Preview: Kernels, Bucks collide in championship battle for Class AA state title

Mar. 18—RAPID CITY — While Mitchell was waiting to take the court for its semifinal game on Friday night, Yankton was leaving the floor following its semifinal win over top-seeded Sioux Falls Jefferson.

As Mitchell coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt and Yankton coach Chris Haynes passed by one another, Haynes gave a thumbs up. Two hours later, after the Kernels notched a semifinal upset of their own to down second-seeded Sioux Falls Lincoln, Kreutzfeldt found Haynes among the crowd and returned the gesture.

"Us ESD (Eastern South Dakota Conference) schools stick together a little bit," Kreutzfeldt said.

It's safe to say that while the two schools may have been rooting for one another on Friday evening, those feelings ended shortly after the final horn sounded. On Saturday night inside the Summit Arena, the longtime ESD foes renew their rivalry with the Class AA state championship on the line, with tipoff scheduled for 8:45 p.m. Central.

In an added layer of history, it comes on the 100-year anniversary — almost to the day — of Mitchell and Yankton meeting for the South Dakota state title (then only one class) at the Corn Palace in 1923. On that occasion, the Bucks came out ahead, 25-23, which remains the only state championship meeting in the rivalry's history, per SDHSAA records.

Yankton played in the most recent all-ESD title affair, defeating Harrisburg 39-37 in 2018. But to find the last all-ESD championship that didn't include overlap with the Metro Conference (i.e. including Harrisburg or Brandon Valley), one must venture back to Watertown over Mitchell in 2008.

"It's pretty cool to have an ESD matchup in the state championship," said Mitchell senior Dylan Soulek, who learned of the 100-year anniversary just prior to the tournament. "I don't think anyone across the state thought of that happening."

But the two sides share more than history. Neither was widely expected to reach the championship. In many cases, neither was picked to make it out of the quarterfinals, yet they stand tall.

"I just love it. It's two teams that were doubted," Kreutzfeldt said. "Find me someone who had Yankton versus Mitchell in the state championship. Nobody did, unless they're a Mitchell fan who has cousins in Yankton."

When the two schools met during the regular season, the Kernels erased a 15-point deficit and stormed back in the second half to swipe a 51-44 road victory off the Bucks.

The Bucks' attack features the three-headed hydra of Rykens — Rugby, Drew and Mac — who combined for 46 points against Sioux Falls Washington in the quarterfinals and 49 more against Jefferson in the semifinals. All three are quick, capable drivers and very good shooters from the perimeter. On defense, they hound Class AA backcourts for 94 feet.

"Yankton has elite guards with the Rykens, and then we feel like we have elite bigs who can make life tough, so it's a battle of completely contrasting styles," Kreutzfeldt said. "It's two teams who are obviously playing their best basketball right now. It's going to be a fight and we're excited for it."

While the styles and team makeups may differ, the production being spread around to a variety of sources does not.

Mitchell is the deepest team in the tournament with seven scorers who average at least five points per night. Yankton is right behind with six. And both will need every one of them to make it through a third game in three nights.

"We've been saying it all year, it's a special group of seniors. ... They know to compete and they're not afraid of moments like this," Yankton coach Chris Haynes told SDPB-TV in a postgame interview.

For Mitchell, the mindset is simple. If they maintain the same composure that allowed them to fend off hard-charging squads in Pierre and Lincoln, it'd go a long way toward winning the program's first state championship since 2005.

"We just have to keep our composure all game," Soulek said. "They're going have ups and downs, and we're going to have ups and downs. The biggest thing is containing the environment and coming out ready to go."