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Locals Mark Gronowski, Don Gardner lead South Dakota State into FCS championship game

Neuqua Valley grad Mark Gronowski is making all the college recruiters who passed on him look foolish during a breakout season filled with honors.

South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski, a Neuqua Valley grad, was named Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year.
South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski, a Neuqua Valley grad, was named Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year.
Dave Eggen/Inertia

What are the chances a quarterback with one Division I offer takes it, beats out two veterans with starting experience for the No. 1 job and leads his team to the program’s first trip to the FCS national championship game?

In the case of South Dakota State freshman and Neuqua Valley grad Mark Gronowski, the answer is pretty good.

“It is kind of like a storybook season,” said Gronowski, who has led the Jackrabbits (8-1) to a berth in the FCS title game against Sam Houston State (9-0) in Frisco, Texas. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Sunday and the game will be televised on ABC.

Gronowski is making all the college recruiters who passed on him look foolish during a breakout season filled with honors. He was runner-up in the voting for the Jerry Rice Award given to the top freshman in FCS, and was named Offensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference.

That’s after coming into a pandemic-delayed season when he was competing with two returning quarterbacks (one of them being Phillips’ J’Bore Gibbs).

None of that fazed Gronowski, who was coming off an exceptional three-sport career at Neuqua.

“Coming in here, my goal was to be the starting quarterback,” Gronowski said.

The question was, when would he get to the SDSU campus, and when would the Jackrabbits play?

The pandemic kept Gronowski from arriving in Brookings till August, but it also pushed the schedule for the MVC and most other FCS schools till the spring. That turned into an unexpected boost for Gronowski’s chances of being the starter.

South Dakota State cornerback Don Gardner, a senior from Phillips, was named to Stats Perform’s FCS All-America second team.
South Dakota State cornerback Don Gardner, a senior from Phillips, was named to Stats Perform’s FCS All-America second team.
Dave Eggen/Inertia

“Totally,” Gronowski said. “At the beginning, it did not look like it would be an advantage, but that was one of the greatest things to happen to me. ... I probably wouldn’t end up being the starter (in a normal fall season).”

As it was, Gronowski learned he was the No. 1 quarterback a week before the Jackrabbits’ Feb. 19 opener against Northern Iowa.

In nine games, he has completed 58% of his passes for 1,549 yards and 15 touchdowns with three interceptions. He also has rushed for 567 yards and seven TDs, and even caught a scoring pass in last week’s win over Delaware.

“I really wanted that call,” he said of the option pass from Pierre Strong. “We’ve been practicing that play since the fall.”

Gronowski isn’t the only local player making headlines for the Jackrabbits.

Senior cornerback Don Gardner, who starred for the 2015 Phillips team that won the Public League’s first state title, has been named second-team All-America by the Associated Press and Stats Perform.

Waiting for this delayed season wasn’t easy for Gardner.

“There definitely were some times I was really frustrated,” he said. “We were practicing but I didn’t know if we were going to play. The coaches did a good job of keeping us level.”

Like Gronowski, who looks forward to exploring the Black Hills over the summer, Gardner has enjoyed his time in South Dakota.

“Coming here at first, I was a little nervous,” he said. “I’m from Chicago, a big-city guy.”

But he’s had new experiences — “for the first time ever I went fishing” — and he’s felt embraced by the community.

“I’ve met some really nice people,” Gardner said. “They are really genuine.”

Which is why Sunday’s game won’t be his last in a SDSU uniform. He’s taking advantage of the NCAA’s decision to give an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.

“You never know when your last game is going to be,” Gardner said. “It was a no-brainer. I want to play again.”