CLARA CITY — Brad Atchison thought he was doing his team a favor by telling it to go have a little fun.
In 1986, Atchison coached the first-year co-op of Midwest Minnesota (Clara City and Maynard) to the Class A state girls basketball tournament. The Rebels’ first-round game against Le Sueur was scheduled for the late afternoon the next day.
He wanted the squad to enjoy themselves, but the girls on Midwest Minnesota weren’t having it.
“I remember telling the kids to go out and have some fun after the banquet, but I want everyone in their rooms by 10 o’clock,” Atchison said. “I can remember a couple of the players looking at me and saying, ‘No Atch, we want everyone in their rooms by 9 o’clock.’
“They were determined to have a good state tournament and they did.”
Going 25-1, Midwest Minnesota became the first team in west central Minnesota to win a state girls basketball championship.
“We knew we had a really good shot (to win state) in basketball,” said point guard Jaci (Geurtz) Jurgenson. “From Day 1, we knew what we had to do and accomplish that year. … We were focused individuals.”
A successful merger
When Clara City and Maynard came together for fall and winter athletics in 1985-86, it didn’t take long to find success. In the fall, the volleyball team accomplished a first for both towns by qualifying for the state tournament.
Most of the key players from the volleyball team were also basketball players. After placing sixth in Class A with a 1-2 showing in the fall, the Rebels were extra motivated to not let the same thing happen in the winter.
“It acclimated us to the environment there,” said forward Julie (Thein) Boom. “You’re away from home in a hotel room, you have lots of fans. The stress and the environment there is eye-opening for a small-town kid. Being there in volleyball and losing like we did, we had the mindset that we were going to make it back there and do better than we did in volleyball.”
Jurgenson added, “We didn’t like the feeling of coming back without a medal. When we had a chance to go back, we were determined.”
Despite being rivals separated by about seven miles on Highway 23, the players from Clara City and Maynard merged quickly. Clara City was one game away from the 1985 state tournament while Maynard, despite going 7-13 the year before the merger, had plenty of returning talent, according to Atchison.
“I was excited to have more teammates,” said guard Dayna Rethlake. “It made our team stronger overall.”
The team’s chemistry started getting built during a summer camp at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
“We arranged it where we all met and if you were from Clara City, you had to room with someone from Maynard,” said Jurgenson, who was paired with her cousin, Shannon Groothuis. “That way, we got to know each other really well. But because we were seven miles apart, I already knew my cousin extremely well. And, some of the other girls, we ran track with. We had a lot of those relationships already but I think going to basketball camp the summer before helped set up that process.”
The part that sticks out most with Atchison was the players bringing out the best in each other during practice.
“I remember how competitive the kids were,” Atchison said. “They were able to toss aside their old identity and realize we were one team and to do the best we could.”
There was no clear-cut way to stop Midwest Minnesota: It was talented everywhere.
Leading the way was Thein, a 5-foot-10 forward who averaged about 23 points and 10 rebounds a game. Joining her inside was 5-11 post Shannon Knapper, who was good for about 14 points, nine rebounds and two-and-a-half blocks a night.
“Shannon and I did a nice job pushing each other because we played against each other in practice, we were the same age and we grew up playing with each other,” Boom said. “Strengths she had, I didn’t have and vice versa.”
The lone Maynard player in the starting lineup, Groothuis found her place as a defensive stopper at the other forward position in the Rebels’ high-pressure man-to-man defense.
In the backcourt, seniors Geurtz and Rethlake played off the chemistry they built together since kindergarten. Rethlake recalls how early she and Jurgenson were predicting their future success.
“We were in seventh or eighth grade and even at that time, we were saying we’re going to state when we were seniors,” Rethlake said. “We were saying we’re going to win state. We were a completely different team at that time but it was already in our heads that yep, we’re going to do whatever we can to be the best team.”
Off the bench, Kellie Thein, Heidi Hubel and Deb Olson made sure the talent level didn’t drop off when the starters went to the bench.
“Our second team would have probably won the conference,” Jurgenson said. “We were playing every day in practice against some talented players.”
Helping with coaching was Les Feia, who was an assistant coach with Atchison for 18 years, along with former Maynard head coach Mary Lou Lanes.
Midwest Minnesota opened the season 15-0 before taking a loss to Class AA Moorhead on Jan. 18, 66-62.
“That grounded us and showed we were capable of getting beat if we don’t work hard,” Atchison said.
Save for a 41-40 win over Echo-Wood Lake in the Region 3A semifinals, the Rebels showed they were by far the best team in 3A, beating Sanborn-Lamberton 70-48 to get to state. Julie Thein had 26 points and 14 rebounds. Knapper had 12 points and 14 boards. Geurtz came up with 13 points, 10 assists and four steals.
“In that time of our lives, we spent a lot of time on the court and it was our goal to make the state tournament,” Boom said. “Once you’re there, why not go all the way? The group I was with, we only lost a handful of games; we had successful seasons from seventh grade all the way up. We wanted to carry that on and bring it home.
Surviving, then thriving
Midwest Minnesota’s toughest test came right away in the state quarterfinals.
Playing at the Minneapolis Auditorium, the Rebels had to beat a Le Sueur team built similarly to them while also exorcising the demons from the state volleyball trip.
“It was natural to have jitters. I remember being nervous,” Rethlake said. “It took us a while to settle in. Le Sueur was a team that was very similar to us, playing more of a man-to-man like we did.
“It was almost like looking in the mirror.”
