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South Dakota State football's Wes Genant, Xavier Ward relish captain role for Jackrabbits

Small-town South Dakota seniors lead Jacks into 2021 campaign

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South Dakota State defensive lineman Xavier Ward rushes the quarterback during the FCS playoffs national semifinals May 8, 2021 against Delaware in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade

On a roster with more than 100 players, leadership can take on all shapes and sizes.

South Dakota State University football seniors Wes Genant and Xavier Ward are proof of that as captains in helping their Jackrabbit squad prepare for 2021. The pair will take the field for SDSU once again this year, which opens Friday at Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Genant, the sixth-year senior from Parkston who starts at center for the Jacks, is a captain for the second time and is among the quiet leaders on the team. Ward, a fifth-year senior and Canistota graduate, starts at defensive tackle and is a captain for the first time and is known for firing up his teammates. The captains are picked by the players on the team.

“They’re small-town South Dakota young men that are having success and pursuing their dreams here,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “Going back to (the Division I move of) 2004, nobody thought that would happen and it happens all the time in our program now. It’s a pat on their back. ... I try to get out of their way once those captains are picked, because they do a great job.”

Genant will play his 50th game as a Jackrabbit on Friday, while Ward will make his 47th appearance in yellow and blue. Stiegelmeier said they’re polar opposites as leaders but both are effective.

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“Wes is quiet and leads by example. And Xavier talks all the time,” Stiegelmeier said. “And I love both of them because of that.”

Ward said he relishes the role and wants to set the standard for his teammates through both actions and words.

“It’s a great honor,” Ward said. “I just try to be the type of leader that I would want on the team and be supportive and lead by example.”

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South Dakota State University offensive lineman Wes Genant, center, blocks during the FCS playoffs national semifinals May 8, 2021 against Delaware in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

The roster has 20 juniors, 24 seniors and two graduate transfers, meaning it’s among the most experienced in SDSU football history. Genant said that means all of them are capable of leading and he’s fortunate to be among those carrying the flag for the team.

“This is a group of guys that’s super hard-working, and the team can look up to us and all of the experienced guys on the team,” he said. “It’s probably the biggest group of leaders that we’ve had on an SDSU football team, so I’m excited to see what we can do.”

Captains are always important, but perhaps more so in 2021, when there’s a weird offseason due to playing in the spring, continued protocols related to COVID-19 and the major motivating factor of a 23-21 national championship game loss to Sam Houston three months ago.

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“Our focus has been on ‘23-21,’ Genant said. “That’s something that Coach Stig has put an emphasis on with periods in every practice to put ourselves in that position from Texas and use that raw emotion to really focus down on somethings. We’re not forgetting it. We’re not going to let it affect anything but we’re going to use it as motivation.”

But even for quiet leaders, there’s a time to light a fire. Genant joked that his teammates know matters are serious when he’s “talking trash” to opponents on the field, something he doesn’t normally do.

“It was the NDSU game, and my teammates were like, ‘Wes never says anything to the other team,’ but there are times I use it to fire us up if we’re lacking some energy.”

The other captains include senior linebacker Logan Backhaus, senior safety Michael Griffin II, junior offensive lineman Mason McCormick and senior running back Pierre Strong Jr.

Ward said he wants to show that hard work and commitment can carry the Jackrabbits to their goals, including finishing in those big games.

“The goal is to be fast and physical and dominate the Missouri Valley,” Ward said. “That’s how we need to play.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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