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Willmar Notebook: The trials of tourney time

Tribune file photo This photo from the Tribune archives is unlabeled. A guess would be Coach Russ Adamson's 1964-65 juggernaut. If you know for sure or can identify the players, email

Just 41 years ago in the 100-year history of Minnesota state tournament basketball, the Willmar Cardinals finished the regular season 18-0 and headed into a new playoff format that separated big from little.

As I understand it, the decision to abandon the one-class structure was hugely controversial. Sid Hartman still complains as does Joe Soucheray, but what do they know, they're city kids.

Back where I come from, kids grew up thinking four classes of boys basketball was the Universal Order. What could be better?

There were the giant schools from Saginaw, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and Detroit. In Class B, River Rouge, which recruited black teenagers via jobs for their parents in the Ford plant, won title after title on our black and white TVs.

Class C seemed less interesting, a lot of private/parochial schools and towns from the Thumb where few of us had ever been.

But then there was Class D. What backcountry country high school would emerge from the dark forests of the U.P., perhaps Trout Creek or Brethren (the home town of James Earl Jones) out in the Manistee National Forest?

The mistake Minnesota made when it went multi-class is that the high school league felt the need to be politically correct. AAAA, AAA, AAA etc. A, B, C, and D is so much cleaner and easier to handle, especially in designating sections.

That first year, 1970-71, Willmar left the famously tough Region V (metro and west) for Region C, which included outstate cities like St. Cloud, Fergus Falls and Alexandria.

The West Central Lakes Champions scrubbed St. Cloud Tech 79-67. Alexandria was the next opponent, a team they beat 84-57 and 61-57 in conference. This time, when it counted most, Alexandria won 54-52.

That was the last game for legendary Russ Adamson. He "retired" to become athletic director. All but one of his great Willmar teams had met the same fate in Region V.

His first Cardinal team, after coming over from Clarkfield, was 20-1, after winning District 20, when it lost 63-60 to Roosevelt at Williams Arena in the region's first round.

The '57 team with hulking Red Harvey and Marlin VanDenEinde was 22-1 after beating Foley 50-37 in the region semifinal only to lose again to the Teddies 63-59 before a crazed, full-house at The Barn.

The '58 team made it through by beating Robbinsdale and Edison and went on to a third-place finish at state and a 24-4 record. All-stater Dean Anderson led the state tourney in scoring with 65 points.

The next year, heading to Minneapolis, Adamson's Cardinals were 21-1 (losing to Olivia the second game of the season) but couldn't get by Minneapolis South.

In 1963-64 and 1964-65, Willmar won back-to-back District 20 titles and each year took a 21-0 record to Region V. Edina stopped them in '64 and Roosevelt (again) the next year. Players on one or both of those crackerjack teams included Lane Erickson, Jeff Hinz, Dave Gort, James Norsten, Dean Rau, Mike Fischer, Mike George, Bruce Magnuson, Steve Myhre, Craig Peterson, captain Ron Pederson, Gary Wennerberg, Dale Wick and Jim Hawkinson.

Though neither team made it to State, they remain the most spectacular seasons in Cardinals boys hoops history.

Adamson and his new assistant coach Roger "Shorty" Schroeder, who had come over from Litchfield in 1966, got the team to regions again in 1970 but lost to Robbinsdale 53-52 to end up 20-3. That was the last year for a one size fits all state tourney, which dates to 1913.

The next year, Adamson's last, the Cardinals finished the regular season 12-0 in the WCC and 18-0 overall. The offensive leader was senior center Bob Otto, who had moved to town the previous summer from Pipestone where his dad, Ed, had coached. John Nelson and Brad Welker also earned all-conference awards that season.

Freed of the Curse of Region V, Willmar still could not break through despite a 22-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in Class AA.

