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Les Knutson: A last hurrah at the 'Taj Mahal'

Les Knutson

Daily Globe sports columnist 

Built six decades ago and first utilized in the 1953-54 season, the “old” gymnasium has seen its share of exciting high school basketball games.

Legendary coach Lloyd Stussy guided the Wells Wildcats through the first 20 campaigns on the “new” court, including state tournament-bound squads in 1962, 1963 and 1969.

That ‘62 team placed third in the eight-team classic at Williams Arena with future NFL quarterback Ron Meyer as its premier player. Meyer, who starred in football at South Dakota State (Brookings, S.D) in the mid-60s, was unquestionably one of the best all-around athletes to ever surface in southern Minnesota. He has been featured in a pair of “Blast-From-the-Pasts,” once in August of 2009 (about his one-game start with the Pittsburgh Steelers in November of 1966) and again in March of 2012 (about his SDSU passing records to good friend Ed Maras from Windom).

Maras was a top-notch wide receiver for the Jackrabbits, but was more known at SDSU for his pitching exploits and later played several seasons in the minor leagues hoping to land a starting rotation with the Baltimore Orioles’ loaded pitching staff.

In late March of 1962, Maras and Meyer played against each other in the Region 2 basketball championship game at the Myrum Field House on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Meyer scored 26 points and the Wildcats won a close battle, 54-48, advancing to the ever-popular one-class state tournament.

Ironically, Meyer became Windom’s head high school football coach in the fall of 1968 and guided the Eagles to Southwest Conference titles in 1971 and 1975.

Stussy, who coached basketball at Wells from 1942-1973 and was the school’s athletic director for another 15 years, was inducted as an original member of the Minnesota High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1984 and the community honored his many years of loyal service by naming the Gym in his honor.

“Welcome to the Lloyd Stussy Gymnasium, the “Taj Mahal” of USC basketball,” proclaimed the PA announcer at Tuesday’s (Feb. 18) game between the United South Central Rebels and the visiting Mankato Loyola Crusaders. “Tonight’s game will be the final regular-season contest ever played in this gym.”

United South Central, founded in 1991, serves the communities of Wells, Easton, Freeborn, Bricelyn, Kiester and Walters. A good-sized school district, USC has been a AA school in basketball for most of its existence, but the Rebels dropped down to Class A this year and the boys (20-4) are seeded second in Section 2, behind two-time defending champion Mountain Lake Area.

USC plays in the eight-member Gopher Conference and the Rebels tied for first with New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, both 11-3, in the boys’ title chase, while the girls (9-5) are currently in fourth place.

The school district is constructing a new high school, which will have a big modern gym replace the legendary 61-year-old “pavilion” next winter.

Stussy’s gymnasium has cozy basketball atmosphere

I had heard many things about the “Taj Mahal,” but had never seen a game there.

This was my last chance.

Passing up on several closer game opportunities, I rode along with sons Chad (he did the driving) and Logan to Wells where we met up with son Lucas (who teaches physical education and is the assistant girls’ basketball coach at Glenville-Emmons, near Albert Lea). It was a closer trip for Lucas.

The four of us had good seats — front row on the far end (from the entrance) near the Loyola bench —and we enjoyed the “cozy confines” of the little old gym with its nine rows of wood bleachers tucked under the overhanging ceilings with its closed-over windows.

The place is indeed unique — tight, with two sets of pillars on each side obstructing some of the view — more like the Brewster gym (but with a bigger floor and bleachers on both sides). It’s a definite contrast to the huge spaciousness of the big gym at Dawson, which has so much space between the bleachers and the floor. It’s much tighter than the newer big gyms at Luverne or Windom.

I am not sure how the place got its “Taj Mahal” (in reference to India’s most elaborate building) dubbing, because it’s small, tightly-packed and has obstructed seating.

But it has atmosphere — lots of it.

It also has history — lots of it. I was intrigued, to say the least, to sit and watch a pair of high school games in the same gym where Ron Meyer played 52 years ago. It was a night I won’t forget.

