Jackrabbits football kicks off this Friday in Iowa

Dylan Nichols , Sports Reporter

The South Dakota State football team is ready to take the field Friday Feb. 19 after a 15-month hiatus.  

 

The Jackrabbits open their season inside the UNI-Dome when they take on the Panthers of the University of Northern Iowa at 7 p.m. in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Panthers enter the season ranked No. 2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, while the Jackrabbits are ranked No. 3.  

 

Coach John Stiegelmeier said the on-campus “dead period,” where you cannot have recruits on campus for official visits, has greatly affected the team’s day-to-day operations. 

 

“Zoom was in full force, multiple PowerPoints,” Stiegelmeier said. “We had men from Florida and Texas who experienced a whole different deal – no camps, no ability to test their 40s. We’ve been impacted in a great way.” 

 

Friday’s game at UNI is coming not a moment too soon. 

 

The players who have been waiting for football since last year’s spring practices are ready. Pierre Strong Jr., Logan Backhaus, Michael Griffin, Preston Tetzlaff and Xavier Ward are faced with leading this team in this unprecedented spring.  

 

Strong, a junior running back from Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of the keys to the Jackrabbit offense in 2018 and 2019. He says he “used to just go with the flow,” but recently he has come out of his comfort zone to talk more and he has developed into a more assertive leader during the pandemic lull.  

 

“At first it was very stressful,” Strong said. “We had to adapt (to) one year without football – practice, grinding every day but having no season. As the spring came, we saw the light more. It was a great feeling practicing for something.”  

 

Now with their season about to begin, their COVID-19 testing has been bumped up to every Monday. Strong credits his coaching staff for being efficient and getting everybody tested, and now he feels more confident being closer to his teammates.  

 

“They just moved everybody into the locker room. We can trust and be around people with more negative tests because you know everyone is negative,” Strong said. “Coaching staff did a great job of getting everybody tested.”  

 

Practice has been a challenge for the Jackrabbits this year, partly because it’s more difficult scheduling the Sanford Jackrabbit Athletic Complex now with all the sports seasons going on, and because of the difficulty of getting a good quality practice while socially distanced. 

 

Practicing outside in South Dakota hasn’t dampened the team’s spirit.

 

“The energy is up. We do not get down about going outside,” Strong said. “We know what we signed up for playing football in South Dakota. We have dreams about playing in the NFL. We don’t care about the cold.”  

 

Stiegelmeier and Strong said no Missouri Valley Football Conference teams will have any big advantages in the spring, but that teams that do not have an indoor facility will be faced with more hardship due to not being able to have the best quality practices.  

 

Strong said weather is not the biggest problem the team is facing right now. Instead, he says their biggest worry is traveling somewhere just for the game to be canceled.

 

 “Weather is the last thing on my mind right now,” he said. 

 

The players aren’t the only ones who have waited for football. Many fans have been eager to get back into the stadium.

 

The home opener for the Jackrabbits is March 6 when the Jackrabbits take on Western Illinois at 2 p.m. The Leathernecks enter the season picked to finish last in the league, according to the preseason poll.  

 

 “The weather will still affect attendance,” Stiegelmeier said. “People will choose not to come, but diehards would be there in a hurricane.”  

 

Stiegelmeier preaches the term “MAD,” which means “Make a difference,” often saying fans and helpers of the program make a difference.  

 

Players are encouraged by coaches to make a difference every day on and off of the field. For example, if there’s garbage on the street, pick it up. Simple things like this are what make the Jackrabbit football players good all-around men, the coach says.  

 

Because there is not as big of a gap between seasons this year, the Jackrabbits are faced with the task of having only the summer to prepare for their fall season, and they may be forced to change their approach next season.  

“After the (spring) season, everybody is going to be sore, it’s going to be a big turnaround,” Strong said. “We have to work to really maintain our body. It’s going to be real tough.”  

 

 

 

Jackrabbit football spring schedule  

Friday: at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m. 

Saturday, Feb. 27: at North Dakota, noon 

Saturday, March 6: Western Illinois, 2 p.m. 

Saturday, March 13: Youngstown State, 2 p.m. 

Saturday, March 20: at Southern Illinois, noon 

Saturday, March 27: Illinois State, 2 p.m. 

Saturday, April 3: at North Dakota State, 2:30 p.m. 

Saturday, April 10: South Dakota, 2 p.m.