BLAST FROM THE PAST: HL-O girls cap undefeated season with ’81 state titleHERON LAKE-OKABENA — Spurred on by tremendous community support, the exceptionally hard-working, goal-oriented girls’ basketball team from Heron Lake-Okabena High School accomplished a “dream season” in the mild winter of 1980-81.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
HERON LAKE-OKABENA — Spurred on by tremendous community support, the exceptionally hard-working, goal-oriented girls’ basketball team from Heron Lake-Okabena High School accomplished a “dream season” in the mild winter of 1980-81.
The squad, which was made up of seven seniors and seven juniors, brought fame to the towns of Heron Lake and Okabena, as well as getting some well-deserved respect for the Southern Star Conference, for District 7 and for Region 2.
Starting with a 69-31 victory over Westbrook at Okabena on Nov. 20, 1980 and ending with an impressive 62-46 triumph over Moose Lake in the state finals at the Met Sports Center in Bloomington on March 21, 1981, the Scarlet Knights racked up 26 consecutive wins that winter without a loss — finishing as the undefeated state champions.
“What set that group apart was their willingness to listen, learn and work hard,” recalled Heron Lake’s Wayne Rasche, who was the team’s assistant coach, chief scout and primary teacher of defensive technique. “They believed in us and they believed in each other — we never had anybody come up with excuses to miss practice. Every one of them was willing to ‘lay it on the line’ and was ready to play hard-nosed, aggressive defense, which became our trademark.”
The ability to play a variety of defenses and the right combination of experienced depth were two key factors which drove those ’81 Knights, who thrilled their fans with an amazing eight-game tournament run after completing an 18-0 regular season.
“I have so many great memories of that whole experience,” recalled Mankato’s Lynette Rients (Cline), who as a junior added additional rebounding and scoring punch in her role as the “power forward” after becoming the team’s fifth starter midway through the campaign.
“I remember the packed gyms during the season when we played the Sioux Valley Warriors and the Lakefield Panthers. Then when the tournament started it really got wild. We seemed to pick up more and more fans with each game.
“The crazy signs that our parents and other fans made for us is something I will always remember. They would hold them up for us to see as the bus was leaving town. Then they would speed around us, pull over and hold them up again, while cheering and waving. They really made us feel special.”
What this team accomplished was indeed special and the community certainly embraced this gallant group of girls —who put in lots and lots of extra time to reach its goal of winning a state championship.
HL-O had success in all sports, following HLHS girls, OHS boys ’77 runs
Heron Lake-Okabena (HL-O) was just in its third year as a consolidated school district and was enjoying immense athletic success.
Three straight HL-O volleyball teams had made it to the District 7 finals and the Scarlet Knights’ football program had been near the top of the conference standings each year, nearly winning the title in the fall of 1980 with a small, but smart, hard-hitting team.
The boys’ basketball team had earned the District 7 runner-up trophy in 1979 and the undersized ’81 squad won the conference championship with its exceptional teamwork and hustle.
HL-O was successful in the spring, too. The Knights fielded fine baseball teams and both the girls’ and boys’ track and field teams did well.
In the spring of 1980, HL-O’s 800-meter (4x200) relay team sprinted to a second-place finish in the Class A girls’ state track meet.
Two of those sprinters — Cathy Baumgard and Pat Burns — were juniors on HL-O’s basketball team the following winter.
Burns was an incredible athlete, who qualified for the state track meet in the 400-meter dash as a freshman and later placed in the state meet as a senior in the shot put, while also excelling in the discus.
The 10th of 13 children born to Ray and Marilyn (Kuehl) Burns, Pat played summer baseball with the boys, became a powerful hitter in volleyball and scored 1,510 points in a five-year varsity basketball career.
I grew up around Heron Lake and I knew how athletic the whole Burns family was, but when — as a sixth-grader — Pat scored two goals on the same play in an elementary physical education game called “capture the football,” I realized just how amazing this girl was.
Over the next several years, Pat Burns became the premier girls’ athlete in southwestern Minnesota, leading the Scarlet Knights to an 82-8 record and a trio of district basketball championships in her four seasons as a varsity starter.
“Pat was incredible,” recalled Rients. “She was such a tremendous passer and a terrific team player. But, she was just one of us. Pat never ever thought she was any better. She just always played hard and made all of us better with her hustle and her ability to make plays.”
Lynette is certainly right on with that.
As good as Burns was, there was not a bit of “prima donna” in her. She simply worked hard, blended in with the rest of her teammates and then was able to utilize her exceptional athleticism to thrill Scarlet Knight fans.
Pat’s older sisters Colette (Class of ’76) and Betty (Class of ’77) had led Heron Lake to the Region 2 championship game in 1976 where the undefeated Falcons were nipped by Southwest Christian (45-44) in an overtime thriller at Pipestone.
