BLAST FROM THE PAST: Mixed results from 35 seasonsWORTHINGTON — It’s been three weeks (Dec. 23, 2010) since I wrote my most recent “Blast from the Past,” in which I began telling about my long 35-year career as a high school girls’ basketball coach.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — It’s been three weeks (Dec. 23, 2010) since I wrote my most recent “Blast from the Past,” in which I began telling about my long 35-year career as a high school girls’ basketball coach.
I mentioned my total length of service, which included 34 consecutive years as a head coach after one season as an assistant, and also briefly discussed a few of the reasons why I decided to make the change from a head girls’ coach to the assistant boys’ coach.
But most of the story was about the tremendous, loyal, unwavering parental (and grandparental) support of Dean and Dolores Garoutte of Heron Lake, whom I believe epitomized what high school fans should be — consistent, reliable, appreciative, enthusiastic, realistic and understanding.
While the Garoutte’s certainly stand out in those characteristics, there have been so many other parents and fans who were also stellar supporters of our players and my coaching efforts over all of those seasons — far too many to mention.
So, I will simply say a gracious thank you to all of you for your encouragement and kindness over the years. Thanks, I did appreciate it.
As I have indicated several times, those 35 seasons were blessed with mixed results, a variety of experiences and a treasure of memories.
I will follow this up — in the near future — with the last or third part of this “wrap-up” series by writing about some of the experiences and memories, including my valued relationships with my assistants, opposing coaches and referees.
But, first a look at the long-term results.
Mixed results start with early success
I was fortunate to “get in” on high school girls’ basketball on the “ground level” way back in the 1975-76 school year, as an assistant coach under Marlys Johnson, who was the founder of girls’ athletics — coaching volleyball, basketball and track — at Heron Lake High School.
Mrs. Johnson started all three programs in the early ‘70s and in 1975, the Falcons finished as runner-up (to Comfrey) in the first official District 7 girls’ basketball tournament.
The next season, HLHS defeated Storden-Jeffers in the championship game and won District 7, later advancing to the Region 2 championship game where a heartbreaking 45-44 overtime loss to Southwest Christian ended a super season for the Falcons with a 17-1 record.
I was the B-squad coach that winter and our team had an 11-2 record and there was only one senior — Colette Burns — who was a starter on the varsity. It was obvious that HLHS would be a powerhouse again the next season.
Colette later married Kevin Leopold, who also had been a fine all-around Falcon athlete. In the past decade, the couple’s children Megan, Tyler and Trevor were all strong contributors to SSC athletics. Tyler, in fact, was an all-state football player for the Quasars in the fall of 2002 and Trevor was a key player on the Southwestern United (SSC — which is Heron Lake-Okabena — and Round Lake-Brewster, combined as SWU) Wildcats’ baseball team which finished third in the 2006 Class A state baseball tournament.
Anyway, with four seniors — Mary Hay, Terri Rasche, Betty Burns and Cathy Garoutte — returning as starters, I inherited a wealth of experience and talent for my “rookie” season as a head coach in ’76-77.
On Dec. 13, 1976, the Falcons defeated the Welcome Wildcats at Welcome, giving me my first varsity victory. Three nights later, we played our first home game — in the classic “crackerbox” known as the HLHS gymnasium and claimed a 63-30 win over the Ceylon Huskies.
We opened 1977 with a 58-23 victory over the Okabena Bluehawks at Heron Lake and then traveled to Worthington where we somehow rallied for an unforgettable 35-34 win over the Trojans, after trailing by eight points with six minutes left.
Paced by the consistent high-scoring performances and remarkable all-around play of Betty Burns, who later was named to the WCCO Radio All-State Team of the Year, the Falcons finished the regular season, undefeated, 15-0.
A well-played, 51-32, victory over Windom in the District 7 semifinals was one of my all-time coaching highlights and the Falcons became known as “thumbodies” after winning four more tournament games following that contest, including a 42-38 victory over defending state champion Redwood Falls in the state tournament quarterfinals at the Met Sports Center in Bloomington.
