The hub of Minnesota high school hoops is right here

Tom WestWhen I was 10 or 11 years old, on the Sunday after the state high school basketball tournament ended, I went to church. During his prayer for the congregation, the minister said, “Forgive us, O Lord, if our thoughts have been more with Williams Arena than they have been with Thee in recent days.”

At that young age, this caused me great confusion and brought me to question this whole church-going business.

I had been a big basketball fan ever since I was a pre-schooler and my dad took me to a high school game in our crackerbox gym, where the bands played rousing school songs, fans jammed to the rafters roared with every score and the players dashed madly up and down.

When I was in fifth grade, I had my tonsils removed. The surgery was not something I looked forward to, but, using my limited bargaining powers, I agreed to it — as long as the operation was performed the week before the state tournament. That way, I could see the opening Thursday afternoon games, too.

Other years, I sprinted the three-quarters of a mile from the school to our house, usually arriving just as the first game ended.
The obsession wasn’t just mine. The state basketball tournament was annually the biggest sporting event in Minnesota throughout the 1950s and 1960s. If you have ever seen the movie, “Hoosiers,” that was exactly what it was like.

State tournament athletes became instant household names, and I could go right down the list starting with New Prague’s Ron Johnson, Danube’s Bob Bruggers and Austin’s Tom Kezar.

The waiting list for tickets was 15 or 20 years long.  Photos of all the teams appeared in the Twin Cities papers. Long caravans followed the state entrants to and from the tournament.

I didn’t understand the minister’s prayer because everybody I knew watched the basketball tournament. Whether your school made it to state or not, the talk in the barber shops and cafes statewide the third week in March was about the tournament.

To me, it was hard to believe that God wasn’t tuned in with the rest of us. Wasn’t it part of His plan to put those high school boys on that huge stage to let them demonstrate their exceptional God-given ability? What’s more, part of the tournament’s mystique was also that God always caused it to snow statewide during the tournament.

Over the years, of course, the magic disappeared. First, TV began offering an increasing number of games from the NCAA tournament. Then the state went to, first, two classes, and now, four. Then girls’ athletics took hold and hockey expanded, dividing attention and loyalties even more.

For many years, I groused, like the old-timer I was becoming, about the move to enrollment classes. David can still slay Goliath, I thought.

This was in spite of the fact my school’s attempts to make state were usually cut short by larger schools. I grew up in Waseca, which was in District 4. Waseca was the smallest of the four “big” schools in the district, along with Northfield, Faribault and Owatonna. Twelve “small” schools were split into the East and West sub-districts.

In the first round, the four “big” schools were paired. The two winners, and the two sub-district champions advanced to the semi-finals.

The two years I played on varsity, we lost in the first round, first, to Northfield and then to Faribault. That Faribault team went on to finish runner-up in the state.

Today, 32 teams make it to the state tournament after winning their “section.” When there was one class, 32 teams won their “district” tournament, advanced to the “region” and eight advanced to state.

This year, for the first time, I came to an acceptance of the multi-class system. I watched much of the tournament on TV, and the large Class 4A schools looked like they had been recruited to play for some college. I had to admit that the sport and society have changed.

Regardless, no doubt should remain that the hub of Minnesota prep basketball this year — at least in the 80 counties outside the metro area — was located in western Stearns County.

Between the Sauk Centre girls finishing as the state Class AA runner-up and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa boys winning the Class A championship — Sauk Centre’s third and

BBE’s second consecutive trip to the big show, it’s clear that some of the best basketball being played in the state can be seen right here.

Multiple classes or not, achieving an undefeated season is exceptionally difficult. The Sauk Centre girls knocked off the last remaining undefeated girls team in the state, New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, and that leaves the Jaguar boys as the only team in the state this year — boys or girls — with an unblemished record.

For a team to be on its game every single night was incredibly difficult 50 years ago, and it still is today. Wow.

The tournament format has changed over the years, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments — nor dim the passion of local fans who follow them to state.

Meanwhile, thanks to that minister long ago, I’m still questioning God’s priorities. I mean, why did He not get around to making it snow during either the boys or girls tournaments this year?

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Peach. Reach him at (320) 352-6569 or e-mail tom.west@ecm-inc.com.

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