'He's always with me': De Smet Bulldogs play with heavy heart after death of Bill Wilkinson

Ryan T. Deal, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
·2 min read

Mar. 18—Bill Wilkinson would have approved of Thursday's performance by the De Smet Bulldogs.

The top-seeded Bulldogs rolled past Lower Brule, 80-53, in the opening round of the State B boys basketball tournament at Wachs Arena.

It was another dominant victory for De Smet, which improved to 23-1 on the season. The Bulldogs also captured the win with a heavy heart.

Wilkinson, a former De Smet football coach and long-time Bulldog supporter, died on Wednesday after battling health issues. He was 71. Wilkinson is the grandfather of De Smet players Damon and Colt Wilkinson and the uncle of Edger Wilkinson.

The team found out about Bill Wilkinson's death prior to arriving in Aberdeen.

"To get that news on our ride up here, just after we got a great departure and everything was such a deflation," De Smet coach Jeff Gruenhagen said. "I give really good credit to Colt and Damon for handling it."

"During the send off I got told, it was kind of a bad trip up here," Damon Wilkinson said. "But I played through it."

Damon Wilkinson said he tried to stay focused on Thursday's game, but added "I know he's always with me."

Bill Wilkinson was an avid Bulldog supporter and Gruenhagen, who was coached by Wilkinson, said he let everybody know it in the stands.

"We will miss his voice in the stands," Gruenhagen said. "Because it's just a booming voice and he was not afraid to say what he thought at the time, but he's just a great supporter of everything."

In addition to supporting his grandsons and nephew, Bill Wilkinson was a regular at all De Smet sporting events. He also hired several of the Bulldog players to work on his farm.

"He's just there for everything, if you needed something and you could hear him at every game," Gruenhagen said.

Damon Wilkinson played like his grandfather was still cheering him on Thursday. The 6-foot-7 sophomore center posted 15 points in 17 minutes off the bench.

"He was focused today," Gruenhagen said. "We kind of call it a Wilkinson attitude of, if you push me, I am going to push back and he's played that way."