We had a five-point lead with five minutes to go in the semifinals against Mayer Lutheran, but the Crusaders rallied for a 42-40 win, sending Heron Lake to the third-place game where we defeated Minneapolis Marshall by a convincing 53-30 margin, with the entire roster getting to play.
“Our fans were chanting we’re No. 3,” as the game was winding down and the “Welcome Home” back in Heron Lake on a warm March Sunday is still a lasting memory.
So, the results started out favorable — 22-1 and Heron Lake’s first trip to a state tournament.
The four veterans graduated and we were 11-8 the next season, which was the last for HLHS.
Next came the Pat Burns era, highlighted by the amazing undefeated (26-0) state championship for the Heron Lake-Okabena Scarlet Knights in 1981.
With Burns on the floor, the Knights were 82-8 over four seasons, winning District 7 titles in ‘79, ‘81 and ‘82.
During Pat’s junior season, we edged District 5 kingpin East Chain in a thriller at St. James, 52-50, in the Region 2 semifinals and then impressively won four more games after that, including our 62-46 victory over Moose Lake in the state championship game at the Met Sports Center.
But, East Chain snapped a 48-game HL-O win streak with a 43-39 win over the Knights at St. James in the 1982 Region 2 championship game.
That game result was one of the most painful to endure because we were so close to “making it back” to the state tournament and we remembered well how much fun that experience had been the year before.
It’s hard to imagine that it has been 30 years since that memorable ’80-81 season — which I will feature in an upcoming “Blast” in March. There were seven seniors and seven juniors who suited up for the Scarlet Knights that unbelievably mild winter, including three seniors — Amy Christians, Chris Ferguson and Lori Sontag — who were three-year starters, giving HL-O an abundance of experience.
Burns and fellow junior Lynette Rients joined those three in the starting lineup and seniors Janeen Rasche and Cindy Seydel gave the Knights outstanding depth.
The sport had improved so much over those first six years as the skill level of the girls continued to get better and better.
So, with a Burns on my team (Pat started the last few games as an eighth-grader in ’77-78), I had remarkable early results.
Three 48-game winning streaks
The Scarlet Knights won 32 of 40 games over the next two winters, but did not advance beyond the District 7 semifinals either season. Then in the mid-80s, were a trio of campaigns when losses came more frequently as HL-O finished its nine-year existence with win-loss records of 9-12, 14-8 and 11-9, giving the Scarlet Knights a total record of 148-45.
Something unique which was accomplished by HL-O varsity girls’ basketball teams were a trio of 48-game winning streaks.
The first was an overall 48-game win streak, which included 26 wins in ’80-81 and then 22 straight in ’81-82, ending with the earlier-mentioned loss to East Chain the ’82 regional finals.
Beginning with a last-game regular-season victory in the ’79-80 season and then winning all 18 contests in both ’80-81 and ’81-82, the Knights had won 37 straight regular-season games entering the ’82-83 campaign. HL-O was 11-0 that winter — extending the streak to 48 — before traveling to Westbrook in late January where the Wildcats pulled off an upset victory in overtime, ending our consecutive wins at 48.
The third 48-game win streak was accomplished on the home floor in Okabena over five-plus seasons.
The Knights had won their last three home games in 1979 and then won all nine at home each of the next five seasons (’79-80 – ’83-84).
Storden-Jeffers, which was on the verge of building a dynasty, came to Okabena and claimed a 51-44 victory over HL-O in the Knight’s home-opener on Dec. 6, 1984 — the first time HL-O had lost at home since Lakefield defeated the Knights 33-28 on Jan. 25, 1979.
HL-O won its next home contest, a week later, edging Sanborn-Lamberton in a well-played game, 43-39 — which would have been No. 50, if the Chiefs had not ended the win streak at 48.
