For the first time in history, a women’s basketball team from South Dakota has advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Division I tournament. And it has arrived there in large part because of local talent.
Six of the Jackrabbits are from South Dakota.
“It’s so cool. We made history,” said true freshman forward Paiton Burckhard. “Seeing how far SDSU has progressed since becoming D-I, and even how much our team has progressed since the beginning of the season, is amazing.”
Coached by longtime leader Aaron Johnston, South Dakota State University (28-6) won regular-season and tournament titles in the Summit League to claim a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance – the best seed in their nine tournament appearances. The squad made good on that standing by topping Quinnipiac in Round 1 before upsetting host Syracuse in Round 2 at the famed Carrier Dome.
You don’t get to new heights as a program without significant individual poise. Burckhard has been a picture of that in the tournament. She put up eight points and two rebounds in 11 minutes against Quinnipiac. She followed that up with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in the second-round win over Syracuse.
“Obviously it’s really cool to play in front of such a huge crowd, and with so many people watching on TV,” Burckhard said. “Coach Johnston reminds us that we worked all year for this and that we are meant to be here. We earned it. If we go out there and play like we know we can, we can beat any team.”
Burckhard’s multiple-sport background
Burckhard welcomes the pressure. At Aberdeen Central High School, Burckhard competed in volleyball, track and basketball. She succeeded in all three, leading the Golden Eagles to four straight basketball playoff appearances with two state championships, a volleyball state championship in 2016 and an individual shot put title at the 2018 state meet, where she set the school record.
While Burckhard shined in multiple sports, she truly excelled on the hardwood. In her four years at Aberdeen Central, she was twice named the South Dakota Basketball Coaches Association Class AA Player of the Year, was named 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year and received the 2018 “Spirit of Su” award. She finished her high school career averaging 24.9 points per game, 10 rebounds per game and shot an incredible 50.2 percent from the field.
Even with all of her talent and accomplishments in high school, Burckhard knew success at the collegiate level wasn’t guaranteed – especially right off the bat.
“The transition from high school to college is a big change,” she said. “My role right now is a lot different than it was in high school. I knew that if I wanted time on the court, I would have to work my butt off both on and off the court.”
Making that transition can be a challenge for anyone, but having a support group to help you along the way is what allowed Burckhard to feel right at home in Brookings.
Up next: Trying to break through into the Elite Eight. The Jacks face No. 2-seed Oregon (31-4) in Portland late Friday night on ESPN2.
“It’s been awesome to see Paiton thrive in her first year in college,” said Sam Herauf, who worked with Burckhard through the Sanford POWER strength and conditioning program in Aberdeen. Sanford Health also is the exclusive orthopedics and sports medicine provider for the Jackrabbits. “But nobody here is surprised — she’s always had a great work ethic.”
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