Minnesota is the state of hockey, at least according to the marketing folks. High school hockey, in particular, has always reigned in Minnesota. But neither of those two sentences are completely accurate. Hockey rules in the Twin Cities and it rules in northern Minnesota. But in southern Minnesota, where I grew up? It’s basketball country.
This week is the 100th state tournament in Minnesota boys basketball. For a long time – when it was just a fabled one-class tournament – there was no bigger event in the state. Crowds packed Williams Arena. By the time I played for Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton, it had long been a two-class system, and since 1997 it’s been four classes. The old-timers thought two classes were ridiculous and the next generation thought the same of four. The tourneys are bigger now, but the crowds are smaller.
By the time I started following the tournament, its glory days were already in the past and those who had been around for awhile and talked about it were already using “back in my day” arguments that every young person vows to never repeat, but seemingly always does years later.
In honor of the tourney’s 100th birthday, here’s a look back at a few of the famous games and players who made the event memorable, no matter how many champions are crowned.
* Even though it’s been more than 40 years since Minnesota had one class – when the road to state was much more treacherous than it is today – you still hear some amazing tidbits about certain schools when they make it to state. For example, Detroit Lakes is in this year’s tournament for the first time since 1918. It’s not like Detroit Lakes has lacked for athletes in the years since World War I came to a close – the school has long had one of the dominant football programs in Minnesota. Yet it had somehow been 94 years since the team made it to state in basketball. Somewhere in a Detroit Lakes retirement home, a 102-year-old man is telling a nurse, “I’m happy for the boys but they couldn’t have competed against that 1918 squad. It was only one class then!”
* The most famous team in state history remains the 1960 Edgerton squad, which was Minnesota’s version of Hoosiers or, if you prefer the real thing to Hollywood, was Minnesota’s version of Indiana’s 1954 champions from tiny Milan. Any Minnesota kid who followed basketball and was at least 8 years old in 1960 can still recite the starting lineup for that Edgerton team with savant-like accuracy. My dad might occasionally forget his wedding anniversary but he’ll always remember Veenhof, Verdoes, Kreun, Graphenteen and Wiarda.
* Twenty years ago. Six or seven young men from the Janesville, Waldorf and Pemberton communities gather at a motel in Lakeville, which serves as headquarters for their weekend stay while they attend the state tournament. On Saturday night, the group watches Duke beat Kentucky in a game that was being called the best game ever about three seconds after Christian Laettner’s famous turnaround went through the net. We reacted like everyone else who watched the shot: We screamed. A few minutes later, a motel employee broke up our party by telling us if we made anymore noise like that, we’d be kicked out. We tried to explain about the shot and didn’t she see how Kentucky went ahead with 2.1 seconds left and didn’t she see Laettner stomp on a guy’s chest but not get thrown out and didn’t she see Grant Hill’s pass and Laettner’s catch and his shot? Nothing swayed her. She seemed like the type of lady who had done this before; twelve years earlier, she probably threatened to kick out a group of teenagers who had just listened to Al Michaels ask if they believed in miracles.
* Kevin McHale – a gangly high school player from Bob Dylan’s hometown who went on to earn acclaim as an NBA general manager and head coach – holds a state tourney record. Best field goal percentage in a single tourney. Big fella hit 79.4 percent of his shots from the field for Hibbing in 1976, even though, as the legend goes, he got outplayed by Steve Lingenfelter of Bloomington Jefferson.
* The St. Paul Pioneer Press is counting down the top 100 players in state tournament history. It’s a great feature. The countdown runs each day. Guesses to No. 1? Old-timers? Young-timers? I’m going with either Minneapolis North’s Khalid El-Amin or Melrose’s Mark Olberding. Probably El-Amin, who was the star player on three straight state champion teams. Continuing the list theme, on the Minnesota State High School League Website, there are all kinds of great features, such as top players, best coaches, best moments.
* Some random highlights from Austin’s run in the 1981 state tournament, played at the old St. Paul Civic Center. And, watch for him, Dick Bremer! Who interviews Austin’s coach and then complains about the Yankees’ payroll.
* I used to go to the state tournament with my parents and one of the more depressing games we watched was the 1990 Class AA title game between Owatonna and Minneapolis North. This was not one of the great North teams, not like they had in the mid-80s when they took second two straight seasons, and certainly not like their three-time state champs in the ’90s. The 1990 team pulled off some upsets to make it to the title game, where the Polar Bears faced defending champion Owatonna, led by future Gopher Chad Kolander. North had about 18 fans in the Civic Center that night, Owatonna 10,000. I felt bad for the North kids, whose cheering section could have fit onto a single yellow school bus. On the court, it was an even bigger rout than it was off, as Owatonna crushed North 72-26.
* If Edgerton’s the most famous team to ever play in the state tourney, then Blake Hoffarber’s butt shot from the Class 4A 2005 title game – which sent the game into overtime, where Hopkins won – is probably the most famous shot. In fact, in the Internet age, where millions have watched Hoffarber’s desperation heave, you could probably make an argument that it’s the second most-famous state tournament shot in the country’s history. No. 1 would still be Bobby Plump’s jumper that won the 1954 Indiana title for Milan, although you might be more familiar with Jimmy Chitwood’s fictionalized version.
* Cool clip below. The Luverne Cardinals, the 1964 state champs, are welcomed home by the fans. It’s just audio. A happy town, a happy coaching staff as the caravan winds through Adrian, and some classic old-school radio banter.
My dad’s classic story about playing those powerful Luverne teams: He graduated from Fulda in 1965. Fulda served as a punching bag for Luverne. One game Luverne was beating on Fulda and a skinny guy went in to guard Luverne’s powerful Del Jessen, a muscular, tough, dominant player who went on to play football for the University of Minnesota. The Fulda kid – all guts – got in tight on Jessen and got into position, ready for his big chance, ready to fight. Jessen looked down on his prey and said, “What the f*** do you think you’re going to do?” The kid backed down.
* The closest I came to state? In 1992 we made it to the section semifinals, before being trounced by Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop. They were better than us. In my senior year in 1993, we lost to eventual state champion Maple River by six points, one of their closest games of the playoffs. But they too were certainly better than us. An earlier generation dreamed of playing state in Williams Arena but for us it was the Civic Center in St. Paul, which wasn’t a luxurious arena but was the one we grew up watching on TV. I certainly made it their plenty of times, but only as a spectator.
* Sherburn was the last one-class state champion, as the small school captured the title in 1970. In the years that followed, the Class A champ played the Class AA champ in a playoff and then the two-class system was implemented.
There’s no doubt that if the one-class format had remained, a small school could have won the title at some point. Several Chisholm teams were considered as good as anyone in the state, including the 1991 title team. In 1995, in the Sweet 16 format, Staples-Motley lost in the final seconds to North, although – asterisk needed – North was missing three players who had been ruled ineligible for the final. Caledonia in 1997 would have had a chance and the 2000 Litchfield team – which was led by Alex and John Carlson, who you might know as the newest Vikings’ tight end – was routinely called the best in the state, “regardless of class.” Braham’s Dahlman-led teams could have competed.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter. The one-class system was not going to survive. If Indiana couldn’t keep the format alive, Minnesota wasn’t going to do it. I still think two classes would be enough, many people believe three is the right number. Four seems like too much, but it shouldn’t be changed simply because people want to recapture the days when 19,000 people crammed into Williams Arena to watch the tourney. Those days are long gone and they aren’t coming back.
The tournament’s not the same – except to those who still play in it.