing is that I think each year has truly been a very different ride; no two have been remotely the same. ... That's what really makes this thing special, the uniqueness we see every season with a different group of senior leadership and the points they want to focus on.”

Each of the five title-winning teams under Steele has a different defining characteristic through the eyes of their coach.

The 2017 group was tasked with persevering to ultimately break through and start the run, with the team that followed in 2018 being all about grit, recalled Steele: “There was nothing flashy about that team, they just outworked other teams.”

In 2019, the dynamic flipped to almost pure finesse. As Steele put it, that group of Governors “prided themselves on being exceptionally talented and wanted to be perfect.” And they were, producing Pierre's lone 12-0 season during the championship streak.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a common challenge for all teams during the 2020 season, with Steele praising that team's mental preparation and mental strength as the driving force. Then, last season, despite losing a lot of talent from the 2020 team, belief propelled the Governors to No. 5.

But that belief isn’t completely unique to the 2021 team, as self-confidence hasn’t been short among the Governors since Steele assumed his post. Combined with a consistent approach to building a team capable of reaching the latter stages of the season and handling any burden of expectation provided the common thread, Pierre has created a near-perfect recipe for sustained success.

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“We try so hard not to compare year-to-year or ourselves to anyone else,” Steele explained. “Our kids, coaching staff and community have all done a great job being excited about right now. We're really excited about the team we have and that's been the same every single year.”

It relates back to a quote Steele offered, originally coming from former U.S. Secretary of State and four-star U.S. Army general Colin Powell: “Perpetual optimism, believing in yourself, believing in your purpose, believing you will prevail, and demonstrating passion and confidence is a force multiplier.”

In other words, no matter how many starters or how much talent departs the program in a given offseason, the Governors' mindset is to retool and reload, not rebuild. The result has been a level of sustained excellence seen only once before in South Dakota high school football history and isn’t likely to be duplicated again for at least that long after the Governors' streak is snapped — whenever that comes to pass.

Yet for all the success, Steele maintains the coaching staff's expectations and how success is measured have remained unchanged from the beginning.

“Winning is fun and all that comes with it is a great time — obviously it's easy to say that when you have success,” Steele preached. “But if that's all our coaches wanted, I don't think we'd feel very fulfilled. There's not much more fulfilling as a coach than knowing you made a difference to those kids. I think every one of us would choose to make a difference to one kid and do whatever they need to get them through high school and into life as a great member of society over going win No. 6. But that's not to say we don't want to go win No. 6.”

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Gregory quarterback Rylan Peck pitches the ball during a home game against Irene-Wakonda on Aug. 27, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Anna Dargatz, Gregory High School)

Eye-opening victories

Three wins from the weekend of high school football that deserve your attention:

  • Dell Rapids starts strong: The Quarriers used some strong defense and a solid rushing attack to pull away in the second half and keep the Class 11AA 2021 champions Madison at bay in a 33-14 win, avenging a loss in last season's semifinals. Dell Rapids rushed for 229 yards and converted 8-for-13 third-down attempts, while holding Madison to 182 yards. Mason Stubbe had three touchdown runs and Brayden Pankonen threw and rushed for a touchdown each. 
  • Gregory explodes for big win over Warbirds: The Gorillas’ big offense arrived in the second half on Friday night, tallying more than 6 1/2 yards per play and Rylan Peck accounted for four total touchdowns as Gregory picked up a key win in the Missouri Valley Conference and Class 9A.
  • Howard clips Canistota late: We wrote last week in anticipation of this one , and it did not disappoint, with Karsyn Feldhaus scoring in the final minute to take down the Hawks. Howard’s ability to limit Canistota in the running game helped do the job, but the Tage Ortman-Noah Kleinsasser connection (five catches, 119 yards, three touchdowns) nearly did the trick. These two teams once again did their great nine-man football proud. 

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Game balls

  • Avon’s rushing attack was out in full force Friday night in a 52-6 win over Burke. Jaden Stahl ran 14 times for 154 yards and a score, Cade Faulkner rushed 12 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns, Paxton Bierema took three of his five rushes to the house, tacking on 56 yards, and Tyler Tjeerdsma had a touchdown on his three carries for 43 yards.
  • Riley Rothschadl totaled more than 300 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in Bon Homme’s season-opener against Kimbal/White Lake, passing for 100 yards and three scores, rushing for 116 yards and another touchdown, and adding an 82-yard punt return to top off his incredible performance.
  • Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy’s Riley Tschetter had a great passing performance against Iroquois/Lake Preston throwing 19 completions on 39 throws, with 176 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. All three touchdowns came in the fourth quarter, showing Tschetter’s ability to come in clutch.
  • Howard’s Taiden Hoyer’s 147-yard effort on 11 carries was highlighted with a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown to give the Tigers a 21-20 win over Canistota.
  • On defense, Jackson Smythe had 10 total tackles for Tea Area, including 5 1/2 tackles for loss in a 45-6 win over Huron. As a team, the Titans held the Tigers to 11 yards rushing on 31 attempts. 
  • Elkton-Lake Benton’s duo of Riddick Westley and Ryan Krog took apart Estelline/Hendricks on Friday night. Westley had 188 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown, while Krog, the Elks’ QB, rushed for 136 yards on 10 carries and two scores. 
  • Yankton’s Rugby Ryken went over the century mark for both passing and rushing in the Bucks’ season-opening road win over Mitchell. The dual-threat quarterback passed for 156 yards and four touchdowns while adding 106 yards on the ground.
  • Rylan Peck ran for 131 yards on 15 carries with a trio of touchdowns and added two touchdowns through the air with 103 yards as well as an interception on defense in Gregory’s 60-34 win over Wolsey-Wessington. In a losing effort, the Warbirds’ Blaze Herdman had 289 passing yards on 11 completions and five touchdowns.
  • Pierre’s Lincoln Kienholz torched the Aberdeen Central defense in the Governors’ 54-15 season-opening rout, going 26-for-31 through the air for 420 yards and six touchdowns while adding one rushing score. Receivers Jack Merkwan and Jett Zabel each caught three touchdowns and neared 200 yards receiving apiece.
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Yankton's Rugby Ryken throws the ball in a game against Mitchell on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, at Joe Quintal Field.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Three we’re waiting for

Here are three games on next week’s schedule we’re fired up for:

  • Platte-Geddes at Gregory: The back-to-back Class 9AA state champions will look to bounce back from a season-opening loss in a matchup with the Gorillas, who put up 60 first in its first game.
  • Elk Point-Jefferson at Sioux Valley: Two undefeated teams will put their records to the test in a proving game in Class 11B.
  • Harrisburg at Brandon Valley (Saturday): The steam in Class 11AAA for this one is a little diminished after both teams were defeated handily on Saturday (Harrisburg against Sioux Falls Jefferson; Brandon Valley falling to O’Gorman), but nevertheless, it’s a rematch of the 2021 state championship between two fierce rivals.
Related Topics: FOOTBALLPREP SPORTSPIERRE
Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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