A few years later (‘88-89, ‘89-90), S-J won 53 straight games, breaking HL-O’s overall 48-game win streak, which stood for eight years as a state record for girls’ basketball.
Disappointing losses became more frequent
In 34 seasons as a high school head girls’ basketball coach, as some would say, my teams won 519 times and I lost 278 games.
That’s a lot of losses. I probably rank among the top five in all-time losses (varsity girls’ basketball) in state history.
Some of them were bitter and most disappointing. But were some were fun and enjoyable. Yes, a loss can be fun.
The other team is striving to win, too, and if your team plays hard, performs well and carries out its game plan to its capability — then it’s more a matter of the opponent winning then it is of your team “losing.”
Lakefield’s victory over HL-O in the 1980 District 7 championship game was certainly a case of the Panthers winning. All three of S-J’s wins (each extremely close games) over Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield in 1992 would, I my opinion, fall into that category.
Losing to S-J in the ‘91 district finals was a bitter pill to swallow, as was the ‘82 regional championship loss to East Chain and a 2005 tournament defeat to Southwest Christian.
A high-scoring, overtime loss to Adrian in 2006 was difficult, too, because the Quasars had rallied from 11 points down to go up by three before a spectacular half-court shot by freshman Sam Lynn tied the game and eventually ended a fine season for SSC.
During the ‘90s, HLOL won 20 games or more three times, including a two-year mark of 44-7 over the ‘93-94 and ‘94-95 season. But tournament losses to S-J, Red Rock Central and Tracy-Milroy prevented the Silver Bullets from reaching the state tournament.
But, certainly getting to the state tournament is not the only measure of a good season.
I once had a parent tell me that “I better improve my coaching so (his) daughter does not waste another season” after she was not able to advance to the state level in another sport, which I coached.
To me, not getting to the “state” does not mean the season is wasted.
The regular season and the “conference chase” are very meaningful. Winning a conference title is a major accomplishment.
A state tournament trip is always strived for and is always the goal, but only one team — out of about 22 (in the current four-class system) and one out of more than 40 (in the two-class system before the ’96-97 season) — realizes the “gravy” that such a trip brings.
I was fortunate to be part of that “gravy” three times — 1977, 1981 and 2008 — but for me, having 16 teams (10 champions, six runner-ups) finish either first or second in the final conference standings and having 31 teams (out of 34) advance at least to the district or sub-section quarterfinals (what is now known as “Super Saturday”) was an achievement over a longer span of time.
Our teams played in 23 district or sub-section semifinal games and 13 times reached the championship game, winning six of them.
Yes, that’s right — we lost seven times.
Some of those losses were painful. Some were fun games. But all ended our season. Which was always the most difficult thing.
For me, having nine 20-win seasons, over four decades — once in the ’70s, twice in the ’80s, three times in the ’90s and three times (’05, ’07, ’08) recently — were career highlights.
I also had seven seasons where we lost more games than we won, including back-to-back 6-17 and 6-19 marks in ’01-02 and ’02-03.
In 29 of the 34 seasons, we won at least 11 games. Four of those five seasons with less than 11 victories came in the last 10 years, however, indicating maybe the time for a change was looming.
So, my won-loss results were indeed mixed over the years, including a 21-30 mark over my last two seasons.
Two results of which I leave the game with some pride were that I coached 100 different players who scored at least 100 varsity career points and the fact that in most seasons, our teams had more seniors on the roster than most other teams did.
I tended to give lots of players chances. To me, “putting in your time” earned a player my respect and loyalty, which I tried my best to honor when the girl was a senior.
Not everyone always liked that philosophy and it may have “cost” us some regular-season victories. In fact, I was even called “Santa Claus” once by one of our own fans, but one of the most cherished remarks — which was really true and I appreciated — was when a parent once told me that “I was too much for the underdog”
I probably was — but when you think about it, opportunities and striving to win are probably more important than the victory itself?