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Basketball still part of Denny Turner's life

The 1981-1982 Storden-Jeffers basketball team coached by Denny Turner (back, far left) was one of many successful squads Turner mentored during his 22 seasons of coaching. Front row (from left): Dominic Turner, Jason Turner, Kelly Grams, Robert Weber, Dean Johnson, Jim Meyer, Curt Erickson, Troy Sorensen, Charles Berger. Back: Coach Turner, Randy Witt, Shawn Hedman, Brad Witt, Mark Iverson, Jay Eichner, Jim Polk, Assistant Coach Gary Gillis. (Submitted photo)

WORTHINGTON — In May of 1961, when he was completing his freshman year at what then was known as Mankato State College, the song “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson was at the top of the Billboard charts.

Now, 53 years later, Worthington’s Denny Turner — often with wife Mary — is still traveling frequently to basketball games as his passion for the sport he coached for 22 seasons is still vibrant.

“Last week, I saw 11 games,” Denny said one night in early March at his house along South Shore Drive. “That was between high school games, college games and — of course — elementary games, watching the grandkids play.”

After finishing college at MSC in 1964 with a major in biology and minors in mathematics and physical education, Denny and Mary settled down in Storden, where Denny had done his practice teaching under future Jackson teacher and coach Dave Norman.

“We thought we would be there three months,” quipped Mary, a 1959 graduate of Okabena High School. “It ended up being more than 45 years.”

After high school, Mary (Dahlin) went to beauty school in Fairmont, worked for a while as a hairdresser in Worthington before she married Denny (October 1961) and continued to style hair in Mankato. Denny, meanwhile, worked part-time at a clothing store and continued pursuing his college degree.

A 1960 graduate of Round Lake High School and 16-time varsity letter winner (four each in football, basketball, baseball and track) for the Wildcats, Turner enjoyed math in high school and originally thought about engineering. But his passion for sports was great, so becoming a math teacher and coach was what he decided.

“But in college, I was getting better grades in science classes than I was in math, so I changed my major to biology and became a science teacher,” he said. “In the spring of 1964, we moved to Storden, where I did my practice teaching and got the chance to coach track and field right away.”

A sprinter, high jumper and long jumper at Round Lake, Turner — who averaged 21.2 points per game during his senior season of basketball (second in scoring in the 10-team Southern Star Conference) at RLHS — soon became attached to coaching track.

“Track and field is a great sport,” he says. “It makes you a better athlete, which helps you become better at other sports. With all the different events, there is something for everyone. I enjoyed building up the track program at Storden and Storden-Jeffers.”

Turner coached track at those central Cottonwood County communities for 18 seasons, winning numerous Red Rock Conference championships and being a perennial contender in District 7, always fielding good relay teams.

“We had a lot of great athletes over the years,” he remembered. “We usually had good sprinters, scored in the hurdles, had some good pole vaulters and were blessed with several good distance-running families. So, we could put a good team together and compete well in meets.”

The Storden Tigers became somewhat of a surprise team at many big track meets in the mid- and late 1960s, highlighted by a very fast 880-yard relay team in 1968 that was a frequent first-place finisher.

12 conference championships in 22 seasons of basketball

While Turner loved coaching track and field, he is likely remembered more for his highly successful basketball career, which spanned 22 seasons — beginning with his first year as a full-time science teacher at Storden High School in ’64-’65.

After going about .500 that first season, the Tigers won the Red Rock Conference championship in 1966 and challenged a dominating Windom team (which ended up as consolation champions at the state tournament with an overall record of 22-4) in the semifinals of the District 7 tournament at Worthington.

“We utilized several trick defenses and came up with quite a few steals,” Turner remembered about that game. “Windom had great guards, but our tactics worked pretty well and our kids kept that game close.”

The Eagles prevailed late with a 59-52 win and went on to win both District 7 and Region 2 titles.

Turner and the Tigers continued to have good teams and fine seasons through the remaining five years of SHS, winning conference championships each campaign.

Storden’s 1968 squad was one of his best and included quick-leaping Dave Berntson, who later helped Worthington State Junior College post a sparkling 23-2 record in ’69-’70.

Storden and Jeffers consolidated in 1971, and Turner became the coach of the Storden-Jeffers Chiefs for the next 15 seasons.

Six more Red Rock Conference titles were claimed, along with a pair of runner-up finishes, as Turner’s teams finished first or second in the league 14 times in his 22 years.

Steve LeBoutillier, who later coached the Chiefs (1987-1993) and has been an area referee for the past two decades, was a key player on S-J’s title teams in ’73 and ’74.

Four consecutive conference crowns were earned by the Chiefs in the early 1980s, as S-J basketball was thriving.

With seniors Corey Miller and Terry Knoll, joined by juniors Brad Witt, Mark Iverson and Curt Erickson in the S-J starting lineup, the Chiefs advanced to the 1980 District 7 finals and held a 14-point lead on perennial power Windom late in the third quarter. The Eagles, coached by Jack Kelly, rallied to win and later advanced to the state tournament for the third time in eight seasons.

