David vs. Goliath
“Becker hits the free throw and the Bucs trail 1-0,” might have been the call as you listened to your radio. Wait a minute, Becker scores and the Bucs are behind 1-0? Confused? Well, before there was Logan and Jordan Becker playing hoops for the Bucs, there was their father Doug playing against the Bucs.
Before Area was part of the Blue Earth name and Wells-Easton became USC, there were as many as eight schools in the county with basketball teams.
Now there are Sub-section, Section, and State Tournament games, then there were Sub-district, District, Region, and State Tournament games. Now there are four classes for basketball, at one time there was only one, and for a while there were only two.
So let’s go back 30 years, the year I graduated. The year was 1978 and the team Doug played for and that I was a member of, Delavan, faced Blue Earth in District 5 action. There were 13 teams in District 5 that year; can you name them? For bonus points, can you remember the team nicknames? I’ll reveal those answers later.
Lee.R. Pemberton auditorium was the site of the District games back then. Seeding would occur, and the unseeded teams would usually play Sub-District games at neutral sites with the goal to win and get a chance to play in Blue Earth. The number of teams that were seeded varied and old newspapers that I read listed anywhere from 3-5 seeded teams.
Blue Earth had certainly been host to some exciting games over the years and some excellent teams.
The first game I ever watched at Lee.R. Pemberton was a 1970 District game between eventual state champion Sherburn and Delavan. I remember it being loud and crowded and that Delavan actually led after the first quarter, (there’s another difference, back then teams played four 8-minute quarters as opposed to today’s two 18-minute halves).
The next year, 1971, it was the team from Frost (notice I’m giving you some of the schools in the District but not the nicknames) that defeated the defending state champions in the District finals before falling to St. James in the Region finals by four points.
Now, back to 1978, only three teams were seeded that year. Ceylon was the number one seed, Blue Earth was the number two seed, and Granada-Huntley was the number three seed.
Delavan had won the Border League Conference title that year, their first outright title ever. Their coach was Bob Hanson, yes, the same Bob Hanson that coaches Bucs softball and teaches at the Middle School.
Blue Earth had finished the year with a 7-5 record in the South Central Conference and an 11-8 record overall.
I had a chance to visit with some of the players and Coach Hanson about the game. Mike McGowan, a starter for the Bucs, commented, “I had a chance to watch Delavan in their Sub-District game and knew they had talent, that it would be a tough game.”
Some criticized Blue Earth for having home court advantage, but the reality of the situation was that they had the only facilities that could handle the crowds for district games. So if the Bucs had a home court advantage, their disadvantage would have been that almost everyone who wasn’t from Blue Earth would cheer against them. I thought of it as a David vs. Goliath type of thing. Blue Earth was the biggest town in the district, so the smaller towns would band together to cheer for Blue Earth’s opponent.
The dimensions of the floor at Pemberton might have been the same as other courts, but it was a lot bigger place than what Delavan was used to. “Blue Earth’s athletic director, Dick Maher, was very considerate in arranging a time for us to get a practice in at Blue Earth,” remembered Hanson.
“We knew that Blue Earth had outstanding shooters, we knew that the Bucs’ Greg Snyder and Rod Virnig would be tough to control,” said Hanson. “Our strengths were our togetherness, we played as a unit and had played together a long time, and we believed we could win.”
McGowan noted that when the Bucs came on the floor that Delavan had already taken the end that the Bucs normally took. “There were a lot of screaming Delavan fans behind our bench and we had to move out on the floor during timeouts so that we could hear our coach,” recalled McGowan.
Rich Murry, a junior guard for the Panthers (I gave you another answer) said, “It was the loudest environment I’ve ever played in, just a roar.”
Well, as noted in the opening, Doug Becker did put the Panthers on top 1-0, but it was the Bucs who would end the 1st quarter in the lead with Snyder hitting a shot as the horn sounded to put the Bucs up 12-10.
The Blue Earth Post reported, “Both teams were ragged in the second period and the lead see-sawed back and forth. Rod Virnig kept the Bucs in the fray at this point with 17 points in the first half, which ended 33-26 for the Bucs.”
Delavan would trail by as many as 10 points in the game but at the end of the third quarter had closed the gap to four points at 50-46.
The Panthers started the 4th quarter with a flurry according to the Post and took the lead 52-50. McGowan tied it up for the Bucs and then the locals extended the lead to 58-52.
“We used our last time out with 3:46 left, I told the guys we gotta pick it up,” said Hanson.
Blue Earth had opened up a 62-57 lead but with 1:32 left to go Snyder fouled Mark Braunhausen who sank two free throws and pulled the Panthers within one at 62-61. Murry fouled out with 26 seconds remaining but the Bucs missed the front end of a one and one to give the Panthers one more chance.
Marty Kiehm, who led the Panthers with 25 points, was fouled on a baseline drive with 10 seconds left as Rod Virnig fouled out. Kiehm sank two free throws to give the Panthers the win 63-62.
The Panthers had 3 other players joining Kiehm in double figures, Rich Murry with 11, and Tom Jensen and Mark Braunhausen with 10 each.
The Post described Delavan as “A husky team that moved well under the basket and knew how to convert free throws.” Indeed, the Panthers converted 21 of 27 free throws for the night while the Bucs were 10 of 15. The Panthers were right to be concerned about the Bucs Virnig and Snyder as they tallied 24 and 22 points respectively.
Murry added, “The wild rush on to the floor by the fans was incredible, probably my most memorable moment, it was phenomenal.”
So that’s the way it was back in 1978. Delavan would be defeated in their next game by Granada-Huntley who would then be defeated by Ceylon as the Huskies claimed their first District Championship.
Time passed and the three point shot came into the game, the Area was added to Blue Earth and Wells-Easton became USC. The teams change, the tournament format changes but the game still remains a lot of fun for both players and spectators, past and present.
The 13 District 5 teams in 1978 were the Blue Earth Buccaneers, Bricelyn-Frost Brave Vikings, Ceylon Huskies, Delavan Panthers, East Chain Chainers, Elmore Wildcats, Granada-Huntley Chargers, Kiester Bulldogs, Sherburn Raiders, Trimont Orioles, Welcome Wildcats, Wells-Easton Wildcats and Winnebago Indians.
My thanks to Mike McGowan, Rich Murry, and Bob Hanson for taking time to talk to me for this article.
It should be noted that Mike’s father Marty was the publisher/editor of the paper in 1978.