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SDSU-bound quintet goes 5-for-5 reaching South Dakota girls basketball state tournaments

Mar. 6—BROOKINGS — Meet South Dakota high school girls basketball's own version of the Fab Five.

Mahli Abdouch. Jaidyn Dunn. Emilee Fox. Claire Sheppard. Katie Vasecka.

Each member of the star-studded quintet is signed to continue their basketball careers collegiately at South Dakota State University. But first, their prep careers end with a final flourish, as all five helped guide their programs to this weekend's state tournaments.

Two miles from the gym they'll call home as Jackrabbits, Fox (Mount Vernon/Plankinton), Sheppard (Flandreau) and Vasecka (Tea Area) are set to pursue a Class A championship at the Dacotah Bank Center in Brookings. Adding to the intrigue, Sheppard's Fliers and Vasecka's Titans will go head-to-head in a highly anticipated state quarterfinal. Fifty miles south, Abdouch (O'Gorman) and Dunn (Sioux Falls Jefferson) are chasing the Class AA crown at the Sanford Pentagon. If the Knights and Cavaliers both win, the pair will square off in the state semifinals.

Though the group is looking forward to joining forces in the near future, they've also relished the few opportunities they've had to battle against one another.

"We're all really competitive, so it's always fun to get to play against them, too," said Abdouch, who played Dunn and Vasecka's teams during the regular season.

As is common for the South Dakota State women's basketball program under head coach Aaron Johnston, all five members of the in-state recruiting class held offers by the time they were sophomores.

Abdouch started a domino effect with her verbal commitment in early October 2021. Fox followed suit a matter of days later, and Vasecka joined up in late November. Dunn and Sheppard waited until the following spring, with Dunn announcing in May 2022 and Sheppard completing the class in June.

"We kind of knew who each other was before, but then we got together, and it's been a blast," Sheppard said. "Our personalities all fit, and we're just connected. It's a special experience that not all college teams get with their recruits. It's all pretty cool."

For the past two summers, Abdouch, Fox, Sheppard and Vasecka have competed together on the Sanford Sports Academy team. Last July, they helped guide the team to the 17-and-under national championship at the Elite Youth Basketball Nike Nationals Tournament of Champions. Though Dunn has been on a different squad competing against her future teammates, she and Fox used to play together as youths.

With a crew that possesses exceptional speed, length and offensive prowess, Vasecka feels they can carry over some of the same style they play during summer ball to the next level.

"We're really good at running to court and playing in transition, and we know how to play together," Vasecka said. "... It's just awesome. We've played together during the summers, so it's going to be great to play together again."

Off the court, the group is in near-constant contact through their group chat. They've started meeting at least once a month to go out for a meal and spend time together. One of their most recent hangouts included a board game night. If they're available during the season, which is a challenge, they try to take in each other's games.

"It's already a sisterhood that we're bonding together," Dunn said. "It's just a great experience and sort of a family relationship that I'm going to take with me for the rest of my life, so I'm really excited."

As Abdouch, Dunn, Fox, Sheppard and Vasecka prepare to take on the next challenge, they do so with a great deal of pride in representing the quality of girls basketball being played in South Dakota for an in-state program with a high standard of excellence.

"It's cool because I think it shows how good South Dakota girls basketball is," Sheppard said. "I think it also speaks to SDSU women's basketball and how good that program is that we're all in it together."

"I think getting to do it together is the best part," Abdouch added. "We get to go play with people we already know, and that gives us a little bit of an advantage."

That initial edge on the court and the relationships they share off of it has the entire group dreaming of what they can accomplish together within an SDSU program that regularly competes for NCAA Tournament berths and beyond.

No matter what the journey has in store, the quintet is looking forward to getting started.

"With the talent going in, I think we have really great potential to make a really cool run," Dunn said. "I'm just excited to see how we all grow and develop and see where life takes us with basketball."

"We're like best friends already, so I'm super excited for the next four years," Fox offered. "It's going to be really fun experiencing that with them, and obviously they're all really good basketball players, so I think we can do some special things up at SDSU."

The Mitchell Republic's Blake Durham and Marcus Traxler contributed to this story.