Tall and talented, Eagles soared in ‘73WINDOM — As Elton John’s classic “Crocodile Rock” was rocking us back to the late 1950s and the Miami Dolphins (17-0) defeated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, the biggest news all across the country was the ending of United States’ troop involvement in the long-lasting Vietnam War.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
WINDOM — As Elton John’s classic “Crocodile Rock” was rocking us back to the late 1950s and the Miami Dolphins (17-0) defeated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, the biggest news all across the country was the ending of United States’ troop involvement in the long-lasting Vietnam War.
Yes, the troops were coming home and the Prisoners of War (POW’s), including future U.S. Senators Leo Thorsness and John McCain, were finally being released and would be coming home too.
It was the last week in January — 36 years ago, 1973. Richard Nixon had just begun his second term as president and songs like “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack were among the signature songs of that winter.
January 26, 1973 was a Friday and the Windom Eagles were 12-0 and were the top-ranked Class A boys’ basketball team in Minnesota by both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Tribune.
The Eagles, coached for the sixth-year by Jack Kelly, had four returning starters from their 1972 Region 2 runner-up squad.
Loaded with experienced height, Windom started its season on November 28 by claiming a nine-point (56-47) victory over defending state champion St. James on the Saints’ homecourt.
“Bruce Brothers, the high school sports reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, was at that game,” recalls Kelly, who coached Windom for 25 seasons. “Getting a win over the previous season’s undefeated state champ caught his attention and we became state-ranked right away.”
St. James, led by the incredible clutch performances of Jeff Nessler, had defeated Windom in the ’72 regional finals and then won four games at the state tournament to claim the overall state championship with a perfect 29-0 record.
The Saints won the Class A title over Melrose (57-55) on a miraculous halfcourt buzzer-beater by Nessler, and then — two nights later — defeated Class AA champion Mounds View (60-52) to claim the true state title in the second year of the five-years of the playoff between the two class champions.
Melrose sophomore Mark Olberding and Mounds View senior Mark Landsberger would both later play in the NBA, so the accomplishments of that ’72 St. James squad were amazing indeed.
The Saints made it a winter sweep that season, also winning the state wrestling championship.
That ’72 basketball title by St. James was the fifth in a 13-year span for southwestern Minnesota, as Edgerton (1960), Marshall (1963), Luverne (1964) and Sherburn (1970) had earlier claimed state championships in the one-class system.
Nessler had graduated, but St. James was good again in ’72-73. Windom would find that out later in a Region 2 thriller at Mankato’s Highland Arena.
Defense, rebounding keys to WHS success
Windom’s four returning starters were seniors Mike Anderson (6-4), Doug Miller (6-7), Lew Olson (6-2) and Bruce Earlewine (6-2).
Dan Fossing, a 6-3 senior, earned the fifth starting spot for the Eagles as the ’72-73 season unfolded, and 6-1 senior Kirk Odden — who had missed the previous season with a football knee injury — became a valuable and versatile “sixth man.”
“I was not a shut-down defensive stopper like Anderson or a great rebounder like Fossing,” recalls Odden, who is now a medical doctor in Blue Earth. “I could come in and score some from the wing and I liked to pass.”
Odden’s favorite target was Miller, Windom’s tallest player, who developed into the leading scorer for the Eagles that season.
The guard combination of Olson and Earlewine were also big scorers, with Olson — the team’s primary ball-handler — scoring in a variety of ways and piling up the assists, sparking the Eagles to victory-after-victory.
“Lew could have scored at will,” said Odden. “But he did our ball-handling and was an amazing passer. He got the rest of us involved in the offense.”
Earlewine was the team’s best shooter and — 15 seasons before the 3-point shot became a part of Minnesota high school basketball — he was scoring from long-range, helping the Eagles achieve nice offensive balance.”
“Bruce and I could shoot pretty well from the wings, which helped loosen up zones,” Odden recalled. “Against man-to-man, Lew could drive and score or dish, and Doug was a force inside, so we were hard to guard.”
Nine of first 10 opponents under 50 points
Mixing up defenses, the Eagles held nine of their first 10 opponents under 50 points.
Wins at Slayton (60-48), vs. Marshall (60-43), at Mountain Lake (57-48), vs. Redwood Falls (61-51) and vs. Jackson (57-44), put Windom at 6-0 on December 22.
Top-ranked in the state by the Pioneer Press and second-ranked by the Tribune, the Eagles hosted their own Holiday Tournament and claimed the championship with wins over Lakefield (73-43) and Northfield (58-44).
Playing Southwest Conference games on the road on all four Friday nights in January, Windom opened 1973 with a 48-38 victory over Worthington.
Next came a hard-fought, 50-47, win at Jackson.
“It was a full house,” recalls Jackson senior forward Clayton Williams, who scored 18 points in that game and earned all-conference honors for the Bluejays that winter. “I remember that game well. It was close all the way. I missed a short shot late in the game that could have put us ahead.
