Beyond Basketball: SDSU women’s team values players

Landon Dierks, Sports Reporter

Winning and South Dakota State women’s basketball have gone hand-in-hand for nearly two decades.

While numerous Jackrabbit standouts have come and gone, one constant remains — head coach Aaron Johnston.

In his 19 seasons at SDSU, Johnston has compiled a career record of 464-155 (as of March 4, 2019) and constructed a mid-major dynasty, but it’s hardly by accident or a stroke of luck.

Johnston’s teams have been some of the most successful and have featured some of the most accomplished players in the history of the program, but the primary focus isn’t an on-court success — though it’s a welcomed bonus.

“We put people before the wins, the losses and everything else,” Johnston said. “When you do that, high-achieving people, people who want to be successful, migrate toward that … We’ve had success in Division II, Division I and a lot has changed around us — from our opponents to campus — but the one thing that’s been consistent is we’ve tried to put people first.”

The family atmosphere that surrounds SDSU women’s basketball is proof that a program’s culture can be as important to prosperity as individual talent.

“We’re not full of drama. We have chemistry and we’re there for each other — even the coaches.” SDSU guard Macy Miller said.

For example, the senior guard duo of Miller and Madison Guebert. Both have rewritten the SDSU record books over the course of their careers.

Miller became the first SDSU woman to cross the 2,000-point threshold earlier this season and has a chance to top the Summit League career scoring list if she scores 55 more points before season’s end.

At the same time, Guebert has cemented herself as the best sharpshooter in program history. Her 349 career 3-point field goals have her atop the SDSU and Summit League all-time charts. With 1,727 points and counting, she will also finish her Jackrabbit career inside the top five in scoring.

Given their offensive prowess, it’s unlikely Jackrabbit faithful would bat an eye if either one consistently took games into their own hands at the offensive end.

But that’s not how things work when you’re a Jackrabbit.

“You have to be bought in. If you come in here and you are, in any way, not about what’s best for the team and our program it’s not going to work for you,” said Kristin Rotert, SDSU director of basketball operations. “Everybody here plays for each other.”

Rotert is uniquely qualified to speak on the team. She, too, was a Jackrabbit standout when she played from 2007-11 and returned to the SDSU bench as a member of the coaching staff prior to this season.

She thinks the culture surrounding the team hasn’t changed, adding the close, family-like dynamic allows for increased accountability, among other things, within the program.

“The standard of excellence hasn’t changed at all,” Rotert said. “Details have always mattered. That’s what makes us so good in my opinion. Little things don’t fall through the cracks.”

In Johnston’s 19 years leading SDSU women’s basketball, 18 players have joined the 1,000-point club — Miller, Guebert and Rotert among them. This serves as evidence of the exceptional talents he and his coaching staff have been able to recruit to Brookings.

Of the 14 players on the 2018-19 SDSU women’s basketball roster, five are former Miss Basketball honorees (Miller, South Dakota, 2014; Guebert, Minnesota, 2015; Myah Selland, South Dakota, 2017; Tylee Irwin, North Dakota, 2017; Paiton Burckhard, South Dakota, 2018) and all 14 received all-conference or all-state recognition during their high school careers.

“Women’s basketball in the Midwest has always been really strong. It’s really helped in the recruiting game because it’s nice to have people who are familiar with your program before they get here,” Johnston said. “There are so many connections [to SDSU for the student-athletes] and I think that raises the level of motivation our players have to compete for South Dakota State.”

A high concentration of basketball talent in Brookings is special in itself. The way those individual talents mesh is something altogether different.

“We’re looking for the right kind of people (in recruiting),” Johnston said. “If we have the right people, we feel like everything else seems to fall into place. Obviously, they have the right talents and skills, but you want the right personalities … If they are the right people then they think of the team first.”

The collective team personality also helped attract SDSU’s two transfers — juniors Tagyn Larson and Rylie Cascio Jensen.

“I was looking for a program that demanded excellence, was going, to be honest with me and push me to be a better player and person,” Cascio Jensen, who transferred from the University of Nebraska, said. “Talking with AJ and seeing how this program was so successful and how they became successful was very intriguing to me.”

Soon, Cascio Jensen and company will be asked to fill the void left when SDSU loses its highly productive, decorated class of seniors in Miller, Guebert and Sydney Palmer.

For most teams that lose their top two scorers, there’s cause for concern. But the Jackrabbits have been there and done that.

“We’ve had several years where we’ve graduated some of our very best players,” Johnston said. “It’s remarkable how many elite players have come through our program. We’ve had a lot of experience dealing with that.”

Three starters from this year’s team will return next year in Larson, Selland and Irwin, as well as key reserves Burckhard, Cascio Jensen and Lindsey Theuninck, who all have averaged at least 13 minutes of playing time per game this season.

“Our talent is exceptional on the roster,” Johnston said. “As this senior class moves on, we’re really excited about how the junior, sophomore and freshman classes and our incoming freshmen will fit in and continue to keep everything moving forward. That’s where you want to be.”

As for the senior class, they will rest easy knowing they made their mark on Jackrabbit women’s basketball and will be part of future success stories.

“The future of SDSU women’s basketball is bright,” Guebert said. “The ones before us set the tone for this program. We’ve had an impact on the success while we’ve been here and I know that Jackrabbits in the future will continue to be successful.”