BLAST FROM THE PAST: 1989 state title highlights remarkable Storden-Jeffers girls’ basketball dynastyJEFFERS — In the mid-1960’s, an English rock band, known as the Dave Clark Five, had a song entitled “Everybody Knows.” As the boys’ state high school basketball tournament is underway in Minneapolis and the Ellsworth Panthers are playing in the elite event for a fourth straight time — and their fifth in the past seven years — that song title could well apply to the type of representation that our area makes when an opportunity comes along.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
JEFFERS — In the mid-1960’s, an English rock band, known as the Dave Clark Five, had a song entitled “Everybody Knows.”
As the boys’ state high school basketball tournament is underway in Minneapolis and the Ellsworth Panthers are playing in the elite event for a fourth straight time — and their fifth in the past seven years — that song title could well apply to the type of representation that our area makes when an opportunity comes along.
Everybody knows — at least those who follow high school basketball — that teams from southwest Minnesota represent themselves well at the state tournament.
Ellsworth, for example, has advanced to the championship in all four of its previous trips, finishing as runner-up in 2003 and 2006, before winning back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008.
In my last “blast,” I mentioned some of the successes of area girls’ basketball teams at past state tournaments.
This week’s feature will take readers back 20 years ago to March of 1989, when the first George Bush was just two months into his one-term presidency and Billboard’s top song was Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.”
At the old Met Sports Center in Bloomington, Storden-Jeffers High School was capping a remarkable girls’ basketball season with an awesome performance — winning the state championship, defeating Eden Valley-Watkins by a final score of 76-52, after claiming an impressive 49-30 halftime lead.
That first half performance caught the attention of many long-time state tournament followers, including former New York Mills and Old Dominion star Janet Karvonen, who interviewed S-J head coach Gary Gillis on the televised broadcast.
“Janet told me that was the best half of basketball that she had ever seen played,” remembers Gillis, who compiled an amazing 387-51 (.884) win-loss record in 17 seasons as a head girls’ basketball coach. “That really meant a lot to me.”
It also meant a lot to the small towns of Storden and Jeffers, located along Highway 30 in north central Cottonwood County.
Once arch-rivals as the Storden Tigers and the Jeffers Wolves, the two farm-based communities consolidated in 1971 and for 22 years were known as the Storden-Jeffers Chiefs.
Gillis, who grew up in Grand Forks, N.D. and (as a junior) played for Grand Forks Central in the 1963 North Dakota state basketball championship game against Phil Jackson, came to Storden in 1970 after graduating from Mayville (N.D.) State College in 1968.
“I spent two years teaching in Buffalo, N.D. before we (wife Jennifer) moved to Storden,” said Gillis. “I was head football, basketball (boys) and track coach.”
So what about that game against legendary University of North Dakota ace Phil Jackson, who went on to become a player in the NBA before coaching the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990’s.
Jackson, who currently coaches the Los Angeles Lakers, scored 35 points in that title game, leading his Williston squad to the championship. Gillis scored nine points for GFC.
“My dad had played in a state championship basketball game,” Gillis noted. “I was lucky enough to play in one and then all three of my daughters had that same opportunity, and I was fortunate to be able to coach them.”
1981 S-J boys, HL-O girls provide spark
The Storden-Jeffers boys, coached by Round Lake native Dennis Turner, had several good basketball seasons — including a District 7 runner-up finish in 1980 — prior to earning a state tournament trip in 1981.
Turner had guided Storden to many conference titles in the ‘60s and his ’81 squad — paced by senior veterans Curt Erickson, Mark Iverson and Brad Witt — really helped unify the two towns, as well as inspiring a bunch of young girls.
“My dad was the assistant coach and we got to go along to the hotels and felt we were treated like royalty,” remembers Heather Gillis Thiesen, who was a starting senior guard on that ‘89 girls’ championship team. “That was so exciting and thrilling. I always hoped that I could do something like that myself some day.”
That same year, Heron Lake-Okabena capped an undefeated (26-0) season with the Class A state girls’ basketball championship and as a fourth-grader, Heather was inspired by that, too.
“My all-time favorite player was Patty Burns,” recalls Heather. “She really showed that you could be from a small town and be good.”
Burns, an all-around athletic junior, scored 60 points in three state tournament games and caught the “fancy” of the Twin Cities media while leading the Scarlet Knights to the championship.
Eight years later — after lots of hard work and dedicated practice — Heather and her friends would experience the same thing.
