Reaching the DakotaDome is a special accomplishment.
And, as Byron Pudwill said he has been telling his Bon Homme football players this week, it can be a rare accomplishment.
Put another way: The Cavaliers, who will make their first state championship game appearance in 23 years on Thursday, aren’t taking the opportunity for granted.
“You want the kids to savor it and help them embrace the moment,” Pudwill said this week.
“When you’re a teenager, you think like a teenager and think every year it’s going to be like this,” he added. “And that’s not the case.”
History is all the proof the 18th year head coach needs.
Pudwill was an assistant coach for the 1988 Bon Homme team that lost in the title game, and was then an assistant for the 1994 and 1995 teams that won back-to-back state championships.
Now, 23 years later, the Cavaliers (10-1) will play Kimball-White Lake (8-3) in Thursday's 1 p.m. Class 9AA state championship game at the DakotaDome in Vermillion.
Yes, Bon Homme has come close to making a return trip to the dome in the years since 1995, but now that the Cavs got there, the goal has been to keep the focus on the game itself, according to Pudwill.
“You want to keep them away from all the distractions and make sure they know, our job is to just play the game,” he said.
Staying focused hasn’t been a problem for this team, though.
Pudwill pointed to three examples:
* Last season, Bon Homme lost to Kimball-White Lake in the quarterfinals, but KWL got revenge in the regular season this fall. The Cavaliers, their coach said, are especially focused to exact their own revenge.
* In September of this season, Bon Homme defeated Gregory by a 7-6 margin. The Cavaliers then beat the Gorillas 14-12 in the quarterfinals — another close game Pudwill said required plenty of focus.
* In the second game this season, Wolsey-Wessington edged Bon Homme 38-36, but the Cavaliers returned the favor with a 43-14 thrashing of the Warbirds in last Friday’s semifinals.
“It’s nice to have those examples to look back on,” Pudwill said.
For Bon Homme to even have a chance to make a deep playoff run, the Cavaliers first needed to find a quarterback.
That was the biggest question facing the team heading into the season, Pudwill said. Who would replace three-year starter Bryce Scieszinski? — “he had crazy numbers,” Pudwill added.
“We knew we had athletes,” Pudwill said. “We knew whoever we put there would be good, but we just didn’t know who it would be.”
The Cavaliers guessed right with senior Joey Slama.
The four-sport star (track, baseball, football, basketball) has completed 64 percent of his passes this season for 1,532 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Slama is also Bon Homme’s leading rusher with 813 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Pudwill joked that Slama is a throwback to the athletes in the 1960s in that he plays nearly every sport offered, and pointed out that Slama is the first Bon Homme football player in Pudwill’s 36 years to be voted a captain unanimously by coaches and players.
“His leadership skills are amazing,” Pudwill said. “Sometimes you get kids who think they’re leaders, and sometimes you’re lucky like we are and get kids like Joey who actually are leaders.”
Slama is surrounded by a veteran group, as well.
Senior Christian Uecker has rushed for 498 yards and seven touchdowns, while junior Josh Crownover (258 yards, 5 TD) and sophomore Noah Heesch (155 yards, 3 TD) are also threats out of the backfield.
Senior John Kubal is Bon Homme’s top receiver, with 21 catches and a team-high 422 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Josh Schmidt has a team-high 36 catches for 320 yards and two scores, while junior Nate Scieszinski (18-320, 4 TD), Uecker (15-269, 2 TD) and Crownover (13-152) are also weapons.
Bon Homme’s defense, meanwhile, has recorded 15 interceptions and recovered 12 fumbles.
Crownover leads the Cavaliers with 67.5 tackles, while Slama has 67 tackles and five interceptions. Kubal has added 61.5 tackles and three fumble recoveries, while junior Cole Bares has 56 tackles and senior Tyler Kopp has three interceptions (and three defensive touchdowns).
They’ll be tasked with slowing down a Kimball-White Lake offense that once again features a dominant rushing attack under long-time head coach Dale Taylor. Pudwill raved about Taylor’s legacy, with a 181-103 record in 29 seasons.
“He just does everything right,” Pudwill said.
“Sometimes you watch film and you’ll see things that may work against a certain team, but with them, they don’t have a weakness,” he added. “Everything they do is sound and you’ll have to earn everything you get against those guys.”
Senior Carter Fredericksen leads the WiLdKats with 1,045 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and is also the team’s leading receiver with 22 catches for 377 yards and four scores.
Follow @jhoeck on Twitter