PHOTO: Then-sophomore fullback Cameron Weiss looks to make a block for then-senior tailback Joe Beehler during the 2003 Class 11A semifinal game versus Canton at Woodward Field. Both Weiss and Beehler were inducted into the Hot Springs Bison Athletics Hall of Fame in 2022.
By Richard Anderson
HOT SPRINGS – The old adage about small towns that travel to support their sports teams came into play 20 years ago when the Hot Springs Bison faced the West Central Trojans for the Class 11A football title at the DakotaDome in Vermillion.
“The last one to leave, turn off the lights.”
It seemed that way for the community of Hot Springs as their Bison were playing for a state title in high school football for the first time. The game didn’t go the Bison’s way, as West Central rolled to a 48-7 win, but it was an experience the players, coaches and fans will likely not forget.
For many of the former Bison, one of the highlights of that 2003 season was the fact that they were the first Hot Springs team to play in a state title football game. The 1974 unbeaten Bison team was declared Class B state champions by a vote from the state’s media as the playoffs in the current South Dakota High School Athletic Association system wasn’t established until 1981.
“You grow up watching the older guys play and you always have the idea that you are going to play football. Every year the expectation and goal is to make it to the Dome,” said Joe Beehler, who played running back and cornerback for the Bison on the 2003 team. “Being that first team to ever get there from your town is pretty cool.”
The 2023 Bison return to the Dome for the first time since 2003 when they take on Elk Point-Jefferson Friday in the 11B title game that begins at 9 a.m. (MT) in the DakotaDome.
Beehler, a first-team All-Stater that season who ran for over 1,900 yards, said the Bison fans traveled well all season, but out-did themselves when they made the trek to Vermillion.
“We had a sea of blue and white. We filled up our section very, very well,” he said.
Then-Bison head coach Trent Pikula, now the head coach at Thunder Basin High School in Gillette, Wyo., remembers looking up at the student section against West Central and said there were so many students -- not just from school but from graduated classes -- along with parents, grandparents and other Hot Springs residents.
The huge following likely began the week before in the semifinal game against Canton at Woodward Field.
“I remember in the semifinal game I looked up at the stands and Canton had brought two buses full of fans and they had more fans than we did. But then I looked up 15 minutes later and it was standing room only. Our fans packed the place,” Pikula said. “Just to see the town come together like that was amazing. Hot Springs had struggled through some rough times in football for quite a while, so to see that experience, it brought pride to the community. Those fans just absolutely loved watching those boys play.”
Levi Klippenstein, who was in his second year as an assistant coach in 2003 and actually still in college, continues to coach in the program as the defensive coordinator. He said the experience back then has been on their minds this week with the 2023 Bison making the same run for a title.
“When you are young, you don’t realize the magnitude of being there. It is a fantastic facility. The week comes upon you so fast that hopefully these kids get the opportunity to turn around, look behind them and look who is supporting them,” he said. “Don’t take anything for granted, just go out there and play for each other. I think the 2003 group did that, they were really tight as friends, and they still are. There were quite a few that I talked to even Friday night. They are an extremely supportive crew. They value Hot Springs football and their experience, no matter what staff it is; it is like a family.
“As I prepare, I think about guys like that. Everybody who has been on the team since and before has contributed to the program,” Klippenstein added. “This isn’t just the 2023 team; this is the Hot Springs Bison team as we prepare and try to put our best foot forward. It’s every kid who has put on the cleats and finished a season with us. We truly respect what they have done for the program. The town, you feel their support, they want it so bad. It’s been a long time since I have seen a crowd like that here (this past Friday) and it was probably the 2003 Canton game.”
Kyle Bachand, a senior linebacker/fullback on the 2003 team, said the majority of his senior class had been playing together since the seventh grade and they had the goal since middle school that we were going to make it to the state title game. He said his father always told him that if you’re going to play football in high school, you need to enjoy it because it’s going to go very fast. Looking back, he understands that now.
“Some of the best times of my life were playing high school football with my buddies,” he said. “I’m still good friends with them. We’ve lost a couple of our former teammates, so we were pallbearers at their funerals and we stood up with them at their weddings. It’s just the camaraderie and the team experience and being such close good friends with a lot of them. We experienced a lot of highs and a lot of lows together. I don’t talk to them as much now, but when we get back together, it’s just like it was when we were 17 or 18 years old.”
The 2003 season
Pikula came to Hot Springs in 2000 after seven years in Belle Fourche as an assistant coach. This would be his first tenure as a head coach. His third year would be a charm, so to speak.
Pikula, two days after his 2023 Thunder Basin team lost in the Wyoming State AA semifinals to Sheridan, said the 2003 season in Hot Springs was one he’ll always remember fondly. He and his assistant coaches had a feeling it was going to be a special season.
As a Belle Fourche assistant, he said he saw a lot of talent on the Hot Springs sideline, but he felt they just couldn’t put things together, which was basically the same in his first two seasons in Hot Springs.
