By the South Dakota Sportswriters Association
There are a lot of familiar area names among those who have been honored with Year End Awards by the South Dakota Sportswriters Association.
Among those who were chosen include Aberdeen Roncalli girls’ basketball Derek Larson (Prep Female Coach of the Year), former Langford Area and current Dakota Wesleyan volleyball standout Ady Dwight (College Female Athlete of the Year), Miller cross country coach Tom McGough (Prep Male Coach of the Year), and former Northern State runner Dakotah Lindurm (Independent Female Athlete of the Year).
Here is a look at the 2021 honorees:
Prep Girls’ Coach
Derek Larson, Aberdeen Roncalli
Larson guided the Cavaliers to their first Class A girls’ basketball state championship last season.
Known for his defensive style of coaching, Roncalli won its three games in the state tourney without allowing more than 35 points in any game.
Now in his 12th year at the helm, Larson has never had a losing season with the Cavaliers.
He is quick to credit his assistant coaches and his players for winning the coaching honor.
“We’ve had the same assistants (Rich Dix and Amanda Bain) for the past six years now. We’ve had a lot of kids that have put in a lot of time, starting for the last several years in a row,” Larson said. “All of those things just lead to awards in coaching. You don’t win anything like that if you don’t have quality kids who are willing to put in the time and effort.”
Chris Nilsen, University of South Dakota
A silver medal performance by University of South Dakota grad Chris Nilsen earned him a spot as the South Dakota “Sports Celebrity of the Year,” as chosen by the South Dakota Sportswriters Association.
Nilsen, a two-time NCAA champion, earned his first U.S. Olympic Trials championship in 2020, earning his first Olympic berth. In the Tokyo 2020 Games, held in the summer of 2021, Nilsen finished second to longtime rival Armand Duplantis of Sweden. Duplantis, who competed collegiately at Louisiana State, cleared 6.02 meters (19-9), beating Nilsen’s 5.97 meters (19-7).
Independent Male Athlete
Gavin Weir, Sioux Falls Little League
Gavin Weir became a household name during the summer of 2021 when he produced one of the best pitching performances the Little League World Series has ever seen.
In his two outings, Weir threw two no-hitters (one combined with Cason Mediger) and 29 strikeouts in both games. In fact, all through district, state, regional and the LLWS, Weir only allowed one hit.
Weir’s throwing motion and dominance led many on Twitter to compare him to MLB standout Chris Sale, and his three-run homer to break a 0-0 stalemate against Oregon led to Shohei Ohtani mentions.
Because of pitch counts, Weir was unable to pitch in the semifinal loss to Ohio (5-2) and also wouldn’t have been able to play in the championship game had the team advanced that far.
By then, his place in the LLWS history books had already been cemented.
Independent Female Athlete
This former Northern State runner had a memorable year. She won the legendary Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., and then was the third American woman to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon this past fall clocking, a time of 2:31:04.
Lindwurm became the first Minnesota woman to win Grandma’s since 1987.
She was a five-time NCAA Division II national qualifier while running for Northern and earned first team All-American honors in 2017 in outdoor track, and second team honors in cross country.
“Being at Northern State in Aberdeen is the reason that I’m able to continue to be a professional runner,” Lindwurm said. “It’s really what shaped me and set me up for success in my career now.”
She currently has her sights set on qualifying for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Sioux Falls Little League
Prior to the 2021 Little League World Series, the teams representing South Dakota had earned just one win at the tournament (1-11). But the 2021 crew from Sioux Falls, led by left-handed pitcher Gavin Weir, advanced to the semifinals and caught nationwide attention in the process.
Weir threw two no-hitters (one a combined no-hitter with Cason Mediger) and hit a game-winning three-run home run against Oregon. Maddux Munson threw a one-hitter in that game.
The storybook run ended when Ohio beat South Dakota 5-2 in the semifinals.
Sioux Falls played Hawaii in the consolation championship, and South Dakota players visited the team before that game and offered them gifts from the Mount Rushmore State. They then played wiffle ball.
On their return to Sioux Falls, players were given a raucous welcome at the airport and a celebration party at the Sanford Pentagon to honor their incredible run.
That same week, they went back to middle school as kings of the campus.
College Male Athlete
Pierre Strong, South Dakota State football
It was just the second game of the fall season when SDSU’s spring rushing leader Isaiah Davis left the game with an injury that would keep him sidelined for over two months. If there was concern this might hamper the Jacks running game, though, Pierre Strong made it clear there was no need to worry when he rushed for 150 yards the following week at Indiana State, his third straight 100-yard game. Four times this season Strong would best his own season-high from that day, amassing a career-high season total before the playoffs had even started.