With Julie Thein in early foul trouble, the Giants built a 24-18 halftime lead and held a 38-29 advantage with less than six minutes to play.
Atchison was quick to take the blame on that one as he had Midwest Minnesota running an unfamiliar zone defense.
“They were a real good team and I thought we should play zone and that wasn’t our forte,” Atchison said. “Our best defense was getting after people and playing man-to-man.”
When Atchison told the team to go back to man-to-man, there was an immediate relief.
“The kids kind of looked at me and thought, ‘It’s about time,’” Atchison said. “It really got Le Sueur rattled and we got some key baskets.”
Overcoming her early struggles, Julie Thein had 17 points and seven rebounds. Knapper came up with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Geurtz, who had 12 points and three assists, hit four free throws in the final 20 seconds to cement a 50-49 come-from-behind win. Midwest Minnesota outscored Le Sueur 22-13 in the fourth quarter.
“That took a load off,” Boom said about the first-round win. “Now, the worst you can do is fourth place. Having that first win, it puts your mind at ease.”
For the rest of the tournament, the Rebels never let themselves get into another hole again.
At the Met Center in Bloomington, Midwest Minnesota pounded New York Mills inside for a 54-43 victory. Knapper led the way with 19 points and 18 rebounds, Geurtz had 16 points, and Julie Thein also had a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds. The Rebels had a 50-30 rebounding advantage and went 13-for-18 from the free-throw line.
The Class A championship game pitted the Rebels against East Grand Forks. The Green Wave led 12-11 after the first quarter, but Midwest Minnesota put together an 18-1 run that went from late in the second into the third. The Rebels easily won the battles in turnovers (23-11) and rebounds (40-27).
“Watching that clock wind down, Acth took the starters out and I remember I leaned over to Dayna and said, ‘We did it,’” Jurgenson said. “We hugged each other and started crying. I remember that as clear as day.”
Midwest Minnesota claimed the Class A championship with a 54-38 victory. Julie Thein wrapped up the tournament with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Geurtz ended her prep career with 14 points, six assists and three steals. Knapper nearly had a double-double with nine points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
After arriving to state focused on business, now the Rebels could relish in their accomplishments.
“It’s something (about) small towns: we live for our sports and music and church events,” said Rethlake, who teaches eighth-grade science at Oltman Middle School in Cottage Grove. “It was a special time.”
Atchison recalls going to the boys state tournament with his dad since the mid-’60s and the girls tournament since the mid-’70s. To be on the court leading a championship team was a dream come true.
“I remember some people coming up to me to talk,” Atchison said, “but I wanted to see the kids cut down the nets and get the medals around their necks.”
While certainly enjoying her moment as a champion, Jurgenson was also quick to recall how that season set the tone for years to come.
“The fun thing is, I had a little sister, Julie Thein had a little sister and Shannon Knapper had a little sister,” said Jurgenson, who works as an elementary school teacher with Rochester Catholic Schools. “All those sisters were sitting in the stands watching us. … The older sister kind of paved the road and went in our footsteps afterwards.”
Said Atchison, “I have to attribute what Les taught the kids in the B-squad and JV. I think at one point in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our B-squad won 90 games in a row. We were blessed with good kids and a good program.”
The Rebels made it to the region semifinals in ‘87 and the finals in ‘88, only to be thwarted both times by a Tracy-Milroy squad led by one of the top players in state history, Mary Jo Miller.
“They beat us in one of the best girls basketball games I’ve seen,” Atchison said of the 64-62 loss in ‘87. “We had just as good a team, but those kids were denied. You have to give it to Terry (Culhane, Tracy-Milroy’s coach) and Mary Jo.”
The Midwest Minnesota co-op lasted four years before the two schools merged with Raymond to form MACCRAY in ‘89. With Atchison still at the helm, the Wolverines went back to state in basketball in ‘90 and ‘91. The school also finished as the runner up in volleyball in ‘91.
From 1991-93, MACCRAY had three straight recipients of the West Central Tribune’s Hengstler-Ranweiler Award for the top three-sport senior athlete: Darci DeHoux; Kelli Geurtz (Jaci’s sister); and Kristina Ervin.
Atchison eventually went north on Highway 23 to Willmar, where he made three more state appearances in 2004, ‘06 and ‘10. Named to the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002, Atchison’s 589 career wins rank 11th in state history, according to the MN Girls’ Basketball Hub. He retired from coaching in 2012.
“For me, (1986) was the perfect storm of kids from two communities coming together,” Atchison said. “Not only were they great basketball players, but they were so focused, determined, tough and hard-nosed. They simply wanted to find success and come together as a team. I distinctly remember how tough and competitive they were. It was really a magical season.”
Boom found immense success playing college basketball at Southwest State (now Southwest Minnesota State) and still stands as the Mustangs’ all-time leading scorer with 1,800 career points. She was named to SMSU’s Athletics Hall of Honor in 2002 and to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Hall of Fame in 2011.
Still, the Midwest Minnesota championship is held in the highest regard.
“That’s one of my top memories in sports, if not the top memory,” said Boom, now a fifth-grade teacher in the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton school district. “That was a great group of girls. We worked hard to get there and it’s nice that it paid off.”
Here is a list of stories in the Celebration Saturday series with their publication dates:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23, 26 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf
June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball
June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)
June 20 — The 1979-80 and ‘80-81 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams
July 3 — 2006-10 Minnewaska girls golf
July 11 — 1985-86 Midwest Minnesota girls basketball