Neuqua Valley grad, freshman QB Gronowski leads South Dakota State to FCS title game

Mark Gronowski knows all about winning championship games.

Before his junior year at Neuqua Valley, he led his Boom 7-on-7 team into the final game of the national tournament at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The quarterback of the opposing team was Bo Nix, now a two-year starter at Auburn. The coach of the other team was NFL QB Cam Newton.

Gronowski and Boom pulled off the victory and brought a national title back to the Chicago suburbs.

"Going into that game it was just a surreal feeling and then winning that game was probably one of the best feelings I ever had playing this game, really," Gronowski said.

When 7-on-7 began that spring, Gronowski had an ankle injury and started on a lower level Boom teams. He was promoted to the No. 1 squad after Naperville Central's Payton Thorne left due to a scheduling conflict.

So being on a big stage, when no one was expecting him to be there, and then having impressive success - that's nothing new for Gronowski.

He's in a similar spot this week, starting at quarterback for South Dakota State in the FCS title game against Sam Houston State Sunday in Frisco, Texas (1 p.m., ABC).

Gronowski is a true freshman, but had the benefit of going through a lengthy fall practice when the game schedule was postponed due to the pandemic. The Jackrabbits had two quarterbacks with starting experience, but both missed practices due to COVID or injuries.

"Is he a true freshman?" head coach John Stiegelmeier said. "He's more like an early enrollee. What I think surprised me the most is the number of guys that were in his corner, that were coming up to me and the offensive coordinator asking if Mark is going to be our guy. That was halfway through what we called fall camp."

Gronowski admitted he probably wouldn't have started if there was a fall season, since players didn't arrive on campus until early August.

"It's been weird not having to go to class really and having Zooms and stuff like that," he said. "It's just been a really weird and surreal year."

When the season began, Gronowski was named the starter about a week before the opening game Feb. 19 at Northern Iowa. South Dakota State pulled off a 24-20 victory and the freshman fit right in.

"Coming in here, my goal was to be the starting quarterback," Gronowski said. "My confidence was through the roof (heading into the season opener), just hearing all the support I had around me, knowing that if I ever made a mistakes throughout the game, I knew my teammates were going to have my back."

The Jackrabbits suffered their only loss the following week at North Dakota, but have since won seven games in a row. Gronowski's passing stats have been relatively modest, but he's been a threat to run, kept the turnovers low and delivered some huge plays at key moments.

He had a 55-yard run in the fourth quarter to clinch a 27-17 victory at North Dakota State that secured the conference title. When South Dakota State fell behind Southern Illinois 20-7 in the playoff quarterfinals, Gronowski's 67-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter was the go-ahead score. In last week's 33-3 victory over Delaware, he threw 2 touchdown passes and caught another.

All that's left is one more game with a chance to secure the first national title in the school's history. The last several years, South Dakota State has been the second-best program in the upper Great Plains behind North Dakota State, which won eight of the last nine FCS titles.

Gronowski has a chance to put South Dakota State on top, and he's already made himself at home in Brookings, S.D.

"I love it out here," he said. "I'm really excited for the summer, actually, just to get more adventurous with the state. Going out to the west side, more of the Black Hills area and just learning more about this state. Just great, genuine people in this town.

"It's kind of weird, the school year has ended and most of the students have left. But throughout the town, going to Hy-Vee or any of the stores and restaurants ... there's a lot of great energy throughout the town."

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Mark Gronowski of South Dakota State is on his way to a 67-yard touchdown - and the go-ahead score - in the May 2 come-from-behind home playoff win over Southern Illinois. Dave Eggen/Inertia Sports Media
Neuqua Valley's Mark Gronowski throws during a 2019 game in Lincolnshire. He'll be starting at quarterback for South Dakota State in the FCS title game against Sam Houston State Sunday. Daily Herald file photo
Mark Gronowski
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