Watching the Rabbits run

OK, I was wrong. So were thousands of other people. And we are very glad about that. More than 15 years ago, South Dakota State University announced it was considering moving up to Division 1 status in basketball and 18 other sports, while competing at the Division 1-AA level in football. Fred Oien, who was SDSU’s athletic director then, pushed for the promotion, but a lot of fans and others with SDSU ties doubted the wisdom of the move. The Jacks has been national powers at the Division II level. We were a small school from a small state, we said, and should be satisfied with our status. But the powers that be were determined to move forward. “As of yesterday, South Dakota was the only state in the union that did not have Division I athletics,” Oien said on Aug. 15, 2003. “We’re glad that is over.” He was so right. As an SDSU graduate, a Brookings native who was born on campus — the old Brookings hospital became SDSU’s West Hall — I wasn’t sure. But this Doubting Thomas has been proven wrong. SDSU can compete with larger, higher-profile schools. The women’s and men’s basketball teams have shown that for years. They did so again this season, as the women won a pair of games in the NCAA tourney, including beating Syracuse on its home court, and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. The SDSU women’s basketball program is the most successful collegiate unit in state history, and it’s not even close. They were a D2 powerhouse, with a national title in 2003, and have qualified for the Division 1 tournament nine times. They now have won four tourney games and there are surely more to come, even with the departure of Macy Miller, the greatest women’s player in school history, and her backcourt mate, three-point specialist Madison Guebert. The men also have made postseason play a regular occurrence. They were one of the best D2 teams in the nation for decades, claiming a national title in 1963 on Sid Bostic’s mid-court buzzer-beater. Bostic, a double-figure scorer all three varsity seasons, remains a Jackrabbit legend for that shot alone. It propelled SDSU to dominance in the North Central Conference, which they won 20 times en route to 24 D2 tourney berths. That’s why a lot of people, including respected former coach Jim Marking, thought SDSU should stay right where it was. We were a big fish in a shallow pond, and we liked it that way. But college officials had bigger fish to fry. At first, it was a disaster. The Jackrabbit men were routinely trounced and fans bemoaned the lack of success. But slowly, Coach Scott Nagy recruited talented players and by the 2011-12 season, they topped 20 wins again and went to the Big Dance. Since then, they have been postseason regulars, with five NCAA bids and two appearances in the National Invitational Tournament. The Rabbits’ run of success was led by a pair of great players, guard Nate Wolters and forward/center Mike Daum. Wolters, a Minnesota native, and Daum, a Wyoming kid whose mother was a University of Wyoming hoops legend, are the top scorers in SDSU history. Wolters, nicknamed “Nate the Great,” received a lot of national attention during his junior and senior seasons, setting the stage for Daum, who holds the Summit League record for career points and got even more well-earned hype. Miller is the all-time conference scorer, too. Having them at SDSU at the same time has been a rare treat for basketball fans across the state. Now, they’re all legends, no longer dazzling fans at Frost Arena or confounding opponents with high-scoring performances. Nagy departed three seasons ago, and now head coach T.J. Otzelberger has decamped for Las Vegas, where he will coach the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. I have lived in both Brookings and Las Vegas — I think the coach will miss the prairie community after a few months amidst the noise, lights and desert heat. Eric Henderson has been promoted to lead the men. Aaron Johnston, the most accomplished college coach in South Dakota history, remains at the helm of the women’s team. Johnston doesn’t rebuild — he reloads. The women are sure to be strong next season, even with the departure of Miller and Guebert. The men will thrive, too, even with star guard David Jenkins considering leaving because of the coaching change. Few doubt these teams now. They’ve proven they can and will compete with anyone.

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