Strong has consistently been one of the nation’s best rushers, with this year’s 1,686 yards good enough to make him tops in the FCS. His season-best game —185 yards — helped lead the Jacks to a decisive victory in the opening round of the playoffs against UC Davis and marked his ninth 100-yard game this year.
Strong also established himself as an efficient and timely passer, completing four passes this season, all for touchdowns. For his career, he is nine-for-nine with six touchdowns. It’s no wonder that Strong is one of the top FCS prospects for the NFL Draft.
College Men’s Coach
John Stiegelmeier, SDSU coach
John Stiegelmeier has seen a lot in his 25 years as South Dakota State’s head football coach, but nothing could have prepared him for what 2021 had in store. Coming off a 2019 season in which the Jackrabbits were done in by injures, the 2020 campaign was pushed back multiple times by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the NCAA finally made the decision to try to play FCS football in the spring, not everyone was up for it. Some teams opted out, some teams quit halfway through, and others seemed to go through the motions.
Stiegelmeier’s Jacks, however, embraced the opportunity to play a season amidst the pandemic.
The coach and his staff successfully navigated the necessary protocols to get through the season and went 5-1 to earn the top seed in the playoffs. From there, they reeled off three straight wins to reach their first ever national championship game in Frisco. They came up just short, falling 23-21 to Sam Houston.
The Jacks came back in the fall, just three months later, determined to finish the job. Though they ultimately fell short of that goal, the Jacks would play a school-record 15 games, going 11-4 and advancing to the semifinals. Along the way, they picked up a win over FBS Colorado State, a second consecutive win in the Dakota Marker series against North Dakota State, and three playoff wins including two road wins over seeded teams. Overall the Jacks would play a college football record 25 games in 2021, going 19-6. Near the end of their playoff run, the Jackrabbits all-time winningest coach was given a two-year contract extension that will keep him in charge of his alma mater through 2025.
College Men’s Team
South Dakota State football
For South Dakota State football, 2021 was a year unlike any other. And not just in program history, but all of college football.
They played more games in 2021 than any team in college football ever has, thanks to a first-ever spring season amid an ongoing pandemic. They made their first national championship appearance in program history. They were the only unseeded team to play in the semifinals of this fall’s FCS playoffs.
The unprecedented feats didn’t come without adversity along the way. Quarterback Mark Gronowski’s debut season ended with a year-ending injury—the abbreviated break in seasons meant he’d never be ready to play by the fall. It was barely September when Isiah Davis suffered a shoulder injury that would impact the rest of his season, leaving the Jacks absent two players that were indispensable to the success they had in the spring run-up to Frisco.
Even so, the Jacks made it clear their goal was to return to Frisco and finish what they started last May, where they fell just short of the title. The fall season started with an impressive win at Colorado State and saw the Jacks remain undefeated into October, before suffering the first of three losses that ultimately cost them a seed in post-season play and meant the path to Texas would require much more of them if they wanted to get back—they’d end up playing four games in four different time zones before the season would end.
Despite that crushing end to the season at Montana State, the Jacks are still the obvious pick for team of the year. They played 25 games (and won 19). They battled back to the semis despite the punishing travel schedule of the past few weeks. They made program history.
College Female Athlete
Ady Dwight, Dakota Wesleyan
Dwight helped lead the Dakota Wesleyan volleyball team with its best season in more than three decades and success at the NAIA national tournament for the first time in school history. A sophomore from Langford, Dwight earned NAIA All-American first team honors in DWU’s breakthrough 25-10 season. She had 473 kills and 136 blocks during the Tigers’ breakthrough season and averaged 3.88 kills per set with an attacking percentage of .308.
The 6-foot middle blocker led the Tigers in kills, hitting percentage, total blocks, and blocks per set. Dwight was ranked eighth in the nation for kills and 14th for total blocks, as the Tigers earned a pair of wins in national tournament play, advanced to the 24-team final site tournament in Sioux City, Iowa and recorded its best national top-25 ranking in school history at No. 13 at midseason and finishing No. 14.
College Women’s Coach
Leanne Williamson, USD Volleyball
Leanne Williamson led Coyote volleyball to not one, but two NCAA tournaments in 2021. South Dakota used a reverse sweep (lost first two sets, won next three) to beat Denver inside the Sanford Pentagon to win the Summit League Tournament in April. The Coyotes beat South Dakota State and Omaha on back-to-back nights over Thanksgiving weekend in Vermillion to win their third tournament title in four seasons.