“Windom had a great team with fine balance. They were rugged on defense. It seemed like there were three guys around me all the time.”
John Schultz, who starred at Mountain Lake High School (graduating in 1957) and Mankato State College, was Jackson’s head coach for six seasons (’68-69 — ’73-74). He remembers well the great rivalry that existed between Windom and Jackson during those years and credits Kelly with doing a masterful job of coaching the Eagles.
“Those Windom teams were fundamentally sound and would not beat themselves,” Schultz said. “Jack was so good at reading the tempo of the game and making adjustments.”
Jim Lasley, who is the executive director of Section 3, was the head coach at Redwood Falls — the only one of those first 10 opponents to score more than 50 points on those ’72-73 Eagles.
“Kelly’s teams always rebounded so well,” said Lasley, who coached the Cardinals for six years before becoming the long-time Redwood athletic director. “It was so tough to get second shots against them. That ’73 team had a lot of size and played a terrific 1-3-1 zone.”
Anderson, who Kelly credits with being the best he ever had at playing the middle of that defense, controlled the paint, while Fossing and Olson manned the wings. Miller played the baseline, but did not cover the corners — leaving the ranginess of Fossing and Olson to do that. The quick-footed and quick-handed Earlewine played the top.
“Anderson was exceptional in the center of that 1-3-1,” recalls Kelly, who guided the Eagles to seven conference championships, 10 District 7 titles and three trips to the state tournament. “He would deflect away lots of passes and he could position so well, picking up the charge on penetration.
“Mike really made that defense work and then we had Lew, who was such an amazing athlete, as the weakside rebounder (defensive right side, offensive left side) when we were able to force teams to the right.”
While still effectively playing several defenses, that “suffocating” 1-3-1 became Windom’s signature defense as the season progressed.
Key mid-January games near the western border
After the narrow victory at Jackson, the Eagles attained the top-ranking in Class A by the Tribune and were announced as such at Pipestone (January 19). The Arrows had just knocked off undefeated Fulda (66-52) the previous Saturday, dropping the Raiders from their fourth-rated status and were geared up to do the same to Windom.
But the Eagles prevailed, 60-54, and defeated Mankato (73-68) at home the next night.
Then on Friday, the 26th, Windom took its 12-0 record and top-ranked state billing to Luverne to tangle with the oncoming Cardinals, led by senior veteran Mark Hendricks.
Always tough — especially on its home floor — Luverne outdefensed the Eagles and claimed a one-point, 52-51, victory, ending Windom’s undefeated season.
“We were ready to play,” said Laurin Carroll, who after 11 seasons as the head coach at Dell Rapids, S.D., was in the first of his 18 campaigns as the head coach at LHS — which included a Class A state runner-up finish in 1983. “We had been playing well the whole month of January after winning a Holiday Tournament at Fairmont. That Windom game was a very aggressive, physical game. We had the lead most of the way and were able to hold off a strong Windom rally at the end.”
Re-focusing and progressing in February
After that defeat at Luverne, the Eagles re-focused and continued making progress as the calendar moved into February.
Windom’s scoring picked up, as the Eagles got into the 70’s in their next three games, winning consecutive conference clashes at home over Slayton (75-64), Worthington (75-47) and Pipestone (74-53),
The weekend of February 16-17, the Eagles clinched the conference title with road victories at Redwood Falls (64-51) and Marshall (64-49).
“I think that our mindset became more focused after that loss to Luverne,” said Kelly about his team’s improved scoring and wider margins of victory in February. “That loss was a shake-up mentally for us and we became more intense and everybody began to understand their roles better.”
The Eagles closed out the regular season with a pair of wins over Cardinals — Fairmont on Tuesday, the 20th (72-55) and the rematch with Luverne on Friday the 23rd (63-54).
Windom held leads of 41-23 and 58-37 after quarters two and three of that Luverne game, impressively avenging their only loss, as a jam-packed crowd filled the Eagle gym by 5:45 p.m. — 45 minutes before the start of the B-squad game.
With that victory, Kelly’s squad finished the regular season with a 19-1 record and lots of confidence, as they continued to build momentum heading into the District 7 tournament.
“That’s something I remember,” recalls Olson, who works as an investment sales-manager in Sioux Falls. “Our intensity level went up as we approached the tournament — that was kind of a trademark of Kelly-coached teams. We got better as the season went on.”
Eagles, Warriors play again for District 7 title
Windom opened defense of its district title with a 60-32 victory over Mountain Lake at Lakefield on March 2, and followed that up with a high-scoring 92-55 triumph over Westbrook in the semifinals at Mountain Lake.
Meanwhile, undefeated Sioux Valley earned its way back to the District 7 championship game with wins over Storden-Jeffers (68-54) and Okabena (59-58). The Bluehawks had upset Jackson (60-53) in the quarterfinals, and then nearly knocked off the Warriors in a closely-contested semifinal clash at Lakefield — the fourth contest of the season against their southern neighbors.
