SAGE DELIGHTS IN JACKRABBITS’ WNIT TITLE
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Erika Sage saw her playing career on the basketball court end in disappointment, not once, but twice.
The first came her senior year at Freeman High School in 2017, when the standout guard and the Flyers fell one game short of the state tournament for the fourth year in a row. She’ll probably never forget what her dad and coach told her when she came out of the game late in the fourth quarter.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”
The second came as a junior at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, when a second torn ACL ended her playing career for good; she didn’t even get to play her senior season.
On Saturday afternoon, April 2, inside a sold-out Frost Arena at South Dakota State University, Sage, now a graduate assistant (GA) for the SDSU women’s basketball team, witnessed the other side of the emotional coin when the Jackrabbits won the WNIT (Women’s National Invitation Tournament) — a consolation opportunity afforded teams that fell just short of the high-profile NCAA Tournament.
Given the way her own playing career ended as a Flyer and then a Red Raider, Sage no doubt delighted in the experience the girls were enjoying — especially the four seniors who finished their careers, not only with a win, but with the school’s first-ever national basketball championship.
“Not many teams — not many seniors — can end their season with a win,” Sage said from the Frost Arena court not long after the Jacks accepted the championship trophy and posed for a barrage of photos, as Queen’s “We are the Champions” played over the public address system. “I had my playing career end differently and know how that feels, so the fact that we could go out like this is unforgettable for these girls.”
National championship aside, this has been a highly memorable season for Sage, who was offered the GA role by head coach Aaron Johnston last year and started working with the team in July. Her primary role has been film prep using a program called Sportscode, which offers customizable performance analysis for quick review later, but she has also worked with the team’s operations manager to help coordinate logistics like food and mailings, and also with the other four assistant coaches on shooting drills and other workouts.
“Coming in I knew it would be fun and exciting, but it’s been a challenging year for our team on the court and off the court — just things happening in their lives,” Sage said. “So to be a part of that, learn from that and grow with the team has been unbelievable. More than I could have imagined.”
Certainly one of the challenges was the emotional and physical loss of freshman point guard Paige Meyer, who suffered a season-ending injury the last Saturday of February, and another was the March 8 defeat at the hands of the rival Coyotes of South Dakota in the Summit League Tournament championship game.
“Obviously disappointing,” Sage said. “We wanted to win that and get into the NCAA Tournament, and it took a little time to bounce back. But we knew we were in the WNIT and knew we had another opportunity to play with this team, with these seniors, so we just kept moving forward.”
Sage said especially after that opening-round win over Ohio on March 17, the Jacks started playing with energy and relished in the prospect of continuing to make their way through the tournament on their home court thanks to successful bids to host the games. The SDSU women went on to beat Minnesota, Drake, Alabama and then UCLA in front of a sold-out Frost Arena in the semifinals to advance to the nationally-televised championship game.
Sage said the wild atmosphere inside Frost during that 62-59 win over the Bruins — and then again during SDSU’s dominant 82-50 win over Seton Hall in the championship last Saturday afternoon, which was the biggest margin of victory in WNIT championship history — is indicative of the kind of the support the Jackrabbits have felt all year long.
“The Brookings community has been outstanding,” she said. “That was true during the regular season, but even more so in this tournament. They’re not just fans who sit back and watch; they’re really emotionally invested in the game. They know what’s happening and are able to spark our players and get them going when we need them to.”
She said the home crowd was a huge advantage for the Jackrabbits and deserve to share in the celebration.
“It felt like there were 10,000 people in here,” said Sage, who noted she’s not surprised by the outcome of the WNIT.
“Not one bit,” she said. “As coaches we knew how special this group was and how far they could go, and here we are. Not surprised at all.”
Sage and the others involved with SDSU women’s basketball will take some time off through Easter but will get back to it with small group workouts, take another hiatus in May and then return for summer preparation for another season — Sage’s second and final as the team’s GA.
And watch out for the Jacks again in 2023, she says. In addition to the return of a lot of experience — including redshirt junior Myah Selland, the WNIT Tournament All-Tournament MVP — Sage says the SDSU women are eager to welcome a solid incoming freshmen class that should contribute to the overall effort.
In the meantime, Sage and the Jackrabbit women will bask in the glow of a national championship. “Just to see the joy our players played with and are experiencing now,” she said on the court following Saturday’s win — “it’s so much fun.”