The De Smet Bulldogs boys’ basketball team was crowned 2021 State B Basketball Tournament champions in Aberdeen on Saturday night, March 20, overcoming the last obstacle in their two-year quest for a state title.
What a journey it was.
Following a close runner-up finish in the 2019 state championship game, hopes were high for a championship run in 2020 as the Bulldogs posted a 21-2 record the following year and were headed to the Boys State B Basketball Tournament as the #1 seed.
For the second year in a row, De Smet’s girls’ and boys’ teams had both earned a spot in their State B Basketball Tournaments. The boys’ basketball team had traveled to the Black Hills with the girls’ team, who were defending their 2019 state title in Spearfish at the girls state tournament. The boys traveled as a team, so they could continue to practice and prepare for their tournament the following week.
Those championship dreams would never be realized as the COVID pandemic struck South Dakota, causing the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) to deal with an unprecedented situation.
With the Girls State B Basketball Tournament already shut down, SDHSAA officials made another difficult decision to cease any organized school activities until COVID was controlled. This included ending all organized practices and postponing the boys' state tournament, possibly until June. The tournament was never played.
“They (SDHSAA) told us we could no longer practice or do anything until they made another announcement,” said boys basketball coach, Jeff Gruenhagen. “At that time, they were just postponing the state tournament, but later it turned into a cancellation. I had to break the news to the guys, and that was one of the hardest messages I’d ever given them.”
The loss of that chance at a championship put even more pressure on the team this season. And it gave them an increased drive to win.
“Not going to state last season did put a little fire under the players,” said Gruenhagen.
“All these guys, their biggest asset that I tell everyone, is just the way they stick together. They do not care if Kalen (Garry) gets thirty points, or if Kalen scores two points, or if Ethan scores thirty points, or somebody doesn’t get a shout-out in a game. They do not care who is getting the glory. They just want to get a win every night,” said Gruenhagen.
Gruenhagen is quick to give credit for the team’s defensive focus and unselfish style of basketball to long-time De Smet coach and mentor, Marv McCune.
“We do model that after Marv. He was a successful coach, a great all-around guy and teacher. That is where our philosophy has directly come - from him,” said Gruenhagen, talking about his influences as a coach.
When asked about the team, Gruenhagen pointed to their talent and team play.
“It is a good team, and good bunch of guys. Nobody is looking to be the star anything. They just go. I coach them to be prepared and practice. I do not say too much. I let them make their own decisions. They know right from wrong, and what should go. I point them in the right direction and let them do all the work on the floor.”
De Smet finished their regular season with one loss to Class A Sioux Valley for a record of 19-1. In the process, the team played a challenging schedule defeating each of the top teams in Class B, along with several Class A opponents. The early run through the playoffs saw them defeat Hitchcock-Tulare, Castlewood and then Timber Lake in the SoDak 16 game.
With those wins, the Bulldogs qualified for the state tournament for the third time in the last three years. The stage was set once again.
Just after their sendoff from the community, while on the way to the tournament, the team received sad news that Bill Wilkinson had passed away earlier that morning. Wilkinson was a past De Smet football coach, a vocal supporter of the team, as well as grandfather to team members Colt and Damon Wilkinson and great uncle to Edger Wilkinson.
The parents and boys talked and decided to continue with the tournament. No one had any doubt what Bill Wilkinson would want. He would want them to compete.
As the State B in Aberdeen started, COVID was still affecting the tournament. Attendance was limited to 3,000 spectators per game, and everyone was required to wear masks. Meanwhile, S.D. Department of Health officials were releasing numbers showing the rate of infection slowly climbing again. Despite the rising numbers, the tournament rolled on, and so did the Bulldogs.
As the tournament’s top seed, the Bulldogs tipped off the first game on Thursday afternoon, cruising over #8 seed Lower Brule 80-53.
Friday’s semifinal game saw the Bulldogs take on the Cougars from Viborg-Hurley. Fighting through a rough, physical game, the boys won the battle decisively 56-44, sending De Smet into the championship game on Saturday night.
After a year of cancelled dreams, COVID restrictions, a tough schedule and personal hardships along the way, the table was finally set for the last challenge of the season. The championship game matched the Bulldogs against the Aberdeen Christian Knights, playing in front of their hometown crowd.
The cancellation of the 2020 state tournament may have left some wondering who would have won the championship last year. On this Saturday night, the Bulldogs left no doubt, defeating the Knights 59-43 in a dominant performance sealed with a thundering slam dunk by junior Kalen Garry in the closing minute.
That booming dunk, and the joyous screams that followed it down the court, were the emotional release of two years spent working against adversity and dealing with the pressure of expectation. The De Smet Bulldogs were once again South Dakota State B Basketball Champions.
“Our goal when we set out was not only to play in the tournament, but to win the whole thing. I am really happy for the boys that we could accomplish that goal,” Gruenhagen said. “It’s a great feeling to see the team at the end of the championship game, with a couple minutes to go, to be at that level of confidence. The smiles, the hugs and the tears are a great feeling, and it is something these guys will never forget.”
“The best reward for me is to see those guys accomplish exactly what they set out to do,” said Gruenhagen. “Thanks to everybody in De Smet for all their support of these guys. Everybody loves to watch them, follow them and support them. It’s been fun.”