So the stage was set for a small-school vs. big-school championship game repeat.
Windom had edged Sioux Valley, 64-62, in 1972 and the fans expected another “battle royal” in ’73.
But the Eagles, sparked by Earlewine’s 13 points, jumped out to a 20-10 first quarter lead and held on for a 73-59 victory, ending the Warriors’ season at 22-1.
Keith Place, who was instrumental in SSC’s girls’ basketball success over the past several seasons and is now an assistant coach at Worthington, scored 23 points for Sioux Valley that night. Looking back, Place says:
“The 1973 Eagles had the whole package — size, strength and rebounding power in the paint with Miller, Anderson and Fossing, depth on the bench with Odden and Travis Finstad (a 6-5 junior), tremendous speed at the shooting guard in Earlewine, and the premier point guard in Olson — who was decades ahead of his time.
“The greatest asset, however, may have been their coaching staff — Jack Kelly, Tom Cowan and Jon Falgren worked so well together and preached defense, discipline and team play.”
Back to Highland Arena
With its third consecutive district title under its belt, the Eagles traveled back to Mankato State’s Highland Arena — as the sounds of “Little Willie” by the Sweet and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn were climbing the charts — and squared off against District 6 champion St. James.
“I remember coming into the gym and the place was already packed — before we went down to dress — and both sides were cheering and getting excited,” recalls Olson, who later played both basketball and baseball at Mankato State. “It was a game of lead changes and momentum swings. We came back from down five in the last two minutes and won — which was pretty crazy.”
Windom trailed 59-54 with 1:50 to play, but — aided by an overthrown pass that went in — the Eagles came back to win, 62-61.
“I was throwing a lob to Miller on a high-low,” recalls Odden. “I tossed it a little too high and somehow it bounced off the board and went through. That turned out to be two big points.”
Odden later sank two key throws to tie the score at 61-61 with 11 seconds left. Then, following a Saints’ turnover, Miller’s free throw sealed Windom’s dramatic victory.
“When Kirk’s pass went in the basket, I poked Tom (Cowan) and told him there’s no way we are going to lose now,” remembers Kelly. “Then when Bruce got to the kid’s left side and forced a turnover, we had the last chance.”
Back to the region finals, the Eagles came through with a 76-65 victory over Sherburn, sending Windom to the state tournament.
“I remember coach (Kelly) really getting on Doug during a third quarter timeout,” recalls Olson. “That seemed to get him playing harder and we began to pull away.”
Miller finished with 17 points, but Earlewine ripped the nets for 29.
“Bruce really caught fire during the tournament run and hit lots of big shots from long-range,” said Olson, who bumped heads with his backcourt mate while chasing a loose ball late in the game. “I broke my nose, but it never bothered me and I played in the state tournament without a mask.”
1973 State Tournament
Back to the state tourney for the first time since 1966, Windom was excited to return to Williams Arena.
“The place is huge and kind of disorienting,” recalled Olson. “We got off to a good start in our game against Mound, but were never able to sustain any runs like we usually had done in the district and region games.”
Shooting a state tournament record 68 percent from the field (25-of-34), the Region 5 champion Mound Mohawks defeated the Eagles, 58-53, in the quarterfinals — sending Windom to a Friday morning consolation game.
“We had a quiet warm-up,” said Olson. “But once the game got going, we played really well and were able to run lots of fastbreaks.”
Windom rolled to a decisive 76-49 victory as Earlewine (28), Olson (20) and Miller (18) combined for 66 points, and the Eagles held the Region 8 champion Indians to a mere three points in the third quarter.
The win moved Windom into Saturday’s consolation championship game against Region 1 champion Preston.
The Eagles were sharp early, earning an impressive 37-15 lead midway through the second quarter. But Windom foul problems and a furious fullcourt press by the Bluejays brought Preston back to within 10 (43-33) by halftime.
With 3:33 to play in the fourth quarter, the Bluejays caught the Eagles, taking a 62-61 lead before capping the rally with a 71-63 win, ending Windom’s season at 25-3.
“Looking back, I feel so blessed,” concluded Olson. “Getting to play for such good coaches (I had Jack Kelly in both basketball and baseball, and played football for Ron Meyer) and with such fun teammates that created an enjoyable atmosphere. I was really lucky to have had those experiences with that group of teammates.”
Kelly, who credits his long-time assistant Cowan for much of Windom’s success, retired from coaching basketball at Windom after the 1993 season with 383 varsity victories.
“We put in a lot of work preparing for our opponents,” noted Kelly. “Coach Cowan did a great job with scouting and helping me in so many ways. Those were fun years, and that 1973 team was our first one that got the chance to play in the state tournament.”
Kelly and Cowan later guided Eagle teams to similar trips in both 1976 and 1980, and just missed in 1988, making it to the Region 2 finals.