In 1974, twenty-two years before the Women’s National Basketball Association was established and 18 years before the Summit League (then the Mid-Continent Conference) admitted women, girls basketball was officially introduced as a competitive team sport in South Dakota high schools.
Dawn Seiler, née Shaeffer, was a freshman at McLaughlin High School the year girls hoops officially started in the state. McLaughlin, population 700, is situated on U. S. Highway 12, on Standing Rock Reservation, near the North Dakota border. Seiler, tall – and strong from working at her parents’ ranch 20 miles north of town – was recruited for tryouts by then new coach Jim Calhoon. Calhoon went on to a noteworthy career coaching at White River and Winner, among other places. Seiler made the team and played post for the McLaughlin Mustangs, who made the state tournament three times under Calhoon’s tutelage. “Before basketball, we didn’t even have gym or PE. We had a swimming pool and that was your PE,” laughs Seiler. “Jim came to town and organized boys’ and girls’ basketball. He influenced me because he was very passionate about the game, and he passed that passion on to his players.”
After graduation, Seiler moved further northward to Bismarck, playing forward at the University of Mary while getting her degree in secondary education and coaching. Her first job after college returned her to Corson County, this time to McIntosh, just 30 miles shy of McLaughlin, where she coached Tigers Girls Basketball for 15 seasons and seven state tournaments.
Seiler is currently in her twentieth year at Aberdeen Central, where she is both girls basketball coach and assistant high school principal. Under Seiler, the Golden Eagles have reached 17 state tournaments, including their 75-64 win over Sioux Falls O’Gorman in 2016, a season the Golden Eagles ended 24-1.
Seiler recognizes her career parallels the arc of girls basketball in South Dakota. “I like to say I grew up with South Dakota basketball,” says Seiler. “We’ve had the same timeline. It’s been kind of cool, because it all happened for me at the right time. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Seiler says South Dakota’s girls basketball program has expanded in part due to the acknowledgement that girls are full-fledged athletes. “The game has grown tremendously,” says Seiler. Weight training, multiple sports, and mindsets have evolved since early days. “These girls think, ‘I’m an athlete. Not just a girl athlete. I’m an athlete.’ And we treat them as athletes.”
Paiton Burckhard, a 5’11’ senior forward for Aberdeen, is one such athlete. The product of parents Kevin Burckhard and Chris (Swanhorst) Burckhard, two former Northern State players, Burckhard will play for South Dakota State University this fall. Both she and Coach Seiler acknowledge that Burckhard’s desire to win propels her aggressive point-scoring. “I like to play fast, but at the same time I’m really controlled,” says Burckhard. “I like to distribute the ball, but I also like to score.”
Seiler upholds Burckhard’s evaluation of her dualistic tendencies. “Paiton has great balance in her life. She is competitive, driven, and she obviously has great athleticism. But she’s got that mental makeup that she wants to compete. She is willing to work. Not just on the court but in the classroom. That’s just her personality.”
Likewise, Burckhard appreciates Seiler both in and away from the game. “She’s a coach you can connect with on and off the court. If you’re having problems in school, out of school, she’s a really great person who cares for you, which makes it real easy to play for her because we respect her and she respects us. She’s a really great person and I just love her to death.”
Seiler is vigilant for strains of self-defeating perfectionism in her players. “I think when Paiton was younger, she could be a little too tough on herself, but now she’s not the kid who’s going to dwell on the mistakes. She’s always thinking ahead.” Seiler reinvokes the necessity of balance. “We talk about this with all our players all the time. If you’re playing hard, you’re going to make mistakes. And if you’re playing hard, you’re going to be able to make up for a lot of mistakes. Point them out, make adjustments, and think about the next play.” Burckhard admits taking constructive criticism has been part of the process of transitioning into a Summit League-level player. “Sometimes we’ll have a conflict or whatever, just because I am so competitive and I don’t like being wrong. But we’ll have a conversation and I’ll work to take it easily. When I change it, it ends up working. She’s always right about everything,” laughs Burckhard.
Seiler’s longevity and methodology have made her the winningest female girls basketball coach in South Dakota history and, as of this writing, the second-winningest girls coach in the state, closing in on Parkston’s retired Rob Van Laecken’s 593 career wins. Seiler demurs the plaudits. “Quite honestly, I do not keep track of that stuff,” says Seiler. “I’m worried about Friday’s game. I’m a really competitive person, so for me, it’s always about the next one. We just want to put our kids in the best possible position to be successful and it’s my job to do that.”
Recently, Seiler made national headlines after being selected to coach the eastern team for the McDonald’s All-American Girls’ Games in Atlanta on March 28. “Again, that’s not a ‘me’ thing,” says Seiler. “That’s the product of a lot of good people I’ve encountered in my career. I’ll take two assistant coaches, Tevan Newman and Mikayla Arechigo, who are both going to be head coaches someday. It’s going to be fun to watch it through their eyes.”
The Girls All-American Games were established just 18 years ago, 22 years after the Boys All-American Games, but 26 years after girls basketball was sanctioned in South Dakota. Seems South Dakota may have been on to something early. “This is a basketball state,” says Seiler. “South Dakotans love their basketball. And boys or girls basketball, there’s good support at the elementary, middle and high school levels. There’s good people here with a good work ethic. And it’s been a great ride so far.”