Williamson is 163-76 (.682) in eight seasons as South Dakota’s head coach and has been on staff at USD since 2009. The Coyotes have made three NCAA tournament appearances, won two Summit League regular season titles and posted four 20-win seasons in the last six years. She has twice been named Summit League Coach of the Year.
College Women’s Team
South Dakota State softball
The 2021 season was the best in South Dakota State softball history. The Jackrabbits went 43-8 en route to Summit League regular season and conference tournament championships. SDSU qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an auto bid and in their first NCAA Tournament game ever, they beat Stanford 7-1.
The Jackrabbits lost their next two games to the Cardinal to fall short of advancing to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament, but SDSU still made an impressive mark in their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
SDSU’s hitters led the Summit League in runs (321), hits (449), doubles (76), triples (25), home runs (73), slugging percentage (.560) and batting average (.317). The Jackrabbits’ pitchers led the Summit League in earned run average (1.87), shutouts (15) and strikeouts (308).
Prep Male Athlete
Matthew Mors, Yankton
In a career that was defined by amazing numbers, Yankton’s Matthew Mors saved the best for last.
The six-year varsity player — and four-time first-team All-Stater —posted career bests in scoring average (24.2 ppg), rebounds (195), steals (60) and blocked shots (46) in leading the Bucks basketball team to a third place finish.
Mors, who is redshirting at the University of Wisconsin this season, finished his career as the top scorer in Class AA history (2,707 points), ranking fourth overall in state history. He also left YHS as the career leader in steals (219), assists (315), blocked shots (159) and made three-pointers (254). His career was also capped with the 2021 ‘Spirit of Su’ Award for Class AA.
Prep Boys’ Coach
Tom McGough, Miller
McGough led the Miller boys to their first ever Class B state cross country championship this fall.
McGough is currently in his 47th year of coaching, 40 of them at Miller, including 36 with the cross country program. Miller had three runners among the top 24 places and won the title by 23 points.
McGough was inducted in the South Dakota Cross Country and Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame this past year.
McGough, who also led the Rustlers to the 1989 state track and field title, reflected on some of his former coaches who helped to shape him, and he tries in turn to pass those lessons on to those he coaches.
He quoted the late Don Meyer, former Northern State men’s basketball, coach by saying, “We all have a gift, but we’ve got to share it. If we don’t give it away, it means nothing.”
Prep Boys’ Team
Canton wrestling has been a dynasty for years, and last season’s state title team was one of the best ones yet. Of the 13 grapplers who qualified for state competition this year, all 13 reached the podium. The C-Hawks, who had challengers in the 2020-21 season in Winner and Phillip Area, dominated the state meet to win its fourth-consecutive Class B State Championship.
Canton had champions at 120 (Ayson Rice) and 220 (Marshall Baldwin), and runner-ups at 138 (Braden Sehr), 152 (Seth Peterson), 160 (Jaden Dominisse) and 170 (Luke Richardson).
The C-Hawks also defended their state duals title with some strong scores on the girls’ side, as well. Carlee Laubach claimed the 185-pound title and the Class B most pins award (4), while teammates Rachel Mastalir (140), Carly Ballinger (160) and Kiara King (275) all finished runner-up.
Prep Female Athlete
Caelyn Valandra-Prue, White River
Caelyn Valandra-Prue powered White River to its first-ever Class B state girls’ basketball championship in March. Valandra-Prue, who was the Class B player of the year, recorded 23 points and 11 rebounds in White River’s 57-37 win over Castlewood in the championship game. For the season, she averaged 27.4 points, 8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, while finishing with 73 steals and 48 blocked shots.
A multiple-time all-stater, Valandra-Prue finished eighth on the state’s all-time scoring list with 2,536 career points. Valandra-Prue, who won multiple state track titles, is currently competing for the University of South Dakota women’s track and field team.
Prep Girls’ Team
Sioux Falls Washington basketball
The Warriors were loaded in the 2020-21 girls basketball season. Their star forward Sydni Schetnan was just the start. Washington also had a star in waiting in Ndjakalenga Mwenentanda and several other pieces that rounded the team out. The Warriors went 20-2 on their way to a Class AA state title crown.
Schetnan posted 15.3 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game, blocking a total of 81 shots.
That would give the Warriors enough star power, but Mwenentanda added 14.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game with 37 steals and 10 blocks. Schetnan is at Louisville now, Mwenentanda is headed to Texas — perhaps two of the biggest recruits in South Dakota in some time playing on the same team.
Rapid City Stevens was their championship competitor, and the Warriors let them score just 26 points all game en route to a 43-26 win.
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