Mason McCormick and Tucker Large are football teammates at South Dakota State whose paths to the FCS national championship game vs. Montana in Frisco, Texas, share plenty of common steps.
McCormick, a sixth-year senior, is a first-team All-American guard who will leave SDSU as one of its best offensive linemen ever. Large, a sophomore, is a safety and on a similar career path in relation to annual season-ending honors.
Their responsibilities for the 14-0 Jackrabbit football team that will be hoping to defend its national FCS title are different, but their routes to this national title game (1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 7, on ABC) go through Sioux Falls Roosevelt High School and Sanford Sports.
To take it one more step, both players worked with Sanford Sports certified strength and conditioning coach Jordan Soukup throughout their time developing as high school athletes. On a college level, they have received the persistent support of a full staff of Sanford Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine caregivers led by Sanford Health team doctors Verle Valentine, M.D., and Chad Kurtenbach, M.D.
Collectively, the Sanford part of this effort does not measure success by wins and losses, but it is something these providers can take pride in supporting. It is something they can feel good about during a season that, with one game to go, has been wildly successful.
Soukup’s guidance goes back to high school
Let’s begin with the Jackrabbits’ work with Soukup, who helped guide McCormick and Large in their strength and conditioning since they were in their mid-teens.
“It all started with a bunch of friends who really bought into football and what it was going to take to be successful,” McCormick said. “Having a guy like Jordan there really made it fun for us in the weight room. We enjoyed his time and his efforts with us. Being able to go to the Sanford Fieldhouse and do all those things at those amazing facilities was awesome and extremely beneficial.”
Though a few years older – McCormick graduated from Roosevelt in 2018 and Large graduated in 2021 – the SDSU lineman knew Large very well based the safety’s friendship with McCormick’s younger brother, Jack.
The older McCormick encouraged Large and his younger brother Jack to go out for football. Large didn’t play the sport as a freshman at Roosevelt, choosing to concentrate on basketball. Though hesitant, he went out for football as a sophomore and has been making significant impressions ever since.
“I remember watching Tucker at the Augustana Legends camp his sophomore year,” Soukup said. “He made just about every play during that scrimmage. I think he had an interception, too, and we’re watching it going, ‘Yep, we have a guy. We have a playmaker.”
Originally a walk-on at SDSU who was a starter for the first time in 2023, Large was named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference this year. McCormick, meanwhile, will end his time at SDSU as a three-time All-American with potential for an NFL future.
“I’ve always looked at Mason like he was one of my older brothers,” Large said. “He’s had my back and supported me throughout my time at SDSU.”
Plus, they play like they’re brothers. One weighs 315 pounds and the other weighs 180 but their motors are very similar.
“They both have an intensity about the way they do things,” Soukup said. “They have a swagger – I’d call it an earned confidence – because of their work ethic. It’s a passionate intensity and it makes me look good as a strength coach, that’s for sure.”
A long and successful road
The Jackrabbits’ contest with Montana will be the program’s 45th football game over the last three seasons. Given that a normal college season is 11 games, they will have played an entire extra season since 2021.
Keeping a roster healthy as the year progresses is challenging, regardless of what might happen during the postseason. Then it gets more difficult the more games a team plays. Recognizing and respecting what goes into fielding a healthy roster that plays until after Christmas every year demands contributions from players, coaches, and Sanford and SDSU’s entire squad of caregivers.
Drs. Valentine and Kurtenbach are joined by a staff that includes Shaina Riggs, M.D., nurse practitioner Chris Nelson, and this year the addition of a sideline nurse anesthetist (Tim Farley or Leanna Siverhus) at both home and away games. In 2023, this process, not counting fall camp and spring practices, began at the end of August. It will be completed in the first week in January.
“They need to do all the things that good athletes need to do,” Dr. Valentine said. “They have to take special care in practicing load management. It’s a long season and when you play this many games, you’re going to have a lot of players who have to deal with bumps and bruises and chronic things. They have to nurse their way through them.”
McCormick is riding a 53-game consecutive start streak at SDSU going into the title game. Part of that can be attributed to being good enough to get into the starting lineup early in his career, of course. But another part is being diligent in doing all that is possible to prevent injuries.
“It’s definitely a conscious effort,” McCormick said. “We’re always trying to get ahead of the game in the training room, and injuries always come up. It’s part of the game. You just have to be willing to work hard to get back onto the field as fast as possible. And our team docs and athletic trainers give us a great insight into the route that we should take to do that.”
Prevention involves expertise
To be an elite and healthy team, a year-round commitment is essential. Emphasis on the importance of injury prevention, while difficult to measure, can be a huge part of sustained success.
The Sanford medical staff working with the Jackrabbits encourage several ways of optimizing physical and mental performance. These injury prevention and performance strategies include proper nutrition, sleep hygiene, meditation, recovery, yoga, cross-training and working on improved mechanics and techniques.
“The Sanford staff here does everything they can to make sure we stay on the field,” Large said. “Whether it’s the offseason or during the season doesn’t really matter. They do a lot for us behind the scenes that no one sees. We’re going to get our bumps and bruises and to have access to them for rehab helps us a lot as individual athletes.”
Combining the urgency of a season with long-term best interests will always be part of the equation for team doctors like Valentine and Kurtenbach. Injuries happen. Rehab and recovery times can vary from injury to injury.
“During the season, we know that injuries are inevitable,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “It is a constant balance between getting players back as soon as safely possible, but also recognizing that the ultimate goal is to be healthiest at the end of the season. For that goal to be achieved, we need excellent communication between the athletes, coaching staff, and the sports medicine team. It is a collaborative effort with the singular focus on what is best for the athlete.”
The Jackrabbits’ accompanying competitive success has been a satisfying part of this collaboration. Soukup can tell you how it works. As a strength and conditioning coach, he has been witness to what it means to get better as an athlete and what it means to get to know teenagers.
“You see people like Tucker and Mason go from kids to adulthood and you stay connected with them,” Soukup said. “You become immensely proud of what they’ve done whether that’s as an athlete or they’re going to school or starting a career and having families. It’s the favorite part of my job.”
Dedicated core to the finish
By working in health care for an organization that has a wide view of what wellness means, Soukup has been part of many success stories that match what Large and McCormick are accomplishing. Though their roles as doctors might be different than that of strength and conditioning coaches, Drs. Valentine and Kurtenbach have seen those same kinds of success stories.
“Sanford’s support of youth sports has been a huge addition to helping athletes to develop in the state of South Dakota,” Dr. Valentine said. “I think there are so many things that Sanford provides that can give kids an advantage. An example would be how Sanford Health and our youth programs are integrated. The physical therapy and the physicians can all work so closely together with those programs. That has been a huge help to athletes like Tucker and Mason.”
Without letting it get in the way of their work, the team doctors are big fans of SDSU football and the people – players, coaches and medical support colleagues – who have contributed to yet another memorable season.
“From a medical perspective, we know and understand the expectations of this team and we expect the same level of performance for the sports medicine staff,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “Our goal is to be a top-notch medical staff that contributes to the overall success of the football team.”
Playing 45 games in three seasons is a rare accomplishment in college football. The Jacks have attached several other significant accomplishments to this journey, both individually and in cooperation with others.
“What stands out to me is the incredible group of seniors and leaders on this team,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “We have several players on this team that have been foundational pieces in building a championship culture. In my opinion, this is the most talented football team that we have had at SDSU. They are physically talented, but I have also been impressed with their discipline, tenacity, mental toughness, and togetherness.”
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