For the record, a fundamentally-skilled, pressing Mankato Loyola girls’ squad improved to 22-2 with an impressive 68-45 victory over a very tall and talented USC team, which is 17-7 overall and is seeded second in Section 2A behind the Crusaders.

The boys’ game was closer — much closer. The lead changed hands frequently through the first half, with USC holding a one-point edge (35-34) at intermission. Then, the Crusaders got hot and opened up a nine-point lead (46-37) early in the second half. But, the home-town Rebels came back and finished with a flurry of late-game points by 6-2 junior guard Nate Pederson and earned a thrilling 71-68 victory.

It don’t get much better than that — a pair of well-played high school basketball games in a historic, jam-packed old gymnasium. That’s living!

Super Saturday

Speaking of high school basketball, tomorrow is the first of two big days at the storied Worthington High School gymnasium — which has been the scene of so many tournament classics since its completion in 1958.

In reverse order this year, the Section 3A boys’ quarterfinals — all four games — will be played at WHS tomorrow. Next Saturday, March 1, the same format will take place for the Section 3A girls. The two events are dubbed as “Super Saturday” and have been popular for at least the past two decades.

Actually, District 8 boys’ teams did this several times back in the 1960s. It’s a great way to get all the games in at one place with no team having a home court advantage. True basketball fans can see eight teams play within a span of less than seven hours — what a way to spend a day!

Tomorrow, defending Class A state champion and top-seeded Southwest Christian (22-2) tangles with either Red Rock Central (1-22) or Edgerton (1-21) at 11 a.m. Murray County Central (9-16) and Westbrook-Walnut Grove (9-14) play at 12:30 p.m.

The third game (2:30) features second-seeded Ellsworth (19-6) vs. Fulda (3-22), while the battle between third-seeded Hills-Beaver Creek (9-11) and Adrian (7-16) wraps up the day at 4 p.m.

The four winners will square off in the tournament semifinals Tuesday evening in Worthington — where tournament history lives on.

Rossow, Armstrong, Hinkeldey chosen to referee at state

According to Cottonwood County Citizen sports editor Joel Alvstad, at least three area referees — Greg Rossow, Todd Armstrong and Tim Hinkeldey — have each been selected to officiate games at this year’s girls’ state tournament, which is quite an honor.

Rossow and Armstrong, both of Windom, are veteran officials and have worked state tournament games in the past. Hinkeldey, a Lakefield area dairy farmer and a premier slow-pitch softball pitching ace, has only been a high school basketball referee for the past eight years. He has moved up the ranks quickly.

There are likely other area officials who will be working this year’s state tournament, too. Just let us know — and we can give you some “ink,” too.

Fulda girls nearly set state record for three’s

After going through several recent games with very low shooting percentages, the “green-light” oriented Fulda Raiders’ girls hit on all cylinders from long range Tuesday night at Ellsworth.

The Raiders netted 17 three-pointers in the game (in 31 attempts, for 54.8 percent), coming within one of the all-time Minnesota girls’ state record — which is shared by four teams (Parkers Prairie, January, 2008; Parkers Prairie, February, 2010; New London-Spicer, January, 2011 and Waconia, which made 18 just recently on Feb. 15).

Fulda’s 17 treys ties the Raiders for fifth all-time with Menahga, which made 17 shots from behind the arc in a game in December of 2005.

Several teams have made 16 three-pointers in a game.

Fulda has a tradition of remarkable three-point shooting, as the Raiders are listed third in the all-time three-point shooting percentage for a single game, making nine-of-11 shots (81.8 percent) from behind the arc in a game back on Feb. 18, 2002.

Seven girls shared in Fulda’s explosive performance (an 89-50 victory) Tuesday, paced by five treys from senior guard Dani Hermeling. Melissa Gehl (four), Sariah Cheadle (three) and Courtney Tiesler (two) combined for nine more three-pointers, while Ruth Cheadle, Myah Holinka and Randi Tiesler each connected once for the Raiders from long range.

Congratulations Raiders — keep shooting those three-pointers, who have earned the “green light.”