SDSU picked to win MVFC, has low vaccination rate

Dave Eggen/Inertia: SDSU running back Isaiah Davis stiff arms a defender during a 45-10 win over Western Illinois on March 6 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. The Jackrabbits were picked to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference in the conference’s preseason poll that was released Tuesday.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – For the first time in program history, the South Dakota State football team has been picked to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“It’s great to have high expectations and when you’re picked number one it verifies the expectations you have in your program,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “We have great leadership. Our guys will approach it right, they always have and we’re honored, but we need to respond to that.” 

SDSU received 24 of the 43 first-place votes and finished with 454 points. North Dakota State was voted second with 435 points and 18 first-place. North Dakota was picked third (357), Southern Illinois fourth (345) and Northern Iowa claimed fifth (311) and had the final first-place vote.

The poll was conducted by the league’s coaches, sports information directors and a media panel. The Jackrabbits have been in the MVFC since 2008 and have been picked second six times. 

Here is a full list of the poll:

MVFC Preseason Poll

1. South Dakota State 453 (24)

2. North Dakota State 435 (18)

3. North Dakota 357

4. Southern Illinois 345

5. Northern Iowa 311 (1)

6. Missouri State 256

7. Illinois State 196

8. South Dakota 163

9. Youngstown State 126

10. Indiana State 112

11. Western Illinois 83

Preseason All-MVFC teams

SDSU is returning 20 of its 22 starters from the 2021 spring season. A season where the Jacks went 8-2 and fell to Sam Houston State in the National Championship.

12 Jackrabbit players earned preseason honors by the MVFC. Six of them garnered first-team selections. Running back Pierre Strong Jr., tight end Zach Heins, offensive lineman Garret Greenfield, defensive tackle Caleb Sanders, linebacker Logan Backhaus and cornerback Don Gardner.

Five SDSU players. were named to the second-team. Offensive linemen Mason McCormick and Wes Genant, wide receiver Jaxon Janke, running back Isaiah Davis and long snapper Brady Sorenson. Defensive end Reece Winkelman was an honorable mention.

Vaccination and COVID-19 in 2021 Fall Season

The preseason poll and All-MVFC teams were not the only news of Tuesday’s MVFC media day. MVFC commissioner Patty Vivertio had multiple announcements about COVID-19.

“Just a few short weeks ago it seemed like we were on track to have a season with far fewer COVID-19 health risks and no need to repeat the very restrictive protocols and testing that we dealt with all of last year,” Viverito said. “Sadly, team vaccination rates are lagging and the delta variant [of COVID] is raging and we are far from out of the pandemic woods.

“We’re awaiting guidance from the NCAA about COVID-19 protocols for this fall. We remain hopeful that we will have guidance that determines that if 85% of a team is vaccinated, that will preclude the need to test and contact trace those who are asymptomatic.”

The MVFC saw many games get canceled or postponed in the spring due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Viverito said it is likely that there will be no postponements this fall and instead there will be forfeits.

“Vaccinations are clearly the key to eliminate cancelling games due to the virus this season and  I think our teams need to step up and hit that 85% to ensure a successful season. However, if we do lose games, it’s quite likely that those will result in forfeits. We’re not going to be in the business of trying to reschedule games. We don’t have the space in the schedule to do that and we also have a path to try and play safely with vaccinated teams,” she said.

Viverito said none of the teams in the MVFC are at the 85% vaccination threshold right now and according to SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier, his team has lowest rate of any of the teams. Stiegelmeier said he thinks that may have to do with the way the Jacks handled COVID in the spring. SDSU went the entire season without having a positive COVID test.

“I think [the way we handled it] has come back to bite us because we have the lowest number of players vaccinated in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. I think it’s caused our guys to say ‘hey we did it without a vaccine, we can maybe do it.’ And I say maybe. We’re really pushing hard here at the end to get our guys vaccinated. Bottom line is, if there not vaccinated, they’re going to be treated like they were last year with masks, to-go meals and stuff like that and not as punishment, but as that’s the way life was and the way life is. I think our guys will respond like they always do and we’ll get to that 85%,” Stiegelmeier said.

All of the MVFC coaches spoke on Tuesday. Many of them seemed to be on board with the vaccination policy and are trying to encourage their players to get the vaccine. One of them being North Dakota State head coach Matt Enz.

“We’ve done a really good job of educating our kids over the summer,” Enz said. “We’ve utilized some resources we have here on campus. Dr. [Paul] Carson, an epidemiologist, one of the lead epidemiologist’s in the country and for the state of North Dakota, has visited with us numerous times. It’s still a family and individual decision, but I know daily that I get reports of individuals getting their first or second shots.”

Enz added that he will support whatever decision a player makes about getting vaccinated, but is trying to educate them as much as possible.

“I’m trying to provide the most up to date and accurate information that I can,” Enz said. “… Unfortunately, I have two high school aged boys at home and when they open their phones up, if it’s in bold print, they feel like it must be accurate, it must be good information and that’s not always the case. I’m trying make sure our players have the most accurate information that they can provide with their families, their parents, their guardians. At the same time I’m going to continue to support our players in whichever decision they make. But trying to make sure they understand what it looks like if we do have to battle some cases of COVID on our football team and these are the outcomes that could be presented.”

On the flip side, Stiegelmeier said he has not had any health specialists or anyone come in to provide information about the vaccine yet.

“We have not had [anyone talk to the team]. We’re going to do it at the start of fall camp. I would say I’m a little late on that. I just thought common sense says, we have this term in our program, team first, and we have another term that says leave nothing to chance. In my opinion, those two terms intersect to say get vaccinated and our players have not, to my disappointment, responded that way. It’s their decision. I’ll honor that, but we’re going to do what we can here moving forward and try to get up to 85%,” Stiegelmeier said.

The Jacks first game is in 36 days, so if he wants his team to get to the 85% they will likely have to get their first vaccination shot in the next week. SDSU opens the season Sept. 3 at Colorado State.



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