Success began building in junior high games
Starting with lots of large-sized victories in junior high, the future of the S-J dynasty began to unfold.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs varsity, coached by Bob Rise, had emerged from a balanced field of teams to win the 1983 District 7 championship.
Gary Gillis, who was S-J’s head football and baseball coach, had moved over to the girls’ basketball program at the beginning of the ‘81-82 season as the B-squad coach and would take charge of the program in ‘83-84.
The Chiefs, despite being hampered with several late-season injuries, repeated as District 7 champions in 1984 and then — on a last-second shot by senior Teresa Rogotzke — defeated a top-notch Bricelyn team in a Region 2 semifinal thriller at Fairmont.
But S-J’s season came to a disappointing end in the Region 2 finals at Worthington when the Chiefs were, according to coach Gillis, “throttled” by Southwest Christian.
“This was a great example of over-achieving and believing in their coaches and each other,” noted Gillis. “The success of this group truly gave our young ballplayers an even more positive outlook that they could someday get to the state tourney.”
All-around athlete Heidi Jackels — who would later help S-J/Westbrook win a pair of 4x800 meter relay championships at the state track meet and be a big part of Windom/S-J’s back-to-back 1986 and 1987 state cross country team titles — began playing point guard for the Lady Chiefs as an eighth-grader in ‘84-85.
“Heidi was a great floor leader, ballhandler and defensive player,” noted Gillis. “She became our quarterback for the next four seasons.”
While Jackels was relentless on defense and so good with the ball on offense, she was quickly joined by a whole cast of exceptional student-athletes.
Graduation took its toll on S-J after the 1985 season and the Chiefs looked to be rebuilding in ’85-86 with a pair of freshman — Gillis and Jackels — manning the guard positions.
But the young team went 15-7 and assistant coach Leon Stalls was in the process of building an incredible 57-game winning streak at the B-squad level.
Disappointment in ‘87 finals, sets tone for ‘88
After the surprising varsity success in 1986, the young — but experienced — Chiefs had high expectations for 1987.
But for the second time in three seasons, S-J’s season ended with a disappointing loss to Butterfield-Odin in the District 7 finals.
“I think I hurt for a week after that,” recalls Heather Gillis, who was hoping for a longer tournament journey as a sophomore. “But we all decided that we needed to work harder and practice more.”
So in the summer of 1987, there were a pair of busy places in Jeffers — one was the S-J High School gym, and the other was Alan Pudenz’s driveway.
“We spent a lot of time at the gym,” remembers Heather. “That’s where we usually met. Dad didn’t have to tell us to go. We had a burning sensation to improve and we just went in there and worked on our shooting and ball-handling whenever we could.”
The other place — on the west side of town — was the paved and lighted driveway at the Pudenz place.
Alan Pudenz had played for a couple of very good Storden Tiger teams before graduating from SHS in 1967 and he provided a great court for his three daughters to practice on.
“We played a ton of basketball on that court,” said oldest daughter Tracey, who became a three-year starter for the Chiefs before graduating in 1990 as an all-stater. “We played late into the night because we had lights and we even had a 3-point line painted on it.”
Speaking of the 3-point line, the next season — ‘87-88 — was the first-year of the 3-point shot in Minnesota high school basketball.
The first of three state championship games
Experienced, talented and deep, Storden-Jeffers rolled in ‘87-88.
With Pudenz, Gillis and Jackels providing excellent perimeter pressure, the Chiefs stifled opponents with their fullcourt man-to-man pressure, and the quartet of Kris Giese, Kris Kuehl, Darci Steere and Nancy Quade alternated in the post positions, giving S-J depth and versatility on the inside.
Add to that the consistent 3-point shooting abilities of Vicki Stalls, who along with Gillis and Pudenz could knock down the long-range shot, and the Chiefs were eight-deep and hard to defend.
“I think the main reason the 3-pointers were so important is that as we practiced a lot, we got stronger,” says Stalls, who is married to Kip Rasmussen and writes a cooking column as part of her duties at the Cottonwood County Citizen in Windom. “We always had the green light to shoot. One advantage for me is that I was one of the few left-handed 3-point shooters in the area and that helped. We could hit them from either side in our offense.”
Those ‘87-88 Chiefs averaged nearly 69 points per game, while allowing just 38.
Undefeated through the regular season, including an impressive 83-57 triumph over highly-regarded and defending Region 3 champion Tracy-Milroy (at Tracy, Dec. 22), the Chiefs defeated a talented Windom team to win the District 7 championship.