“When I got down there we struggled the first couple of years and it wasn’t necessarily because we had bad players, we just couldn’t get things figured out. By year three Joe (Beehler) was a senior and our senior class was loaded with Kyle Bachand and Shawn White … just a ton of good talent. Our juniors had Josh Redden, Jack Brophy and Ben Puffer. We had guys everywhere. We met as coaches before the season and I said I think this is a team that can do special things, as long as we coaches get out of their way and let them play.”
Pikula moved Beehler from quarterback to running back and back to quarterback in his first two years because he wanted to be an option team. But he realized he had to get the Bison speedster the ball as much as possible by putting him back in the I-formation for his senior season.
“We just ran toss and traps and any plays we could get him the ball,” he said. “Then the offense just exploded.”
The Bison were 7-1 in the regular season, with their lone loss to Winner, 26-18 in the second game in Winner. Their only other close game was a 14-6 win over Wheatland, Wyo. Hot Springs closed with a 28-0 win over St. Thomas More for the Black Hills Conference title.
“We knew we had a pretty solid team; we had a bunch of seniors coming back,” Beehler said. “We’d gone from a bunch of us who had started since we were sophomores and a bigger group who started as juniors. We knew we were going to be decent, but I think we exceeded some of our expectations with how much offense we produced and we had a lot of talented players too.”
Klippenstein said that in 2002 they played Lead-Deadwood in the first round after the Golddiggers dominated them in the regular season. Hot Springs came out on the short end of a 14-7 score, but it was then when he felt like they were about to make their move.
“We thought we had something coming back. Everybody anticipated us to be good. The coaches put in a lot of time in the off-season,” Klippenstein said. “It wasn’t just the senior class, the junior class was loaded too – Ben Puffer, Jack Brophy, Shawn White, Tyler Norman and Josh Buckwheat. It was just a good collective group, similar to what we have now, although we don’t have as many juniors this year.”
The regular-season loss to Winner made the team angry, Klippenstein added, and he felt they took off from that point, just like this year’s team after it fell to the top-ranked Class A Dell Rapids.
“The setback to Winner pushed us back to reality, which is not a lot different than Dell Rapids this year after what Dell Rapids did to us the year before,” he said. “There is something you can learn from losses. If you don’t waste a failure you can get better and both teams did. They made a push in the playoffs and the way our offense struck early, you get some confidence built and you get physical.”
The Bison opened the playoffs with rival Custer, a team they had defeated handily earlier in the season. Beehler said one of the Custer coaches – or maybe a player – had stepped out a “C” on midfield after they had a skiff of snow right before the contest.
“We had a little extra motivation. I think we ended that one a little before halftime,” Beehler said of the 45-0 win.
The Bison handled a strong Belle Fourche squad 28-7 in the next round, before hosting Canton in the semifinals.
Canton, a strong East River program, was the Bison’s first real test of the playoffs as the Bulldogs came from the same conference as West Central.
It was a wild start as Beehler fumbled the opening kickoff return inside the 10-yard line and Canton scored a couple plays later to make it a 7-0 hole that Hot Springs was in.
It was not for long, though, as Beehler took the next kickoff and ran it back for a touchdown from 99 yards. The Bison had the momentum the rest of the game, stopping Canton 45-24.
“It was then when we knew we could compete with these East River schools that you don’t ever get to see,” Beehler said.
Pikula said that when Beehler came off the field after the fumble he didn’t chew him out, he just said ‘let’s go’, which Beehler did with the TD return.
“That was just the kind of player he was and that was just the kind of team we were,” Pikula said. “I always felt like they felt they had a point to prove just because I don’t think people really respected who we were because we were kind of newcomers to being a good football team.
“When we played Canton, I think everybody thought they would run all over us. We obviously destroyed them. I remember one of their coaches saying they showed up for a football game and it was a track meet.”
The title game
Less than a week after their win over Canton, the Bison were in the Dome playing one of the best football dynasties in South Dakota history. West Central had won 11 state titles from 1993-2005, and the win over Hot Springs was their fourth out of six straight state titles.
Beehler and Bachand felt like they had a chance, despite the long odds. But they had to play error-free football. They did not with two early turnovers, falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-7 at halftime.
“Our offense had been really good all year and I knew we had an excellent defense, so if you get a couple of bounces that go your way, you have a chance,” Beehler said. “We had a couple of touchdowns called back in that first half, one that led directly to one of their touchdowns, so it could have been 21-21 at halftime rather than 28-7. We had a couple other mistakes in the first half that weren’t characteristic, that kind of put us off and got them rolling. Don’t take anything away from them, they were a great team. We knew we had a chance, but we knew we had to play well. We weren’t going to go out and just cake-walk it. We made too many mistakes and never were able to catch up.”
Bachand felt like they went into the game a little complacent after the lop-sided win over Canton. He said that not ever making it to the state title game, being the first Hot Springs team to do so, was probably a little overwhelming.
“A lot of us didn’t play a very good game at state, we ended up getting handled pretty much by West Central,” said Bachand, who did have 21 tackles in the contest and a school-record 216 on the season. “At the time it really didn’t feel like it, but looking back I’m sure it was overwhelming. It seemed like a quick turnaround. We were kind of out of our normal rhythm and a practice schedule. I felt like we matched up pretty good with West Central and we would give them a pretty good game. We didn’t execute and it just didn’t end up being the game we thought it was going to be.”
