Size has always been a factor on the basketball court, and the six players selected to the South Dakota Basketball Coaches Association’s Class AA boys’ All-State first team are no exception. All six players stand taller than 6-foot-2, with a first-team average height of better than 6-5.
What the tape measure tells about the team’s height, though, does not tell the whole story on what made them the best players in the state. It was their length, as in the ability to shoot from long range. All six players made at least a dozen 3-pointers on the season, with three of them — 6-7 Matthew Mors of Yankton, 6-4 Jaron Zwagerman of Sioux Falls O’Gorman and 6-5 Diang Gatluak of Sioux Falls Lincoln — shooting 40 percent or better from deep. Peyton Zabel (6-6) of Pierre, Cole Bergan (6-7)of Aberdeen Central and Kailleb Walton-Blanden of Rapid Central, the “little guy” at 6-2, round out that elite list.
Welcome to the modern age of South Dakota basketball.
“You’ve certainly seen it at our level the last few years,” said Pierre head coach Terry Becker added. “As a coach, I love seeing that. I love having guys that can do a little bit of everything.”
Becker’s player on the first team, Player of the Year winner Zabel, did just that. Besides averaging just under 20 points per game (19.8), hauled in 11 rebounds per game, averaged 2.7 assists per game, and had 48 steals and 39 blocked shots. A second-team all-state selection a year ago, he also hit 34 three-pointers on the season, a skill he did not use for the Governors until this season.
Zabel’s versatility extends beyond the basketball court. He was an all-state quarterback for the Class 11AA champion Governors, and will head to Augustana on a baseball scholarship.
Though he does not have the height of his first-team counterparts, Walton-Blanden impacted the game both as a scorer and distributor.
“He is quick, strong and a quick jumper,” Rapid City Central head coach T.J. Hay said of his guard. “He has an uncanny ability to get to the rim.”
Walton-Blanden, who is uncommitted at this point, averaged 13.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, as well as 2.9 assists and nearly two steals per contest. A three-year starter, he helped provide leadership that vaulted the Cobblers to one of their best seasons in recent program history.
“Our two guards got it done for us all year. We just ran into a buzz saw at state,” Hay said. “You look at the NCAA’s, small college or high school, if you have a couple of guards that are three-year starters and you have those guards on the floor, you’re going to get some stuff done.”
Locally, Cooper Bowman of Rapid City Stevens was named to the second team. Bowman averaged 12.9 points a game, along with 5.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game.
Mors, believed to be the first freshman boy to earn first-team all-state honors in South Dakota, earned that honor by averaging 24 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in leading the Bucks to their first state title in 40 years.
“He didn’t play like a freshman. But he has the experience of an upperclassman, and the expectations of an upperclassman,” said Yankton head coach Chris Haynes. “He can flat-out score. When you can shoot from the perimeter, put it on the floor, score with your back to the basket and are a great free throw shooter, it’s a deadly combination.”
Mors, a second-team all-state selection a year ago, averaged 28.7 points per game in the state tournament, including a 38-point performance against Rapid City Central in the semifinals. He set the Bucks’ single-game scoring record with 42 points earlier in the season. He already ranks second on the Bucks’ career scoring chart (1,173) and first in career three-pointers (121).
“The exciting thing for us with Matthew is that he has a whole other notch to go athletically,” Haynes said. “He has shown every year that he is willing to put in the time to elevate his game. He still has things that he can do to improve.”
Bergan, the lone returning first-team selection, averaged 15 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, as well as 2.6 assists and 1.0 steals. He hit better than a third of his three-point attempts, going 12-35.
“Cole is a very skilled player,” said Aberdeen Central head coach Brent Norberg. “He was dominant down low. He has all the skills to be a dominant offensive player.”
Those skills for the recent University of Northern Colorado recruit include the ability to both start and lead the break.
“He was definitely one of the better rebounders around,” Norberg said. “He got our fast break started. He helped us play a lot better in the second half of the season.”
Zwagerman, a Mount Marty recruit, averaged 17.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game for O’Gorman. He hit 36 of 89 from 3-point range during the regular season.
“The thing that sticks out about Jaron is his scoring ability,” said O’Gorman head coach Derek Robey. “He’s just a tough matchup for other teams.”
Zwagerman played a key role in the Knights’ 2017 state title, then provided leadership for this squad.
“To score that much says a lot, because every team in AA has somebody that can guard you,” Robey said.
Gatluak was an explosive weapon for Lincoln, averaging 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He also averaged 2.8 assists and just over two steals per game, and shot 32 of 81 from 3-point range.
“His is a two-year starter, so the experience has been a big plus. He can shoot from outside and post people up,” said Lincoln head coach Jeff Halseth. “He also can attack the basket when needed.”
Other second-team honors went to Harrisburg’s Nick Hoyt and Brady VanHolland, Brandon Valley’s Evan Talcott, Sioux Falls Washington’s Logan Uttecht and Huron’s Kobe Busch. Bowman, VanHolland and Uttecht are seniors, Hoyt and Talcott are juniors and Busch is a sophomore.