After an impressive victory over Mapleton-Amboy-Good Thunder, S-J had a classic battle with an undefeated Sherburn-Trimont squad in the regional finals, emerging with a 42-38 victory.
“Both teams were undefeated and neither team ever led by more than five points,” remembers coach Gillis. “Heidi and Heather each made key free throws at the end.”
“I made them that time,” recalls Heather, who says she missed a pair of free throws as a sixth-grader in the annual S-J Booster’s Club co-ed grade level tournament. “Dad always said that maybe sometime I will make them when it matters more.”
Getting to the state tournament mattered — and as the sounds of “Go Big Blue” filled the packed Worthington gym, the Chief girls had achieved one of their goals.
Victories over Fertile-Beltrami (49-41) and St. Bernard’s (61-46) propelled S-J to the state championship.
Tracy-Milroy, led by stellar senior guard Mary Jo Miller, defeated the Chiefs in the finals, 47-35, giving T-M its first of three state titles.
“I think I cried for two weeks after that loss,” said Heather Gillis. “But we became even more determined to win it all the next year.”
Perfect season in ‘88-89, 27-0 state champs!
Kuehl, who later would become a world-class discus thrower (competing in the Olympics), graduated off of that team, as did Giese, who had been a solid two-year contributor.
But with seniors Quade, Gillis and Jackels, along with juniors Steere and Pudenz in the starting line-up, the Chiefs were loaded again.
Stalls, now a senior, and freshman post Deanne Crowell gave S-J a solid seven-player rotation.
Again going undefeated, the Chiefs rolled past Sioux Valley-Round Lake-Brewster (50-14), Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield (63-43) and Windom (61-46) to win its fourth District 7 championship in seven seasons.
A 71-30 win over Hills-Beaver Creek and a 49-38 victory over Martin County West sent S-J back to the state tournament.
Drawing a top-notch opponent in Rochester Lourdes, the Chiefs got off to a blistering start — and had a strong finish — to pull through with a 63-49 triumph.
S-J then overcame an early 15-6 deficit to claim an exciting 57-41 victory over Tracy-Milroy-Walnut Grove in the semifinals, sending the Chiefs back to the state title.
This time, S-J would not be denied.
Putting four players — Pudenz (22), Quade (18), Steere (17) and Gillis (14) — in double figures, the Chiefs played a remarkable game and capped their undefeated season with a 24-point victory.
Heather Gillis, who made her last four shots in the semifinal win, sank all five shots (four 3-pointers) in the championship game to set the state record — which still stands 20 years later — for consecutive made field goals.
“This was just the greatest feeling,” Heather said about winning the state championship. “All the Chief drills (running lines) and rope jumping were all worth it. We just really clicked in this game and our fundamentals and conditioning really paid off.”
Back to the finals in ’90 and again as RRC in ‘99
Stalls, Quade, Gillis and Jackels graduated, but leading scorers Pudenz and Steere returned, along with Crowell, and S-J was dominant again in ‘89-90.
Both Steere and Pudenz ran with Jackels on those state champion two-mile relay teams and both earned all-state basketball honors as seniors in 1990.
Steere would later play in four straight NCAA Division II national championship games with North Dakota State — giving her seven consecutive title games, winning a total of three championships.
Senior Janelle Gillis and junior Heidi Stalls joined the three veterans in the ‘89-90 starting line-up and senior Lora Nickel was usually the first Chief reserve.
S-J completed its third straight undefeated regular season and topped HL-O’s state record 48-game winning streak by winning 53 consecutive of its own.
The streak came to an end in the state finals when Rochester Lourdes, led by the duo of Stacy Sievers and Lori Lawler, defeated S-J by seven points, 52-45.
S-J’s three-year record during those three seasons was 79-2, with the only two losses being in the state finals.
Storden-Jeffers went back to the state in both 1991 and 1993, earning the consolation title in ‘93.
Then in the ‘93-94 school year, Storden-Jeffers and Sanborn-Lamberton became Red Rock Central. The Falcons played in three state tournaments (1994, 1998 and 1999), advancing to the finals in ‘99 (losing to Brandon/Evansville, 61-46).
Mandey Gillis, who was a first-grade “water girl” for the ‘89 champs, was a junior starter for RRC in ‘99, becoming the fifth member of the Gillis family to play in a state basketball championship game.