VERMILLION, S.D. | Brandt Van Roekel has been through plenty of highs and lows in his five-year University of South Dakota football career.
Injuries have wreaked havoc on the former Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley High School standout, but he has persevered to put together a solid collegiate career.
Van Roekel, who is closing in on 1,500 receiving yards, is one of nine players from USD’s 2013 recruiting class that has helped pave the way for the school’s first playoff appearance in 11 seasons.
He and his teammates waited anxiously last Sunday when the FCS pairings were announced and when the Coyotes appeared on the screen, a celebration ensued.
South Dakota (7-4) will play Nicholls (8-3) in a first-round playoff game Saturday at 3 p.m. in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
“Considering where we started when I first got here and where we are now, seeing how all the hard work paid off and being able to make history in this program is a great feeling,” Van Roekel said. “And I don’t think we’re done yet. We’re going to keep working and hopefully make a deep run into these playoffs.”
Coach Joe Glenn brought in the class, which originally numbered 32. The current seniors – Van Roekel, John Wessel, Jim Litrenta, Taylor Lambert, Stetson Dagel and Ed Kennedy along with student assistant Sam McLeran – played on Glenn-coached teams that finished 4-8, 2-10 and 5-6, followed by a 4-7 campaign in Bob Nielson’s first season as head coach.
“I knew the whole team that we deserved to be in and that we were one of the top 24 teams in the country but I didn’t know if the committee was going to think the same thing as me,” Van Roekel said. “We were all sitting there together and found out and, honestly, it’s one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever been a part of.”
The No. 18 Coyotes won their first six games but have dropped four of their last five, so it was up in the air as to whether or not the selection committee would grant them an at-large berth.
“There are 24 teams practicing this week and we are one of them, which is a great opportunity for our program and one that we have to take full advantage of,” Nielson said. “When we didn’t get the win on Saturday (31-28 loss to South Dakota State) I knew it was going to be very close. You don’t know quite how those committees are going to weigh all the different things that are involved.
“As we watched and saw some teams that we knew were also on the bubble get selected the nervous level got pretty high. Our guys made a commitment to improve during the offseason and worked hard and we’ve played good football, even though these last couple of weeks we would have liked to have put another win or two on the board, we feel like our body of work represents what a playoff team’s body of work should.”
USD is in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season when it was competing as a Division II program. A lot of that has to do with the performance of quarterback Chris Streveler, a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (FCS offensive player of the year).
Streveler, who played two seasons at the University of Minnesota before transferring, has set program records for single season passing (3,226 yards) and total offense (3,871) and accounted for 33 touchdowns. He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year Wednesday.
“I’m really excited to be a part of the first team to make the playoffs of the FCS level,” Streveler said. “That was a big reason I came here to be a part of turning around the culture. It’s really exciting to be in the playoffs but at the same time I think we realize our work isn’t done yet.
“It was a quick turnaround, but we were in a lot of close games last year. It’s kind of a testament to the coaching staff being able to come in and do such a great job and the willingness of the guys we have on the team to work hard and put in the time and effort to take that next step.”
Nicholls finished 7-2 in the Southland Conference for its first winning season since 2007 and also its first playoff berth since 2006. The Colonels had a six-game winning streak snapped by a loss to Southeastern Louisiana in a regular season finale.
South Dakota played its final four regular season games indoors, so Saturday’s tilt at Guidry Stadium will be its first outdoors since Oct. 21.
“It was kind of a unique end to the season when you play your last four games inside and going to a place you’ve never been and all the things that surround the game make it a great challenge,” Nielson said. “But overall we’ve been a team that’s played pretty well on the road when you look at places like Bowling Green (35-27 win over an FBS program that probably paid huge dividends with the selection committee) and Illinois State.
“Like any of the teams that are in the playoffs, they are very good. They have experience across the board and are a balanced team offensively with a dual threat type quarterback. Defensively I’m impressed with their front and they’re a very athletic team that can be very disruptive.”
No. 22 Nicholls has averaged 279 yards rushing in its last three games. Kyran Irvin has 676 yards and seven touchdowns while Dontrell Taylor has added 464 yards anf four touchdowns.
The winner of Saturday’s game plays at Sam Houston State on Saturday, Dec. 2.