But the reserves carried the seeds with freshmen Joel Jacobson, Scott Swansson and Dennis Jacobson of Willmar's next state entrant. Though just a modest 12-5 in the regular season, the Cardinals swept all three opponents in Region C, Fergus Falls, then Little Falls and finally St. Cloud Apollo 77-63 (reversing a 53-39 loss earlier) to return to state for the first time in 16 years.

So, there you go. Records mean little at tournament time. More so, it's who's hot, who's not.

10U soars to 21 wins

The Willmar Girls 10U hockey team finished the season with a record of 21-6-2.

They lost the opening game of the District 5 Tournament at Buffalo 2-1 to the Hutchinson Tigers, who went on to win the tournament. The Cardinals s won the next two games, 6-1 over St. Michael-Albertville and 6-0 against St. Cloud. The coaches are Benji Olson and Sarah Hulscher.

On the roster are Sydney Olson, Bailey Olson, Serena Monson, Mya Monson, Emily Haefner, Savana Knutson, Ava Swart, Audrey Swart, Jaidon Bredesen, Andrea Walz, Camryn Mayer, Madison Garberding, Chasidy Buer

On the fly

n Becca Freese, a five-time letterwinner in girls hockey, played in the Senior Classic at the Schwan's Arena last weekend. She was assigned to the Section 3 team which placed sixth of the eight teams. She scored one goal in three games. Freese, also a hockey official, plans to attend Augsburg. A Cardinal captain who overcame injury, her team awards include True Grit (twice) and Hardest Worker.

n The Cardinals junior varsity girls basketball team won 21 games (losing 4). The team is coached by former Cardinal and all-state pick Emily (Swierenga) Carlson.

n One of Carlson's teammates on the 2004 Class AAA finalist was Willmar's all-time leading scorer Laura Nielsen, who will graduate in May from South Dakota State's College of Pharmacy. She recently returned from a volunteer stint in Honduras and is working temporarily at the cancer clinic here.

n When putting together the piece on Brad Atchison's retirement, I belatedly contacted Mike Dreier, his friendly rival up State Highway 23, for a comment. He responded: "I hope the people in Willmar and in the MACCRAY communities appreciate the consistent high- level teams that were created under Coach Atchison. His teams were always fundamentally sound, well prepared and tough defensively."

n The Willmar wrestling program is "hot." It's not just that they went to state as a team and qualified seven individuals, but it's the enthusiasm you sense with the parents and the coaching staff. It doesn't hurt that out of WHS alone are three former state champions and a state qualifier involved either as an assistant coach or volunteer. Plus, there are the Carlson youngsters from the Pennock area that will stream through the program for the next decade. Co-head coach Ed Oehlers said the state trip is a "great experience for the younger guys. Nathanial Swoyer winning a state title last year and the team and individuals going this year really paves the way and makes the future bright."

n The seven Willmar qualifiers were 3-10 combined. The five underclassmen now know a little more what it takes to survive in the Class AAA brackets. Oehlers said he was especially proud of the way senior Seth Pollock wrapped up his career going 1-2 at 145 pounds. Seth lost one of those matches to state champion Mark Hall of Apple Valley.

n Alexandra Lippert finished her second year at Concordia College with 61 blocked shots, 6.3 rpg, 10.6 ppg and just 15 turnovers in 27 games. The 6-foot-4 center was the lone starter back but the Cobbers finished 18-9 and reached the second round of the MIAC playoffs where they lost to Gustavus Adolphus.

n At Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, junior guard Kelsey Evans started 25 games in the Chargers' 20-6 season. The former Cardinal averaged 10.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg with 29 blocks, 52 steals and 73 assists.

At Ridgewater College, Willmar's own Shantel Kelly led the Lady Warriors in scoring with a 14.7 ppg average, fifth-highest in the Southern Division. The freshman wing also ranked high in free-throw percentage (88 of 122, 72 percent). Alicia Koenen, sophomore wing from Clara City ranked with leaders in steals at 2.2 per game.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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