The Bison’s only score came on a 71-yard halfback pass from Beehler to Cody Runyon.
“Before I knew it, it was 14-0 and we just couldn’t stop them. To be ready you have to understand that the moment is not bigger than you and you deserve to be here,” said Pikula. “I think the good thing about (the 2023 team) is now is they have played Dell Rapids and other East River teams that are good football teams. Back in ‘03 the farthest team we played was Winner. We didn’t get that opportunity to go play those hard-nosed East River teams. I think they are a little more prepared than we are.”
Pikula had played West Central twice before at Belle Fourche, so he said he knew what the Trojans had … it was going to be a tough road. Looking back, he said when the Bison first entered the field at the DakotaDome, it reminded him of the scene in the movie Hoosiers when the small town basketball team entered a big city arena for the state title game.
There was the excitement of, “hey we finally did it, we’ve gotten there,” he said.
“To get to the Dome, it’s such a different place,” he said. “Growing up in South Dakota, all they can think of is going to the Dome. When we got our opportunity, I remember walking in and I looked at the kids and their eyes were huge. I think that if you can just get over the fact that it is the Dome, it’s just another football field that’s 100 yards long. West Central was a better team than us, they deserved to win the state championship, but we were just so happy to be there instead of going to win a championship football game.”
Klippenstein said you could see what West Central ran on offense and you put that on film and you think it is going to be even harder to score than to keep them from scoring because assistant coach Kent Mueller was running a “radar defense,” that you never knew what was coming.
“You could tell right away their emphasis was on Joe,” he said. “They did a good job on him and it was just confusing for us. Once we got the ball it was just hammer time.”
Then and now
For Beehler and Bachand, if they had some advice to the current Bison when they line up against Elk Point-Jefferson, it would be to treat it like any other game.
After experiencing the state title game, Beehler’s advice is to have fun, don’t let the moment and the pressure get to them so they can you can play their own game.
“Make sure that you are playing to your abilities. Block out that outside noise and just go take care of business,” he said.
Bachand, who lives in Philip, would tell the 2023 team to not be complacent.
“I talked to (former teammate) Shawn White the other day and his son Owen is a starter on this team at tackle,” he said. “We were texting back and forth and we said they have one more game, so go out and finish it and don’t get complacent like we did and bring the trophy home and then we can celebrate. We got one more game to go and I think they can bring it home.”
Beehler and Bachand are planning to make the trip to Vermilion, as other teammates likely will as well. Bachand wasn’t able to see the Bison in their semifinal win, but has kept up online and especially credited longtime Hot Springs youth coach and super-Bison fan and historian Michael Tarrell for his updates.
“For a lot of us who don’t live in Hot Springs anymore, we really rely on him to keep us updated on Hot Springs sporting events, and he has been doing that for years,” he said.
For Pikula, his schedule probably won’t allow him to attend the title game, but he said he might just hop in his vehicle and make the trip from Gillette to Vermillion. After all, although it has been over 20 years, his head coaching start in Hot Springs brings back fond memories.
“When I first got there, we were a young couple, my wife Misty and I just had two kids. I was like, ‘let’s give this a shot and see what happens,’” he said. “My goal was to be a head coach and at some point coach in the big schools. That’s why I thought Hot Springs would be a great place for me to get my feet wet. I thought there was enough talent there that would win a state championship, if not go play for a state championship. The experience there was awesome. We had some great kids and I made some lifelong friends, especially the guys I coached with.”
Beehler, who lives in Rapid City, visited with current Bison star players Braden Peterson and Camron Maciejewski after their win over Rapid City Christian and told them that they were fun to watch and this opportunity is well deserved.
He said this Bison team stacks up well with Elk Point-Jefferson.
“They have a good shot to get it done. If they can get one of those big plays to start, that momentum is big in high school football,” he said.
Members of the 2003 Bison football team:
SENIORS: Kyle Bachand, Joe Beehler, Josh Buckwheat, Barry Hansen, Kevin Holmes, Mike Molitor, Nate Redetzke, Blake Schumacher, Tyrell Whitcher, Shawn White.
JUNIORS: Ryan Airheart, Charlie Baker, Greg Birdsall, Jack Brophy, Nick Graf-Klein, Marc Mefferd, Riley Northrup, Tyler Norton, Matt Pepin, Ben Puffer, Josh Redden, Cody Runyon, Brandon Scott, Chris Yellow Thunder.
SOPHOMORES: Ross Fees, John Haskvitz, Trampus Haskvitz, Trevor Herman, Laird Klippenstein, Joel Rickenbach, Cameron Weiss, Nathan Woehl, Jayme Yellow Thunder.
FRESHMEN: Jason Blessing, Skylar Crosley, Jim Cunningham, Tyler Derflinger, Jett Gambill, Chris Hansen, Paul Jamison, Max Jirsa, T.D. Schmidt, and Paul Tierney.