State pride runs through South Dakota State football players on road to Frisco
24 Jackrabbits hail from the state as SDSU goes for a national title in football
FRISCO, Texas — There are 24 South Dakotans on the South Dakota State football roster.
And they’d like nothing more to bring the university’s first national championship back home following Sunday’s title game in Frisco, Texas.
The top-seeded Jackrabbits (8-1) take on No. 2 Sam Houston (9-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, for the national title. The game will be televised on ABC.
“It’s history in the making, for sure,” said SDSU defensive lineman Krockett Krolikowski, who hails from Winner. “It’s the first time that SDSU has been able to make a run like this. But at the same time, we’re focused on game time and it’s the same preparation as any other week. We know we can’t overhype it but we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
It’s been an exciting week for the Jackrabbits, who sold out their allotment of 3,500-plus tickets for Sunday’s game on the first day they were available to the public. But at the same time, much of the pageantry in Frisco around the annual championship game has been canceled due to COVID-19, meaning the game will feel more like a traditional regular-season game.
“I get a lot of correspondence, not because I’m special but because I sit in this coach's chair, from alums, from past players that are alums, tons of correspondence from South Dakotans,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “And that’s really rewarding. Much of the state of South Dakota is excited about what’s going on with the Jackrabbits. It’s humbling, it’s rewarding and now we need to finish the job.”
Parkston native Wes Genant, who starts at center on the offensive line, will play in his 48th game for the Jackrabbits on Sunday as a fifth-year senior. Each of those teams made the playoffs but were knocked out before the title game. A team captain, Genant said this week that playing in the national championship game is a culmination of a lot of hard work.
“It was a pretty emotional moment when we won the semifinal game that we finally punched a trip to Frisco,” he said. “It has been a long road coming. We’ve been so close so many times and now that we’re finally there, we might as well go win the darn thing.”
Representing South Dakota has been on the minds of the Jackrabbit players. Genant said the best players in the state come to play for SDSU and it’s a privilege to represent the state in Division I football.
“It means a great deal for me,” Krolikowski said. “A lot of people where I come from are big SDSU fans. There’s a lot of pride for me having that SDSU logo on my chest and playing for the state.”
Stadium capacity for NCAA championship events this spring is capped at 50%, meaning NCAA tickets were restricted to 7,500 at the home of Dallas’ Major League Soccer franchise, which normally seats nearly 18,000 for the title game.
There was no guarantee that there would be an FCS national title game in the 2020-21 season. SDSU’s conference, the Missouri Valley, moved its fall schedule to the spring in August 2020, and five programs in the conference didn’t finish their schedule, opted-out before the playoffs, or skipped the spring season altogether.
When the spring arrived, 12 conference games were canceled, with others postponed when positive COVID-19 cases popped up in various programs. The Jackrabbits went four weeks between games due to schedule changes, with SDSU treating the gap in games like another preseason camp. The NCAA postseason shrunk from 24 teams to 16, making the margin for error to reach the playoffs slim.
But SDSU has been proud of going the past 17 weeks without a COVID-19 positive case among its players. Canistota graduate Xavier Ward, who starts at defensive tackle for the Jacks, said the team has done what is hard to make sure they could keep playing.
“At first it was hard, but now as we come closer to an end and football comes closer to an end, I think everyone realizes how much they love this sport and what it’s meant to them,” Ward said. “Staying quarantined and doing the right things has only gotten easier throughout the process. … Maybe it sucked that we didn’t get to do things that other college kids got to do, but we signed up to be here, it was our choice and we have to pursue our goals.”
There’s been talk in FCS football circles that the 2021 spring champion will be diminished because of the odd nature of the season, and some teams opted out.
But that doesn’t matter to Jackrabbits — or the Bearkats, for that matter — with the winner Sunday hoisting the championship trophy having earned it in a way no other team has ever done so.
“If anything, this season has been harder and the teams that have survived it have the stronger wills and can get through more,” Ward said. “I think this has made our team better … We still come out and we win and that’s what the Jackrabbits do.”