The following year, Betty earned all-state honors and set a state tournament assist record as HLHS went 22-1 and the “thumbodies” brought the third-place trophy from the state tournament.
That same year, Okabena won its first-ever District 7 boys’ basketball championship, defeated Luverne in the regional semifinals and came within one point of a state tournament trip, being edged by Wellcome Memorial (Garden City/Vernon Center) in the Region 2 championship game at Mankato State’s Highland Arena.
Basketball fans in the two communities had tasted the thrilling experience of winning tournament games — and advancing to the next contest — during March of 1977.
They would get more chances in the coming years.
Young Knights claim District 7 title in 1979
HL-O’s first team in ’78-79 won 13 of 16 regular-season games, while building its depth and creating a tradition of diversified defense and lots of “free-lance” offense.
By season’s end, three sophomores — Amy Christians, Chris Ferguson and Lori Sontag — were receiving significant playing time, frequently joining freshman Pat Burns on the court.
Seniors Deb Christians, Roxann Collin, Deb Garoutte, Marilynn Hotzler and Judy Mathias contributed, as did juniors Barb Mathias, Lona Mittelstadt and Diane Volk.
HL-O defeated Round Lake (61-47) and Sioux Valley (45-38), setting up a rubber match with Lakefield — which the Knights had split with during the season — for the district championship.
Playing a fabulous all-around game, HL-O claimed the title with a 44-36 victory over the defending champion Panthers at Mountain Lake, creating lots of “tournament fever” on the west side of Jackson County.
But, Minnesota Lake defeated the Knights by two points, 45-43, in the regional semifinal at Worthington, ending HL-O’s season at 16-4.
With lots of experience returning, the Knights had a great season in ’79-80, repeating as Southern Star champions, winning all of its home games and compiling a 16-2 regular-season record.
Tournament wins over Mountain Lake (62-28) and Sioux Valley (47-34) set the stage for a rematch with Lakefield for the district title.
But this time, a senior-dominated Panther squad played a brilliant game and earned a 45-43 victory over HL-O at Windom, ending the Knights’ season at 18-3.
Lakefield went on to claim a regional semifinal victory over an undefeated Pipestone squad before being defeated in a close game by East Chain in the finals.
Determination, goals, hard work keys in ’81
After two seasons of coming close in basketball and a trio of district runner-up finishes (each time to Windom) in volleyball, the seniors had one last campaign to make it to the state tournament.
As eighth-graders in ’77, Ferguson, Sontag, Janeen Rasche, Ruth Henkels and Jane Wolff had vowed “we’re going to the state in ’81.”
Fortunately, consolidation happened on July 1, 1978 and Christians and Cindy Seydel joined the Class of ’81 and Rients and Baumgard bolstered the Class of ’82.
The togetherness of this group of seven seniors and seven juniors was remarkable.
Reporting for the first day of practice, the squad was greeted with no basketballs and a clock which read 12:00.
“Coach Knutson started the clock and we ran for 12 minutes straight,” recalled Rients. “I hated that, I kept cutting the corners on each lap, making the circles smaller. But that didn’t help, we all had to finish the whole 12 minutes.”
That’s how determined that team was, they ran a lot — long runs like that early in the season, lots and lots of sprints or “crushers,” and, of course, lots of running (with basketballs) in the drills.
This team also reported many mornings to practice — frequently practicing after school, too — as the dedication and determination was unmatched.
“I remember those early morning practices well,” remembers Rients. “But, we never missed. Sometimes at 6 a.m. or sometimes at 6:30, we were always all there.”
Without question, this team was “hungry” — they wanted to succeed and understood that in order for a dream to become a goal, sacrifice was necessary.
Personally, I will never forget the comment made by Ferguson — the team’s “defensive stopper” at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream place in Bloomington on the day of the state semifinals.
It was about 4:30 in the afternoon on Friday, March 20, 1981. We were going to be playing undefeated Austin Pacelli later that night.
The Shamrocks had defeated defending state champion Albany the night before — and they were good, exceptionally balanced and very athletic.
Chris must have thought that I was looking nervous.
“Relax coach,” she said to me, pointing at the clock. “Tomorrow at this time, we will be taking our goal home with us.”
Now that’s confidence and determination.
Two big home games in middle of season
With Ferguson and Christains usually starting at the forwards, Sontag playing center and Burns and Seydel teaming as a pair of defensive-quick guards, the Knight rolled to five impressive victories to start the season.
An 88-23 victory at Welcome on Dec. 8, 1980 (the night John Lennon was shot) displayed HL-O’s offensive capability, while a 44-12 win over Brewster there three nights later showed the Knights’ defensive ability.
Then came the night of December 18 and a capacity crowd filled the HL-O gymnasium in Okabena to see the Knights tangle with perennial power Southwest Christian.
In a closely-contested game, HL-O pulled away for a 58-45 victory and entered the holiday break with a 6-0 record.
The first game after Christmas was a home contest against District 7 rival Windom, which had a very good squad that season.