But with three talented starters returning and the emergence of junior Randy Witt and sophomore point guard Robert Weber, the Chiefs — after a season-opening 50-46 loss to an athletic Heron Lake-Okabena squad, coached by Loren Marschel — rattled off 17 straight victories and claimed an undefeated conference championship (HL-O was still in the Southern Star).

The best was yet to come.

Earning their way to the District 7 finals, the Chiefs defeated Mountain Lake, 80-72, for the first district basketball title for either community.

“That was really special,” remembers Erickson, who was an outstanding all-around player. “Winning the district for the first time and getting to play in the regional at Highland Arena (Mankato State) was so neat.”

The Chiefs did well at Mankato, defeating District 5 champion Trimont (68-62) and District 8 kingpin Luverne (58-55) to qualify for the 1981 state tournament and a trip to the Twin Cities.

“They had buildings up there way taller than our highest silos,” recalled Dean Johnson, who operates a dairy farm south of Storden and was a senior reserve on that ’81 squad. “Coach Turner was so well respected as a teacher and through his coaching did a lot to bring our two towns together as one community.”

Erickson agreed with that, recalling how much Turner cared about the players and his instilling in them the dream of playing in a state tournament.

“Coach was always like a father-figure to us, taking us to scrimmages or somewhere to watch games on Saturdays,” Erickson remembered. “He brought us to watch the (state) tournament when we were freshmen. We knew we wanted to play there. We had such a good team when I was a junior and came close, so making it the next year really was living the dream for all of us.”

Paired up against traditionally strong Chisholm, coached by Bob McDonald — who just retired at the end of this season at age 80 with 1,012 wins (428 losses) in 59 seasons — the Chiefs came up on the short end of a 73-62 score in the state quarterfinals at Williams Arena.

“The game was closer than that final score,” recalled Turner. “The atmosphere of playing at Williams Arena, where I saw so many state tournament games in the past, was an experience to appreciate.”

The Chiefs bounced back for a morning consolation game at the St. Paul Civic Center and battled Region 8 champion Warren to a 51-49 overtime loss, completing their memorable season with a 22-3 overall record.

“We lost our first game and the last two, which were both against regional champions,” summed up Turner. “But in between, we won 22 straight games and created lots of excitement for Storden and Jeffers.”

Biology teacher becomes feed salesman before owning two businesses

Turner took a leave of absence from teaching following that 1981 school year and became a feed salesman for Bob Grams at the Storden Farm Center, calling on area farmers. He continued coaching basketball for five more seasons and was honored at a special ceremony on Feb. 24, 1984, during the last home game of the completion of his 20th season.

“There were many great players on our teams over all those years,” declared Turner. “The good memories far outweigh any of the negative experiences.”

Success as a salesman turned Turner’s career in a new direction. Rather than returning to teaching and continuing to coach, Denny bought into the Lincoln County Seed and Feed Service in Ivanhoe with partner Neil Swenson. He later purchased the Miloma Elevator and created Miloma AgriService, which he operated for more than a decade.

Soon after selling the businesses, Denny and Mary moved to Worthington in October 2009. He drove new cars for several dealerships for a couple of years, while Mary commuted back to Storden and styled hair from her shop in their home in Storden.

But after 52 years as a hair stylist, Mary has hung up her scissors and now has more time to travel and go to games, which she also loves to do.

Denny works a couple days a week, delivering medicines for his son Jason, who owns and operates GuidePoint Pharmacy. He also works out at the YMCA on his off-work days.

Trips to Olympics, Final Fours were big

As mentioned at the beginning of the story and reinforced in the last few paragraphs, Denny Turner has done lots of traveling in his lifetime. Among those travels have been several memorable family trips to big-time athletic events, such as a couple of NCAA Final Fours, the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

Throw in a few trips to the Big Ten Tournament (either Chicago or Indianapolis), along with frequent ventures to the Twin Cities for state basketball tournaments, including last week’s high school boys’ action and you can certainly see that Turner has, indeed, been — and still is — a “travelin’ man.”

“Those were cool experiences,” summed up Jason, the current board chairman for the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. (WREDC) and a past member of the District 518 Board of Education. “Our whole family was interested in sports, so it was something that everybody liked doing. For me, as an eighth-grader, going to the Olympics in LA was really exciting with all the hype and everything.”

The Turners, typically, took in quite a bit of track and field action, along with going to several basketball games at the Olympics.

Final Four basketball trips south to Dallas in 1986 and to the New Orleans Superdome in 1987 were highlights, too, as was a closer 1992 Final Four at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

“Being part of that whole atmosphere and getting some of the players autographs was a cool thing,” Jason remembered. “Dad took us to a lot of big-time events, that’s for sure.”

Jason, a 1988 graduate of S-J, is the third of Denny and Mary’s four children, which include older sisters Kim and Shelli, along with younger brother Dominic (S-J, 1990). Both Jason and Dominic played basketball for Minnesota West, giving Dennis and Mary reasons to drive from Storden to Worthington many times during those four years.

Now, it’s a much shorter drive to see games in Worthington, but for a sports-minded couple who have done their share of traveling, the Turners are likely to continue enjoying their well-earned retirement years by hopping in the car and venturing to a ball game or track meet somewhere.