The Knights opened 1981 (on Jan. 6) with a hard-fought, 53-45, victory over the Eagles, improving to 7-0.
An impressive 68-27 triumph over previously undefeated Sioux Valley came next and the Knights continued to roll and were 15-0 before traveling to Worthington for a clash with the Trojans.
Unranked all season, HL-O had moved into 10th in the ratings just prior to the Worthington game.
Despite earning a 57-38 win over the Class AA Trojans, the Knights mysteriously dropped out of the Class A rankings.
Victories over Fulda (64-31) and Lakefield (58-40) capped an 18-0 regular season for HL-O.
District 7 wins over Westbrook (46-13), Sioux Valley (57-44) and Windom (39-36) sent the Knights to the regional tournament.
The Windom game was extremely close all the way.
Key late-game baskets by Seydel and Sontag helped the Knights claim the victory and end the Eagles’ fine season at 17-4.
HL-O fans get to St. James early for East Chain game
East Chain was the defending Region 2 champion and the tall and talented Chainers were undefeated in ’80-81.
East Chain’s closest margin of victory, in fact, was a 26-point win over a very good Bricelyn squad.
The Chainers were ranked No. 3 in Class A (two-class system) and the District 5 champions were the favorites for the Monday, March 9, 1981 regional semifinal clash at St. James.
But HL-O fans were ready.
The team bus arrived at the St. James school at about 3:30 that afternoon and Scarlet Knight fans were waiting — probably 100 feet deep — outside the doors.
We went in a side door, went to a room for a meeting and later walked through the gym to go to the locker room.
By that time, they had let the fans in.
What an experience — walking through that gym to a standing ovation — before the team even dressed.
When the Knights — led by Henkels — came on to the floor, the place was as loud as it gets. That was tournament basketball.
With Burns hitting some incredible shots, HL-O took an early lead and held a 28-21 advantage at intermission.
East Chain, however, came back and claimed a 38-34 lead late in the third quarter.
The Knights rallied back and took a 42-41 edge on a rebound basket by Rasche.
HL-O hung on for a thrilling 52-50 victory, giving East Chain its first defeat.
Ferguson scored the game’s first nine points as the Knights vaulted to a 35-14 lead on Mapleton in the Region 2 finals and posted a 60-39 victory, sending HL-O to the state tournament with a 23-0 record.
“Eye in the Sky” report helps in Game 1
The Knights drew Bagley in the state tournament quarterfinals.
Coach Rasche, along with HL-O faculty members Wayne Heisinger and Keith Place, flew to Crookston with pilot Ralph Peterson to scout Bagley in the Region 8 championship game.
Rasche’s scouting report on the Flyers — and Burns’ 26 points — helped HL-O claim a 55-28 victory as all 14 players saw action on the Met Sports Center court.
That set up the previously-mentioned semifinal clash with Pacelli.
Both squads were undefeated and both teams were good.
In an epic battle, the Knights had slim leads at the end of each quarter.
I vividly remember wondering at the beginning of the fourth quarter if we could beat Mankato Loyola in the third-place game the next day — if the Shamrocks beat us in this one.
Luckily, none of the Scarlet Knights had those same thoughts.
With determined team defense and a remarkable all-around fourth quarter by Burns — on both ends of the floor — HL-O pulled away with a well-played 52-42 victory and a trip to the state title game.
Burns finished with 23 points and drew lots of attention from the Twin Cities media “as the tournament darling.”
Playing Moose Lake — which had won the state volleyball championship in November and would claim the state softball title in June — the Knights had their work cut out for them.
But after Rients sank a pair of free throws early in the second quarter, HL-O launched its vaunted 1-2-1-1 “diamond” full-court zone press — and it worked.
On one possession, Burns drove around Laker star Anne Adamzcak (Nebraska volleyball recruit) “like she was standing still,” according to KDOM radio announcer Dave Cory.
Ferguson guarded Adamzcak, keeping her in check like she had done with so many opposing leading scorers throughout the year.
Sontag did the same inside against Diane Berg and the Knights stretched a 22-17 halftime lead into a 41-28 advantage as Christians, Ferguson, Rients and Burns were all rifling in perimeter shots.
By game’s end, HL-O cleared its bench and celebrated a 62-46 state championship victory, as Christians (20), Ferguson (15), Burns (11) and Rients (10) all scored in double figures, indicating the Knights’ capability of having a balanced scoring attack.
Ferguson was right — the Knights had achieved their goal.
While Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” was being aired through the end of that amazingly mild winter — almost no snow and unusually warm temperatures — HL-O basketball fans, which had been steadily increasing in numbers, were able to “celebrate” a state championship.
“The ride home and the welcome back celebration was something, too,” concluded Rients. “I think the signs started around Mankato and it only got better from there — and it was 73 degrees outside.”
Could it have already been 30 years and 11 days ago?