It’s been nearly four weeks since I rode along with son Chad on a long road trip -- 186 miles from Heron Lake to Parkers Prairie -- to watch a premier high school boys basketball game between the defending Class A state champion Henning Hornets and the much taller Panthers of Parkers Prairie High.
It was a sunny, but somewhat cool day on Feb. 28 when we ventured north on the back roads traveling through small towns like Storden, Lamberton, Wabasso, Delhi, Renville, Raymond, Sunburg, Terrace and Glenwood before reaching Alexandria, Carlos and then Parkers Prairie. The high school was easy to find, but at 5:20 p.m. the doors were already locked. The game was sold out.
With a press pass, we were able to get in and even found seats -- although not together (until the second half of the varsity game).
The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Luverne vs. Windom rematch in late February of 1973. In mid-January of that year, the Cardinals, paced by all-around performer Mark Hendricks, had edged the Eagles (52-51) in Luverne. I came down to that game from Madison, S.D., and brought along a couple of my Dakota State College buddies to watch the top-ranked Class A team in Minnesota (Windom) lose its first game of the season.
That was a disappointing night and I took my share of guff about Minnesota basketball not being “up to par” with South Dakota teams.
Five weeks later, Luverne traveled to Windom and the doors were locked up by 5:45 -- 45 minutes before the start of the B-game, which in those days started at 6:30 p.m.
The Eagles -- with the memorable top six of Lew Olson, Doug Miller, Bruce Earlewine, Mike Anderson, Dan Fossing and Kirk Odden (all seniors) -- prevailed 73-59 and claimed the Southwest Conference title. Windom later earned District 7 and Region 2 championships and won a consolation-round game at the state tournament, finishing a great season with a 25-3 record.
Back to Parkers Prairie and 2020. In a competitive B-squad game. The visiting Hornets won by about a dozen points and the stage was set for the varsity showdown.
The previous year (at Henning on Feb. 26, 2019), the Panthers had given the Hornets their only loss of the entire campaign. Parkers Prairie won that night, 77-74, in an overtime thriller, snapping Henning’s impressive 24-game winning streak.
Seventeen nights later (March 15) at the University of Minnesota-Morris, the Hornets avenged that loss with a 60-58 victory in the Section 6A championship game, ending Parkers Prairie’s season (24-5) and advancing Henning to the state tournament for the first time since its glory days of 1964-65 and ’65-66 when the Peterson twins -- Dick and Bob -- starred for the Hornets.
Those ’66 Hornets battled the mighty Edina Hornets in a dramatic triple-overtime loss in the state semifinals. Edina had edged Windom (60-59) in the quarterfinals and nipped Duluth East (82-75 in a single overtime) in the championship game. Edina certainly did not win its state title in 1966 easily, but the Minneapolis southwestern suburb repeated in both ’67 and ’68 more convincingly.
I don’t remember the score of the Henning vs. Edina classic, but I do remember how good those versatile six-foot-five Peterson twins were. (A phone call to older brother Dane and a bit of research by him revealed the score to have been 62-55 -- in three overtimes!)
Once again, back to this year’s game at Parkers Prairie. Watching the pre-game warm-up, I thought there was no way that Henning (24-1) had a chance against the Panthers (20-5), who were much bigger -- taller and stronger looking.
But, wow -- could those Hornets move, and move the ball. They zipped the basketball around, ran the floor and played exceptional team defense. They were fun to watch. Henning worked to a big early lead, held off a couple of nice surges by Parker Prairie and finally notched a season-ending 65-51 victory.
There was no rematch this year. Parkers Prairie lost to Hancock (60-58 in overtime) in the Section 6A South semifinals. Henning cruised through the 6A North Sub-Section with wins by scores of 82-32, 85-48 and 78-35 before repeating as section champions with a 57-45 victory over West Central Area at Concordia College in Moorhead.
But, Henning -- like undefeated Southwest Minnesota Christian -- did not get a chance to show its speed, athleticism, basketball skills and exceptional teamwork at the state tournament. That’s too bad. A Henning vs. Southwest Christian championship game could have been something to watch.
Section 2A had four of the state’s best
While the Section 2A championship game between Tomahawk Conference rivals New Ulm Cathedral and Springfield was not allowed to be played due to the stoppage of all high school activities due to COVID-19 concerns, the two sub-section title clashes were certainly most entertaining and exciting.
Getting a front row seat in the big gym at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter on March 9, the three of us (sons Chad, Lucas and I) watched Cathedral surge late and defeat BOLD, Class A’s top-ranked team by a final score of 82-68. BOLD, which like Henning lacks height, was impressive early, but eventually the much taller Greyhounds prevailed to claim the North sub-section championship.
In the second game, Springfield and Waterville-Elysian-Morristown battled tooth-and-nail throughout a real thriller, before the Tigers won another 2A South Section crown with a 70-66 victory.
Both the Tigers and the Greyhounds were seeded second. BOLD finished a stellar campaign with a 27-2 record, giving Henning its only loss -- 77-70 at the Granite City Classic at St. John’s University in Collegeville on Dec. 28. The Warriors’ only loss had been to Class AA Minnewaska Area (77-66) at Bird Island in early February.
Minnesota Basketball News, which ranks teams throughout the season, had all four teams among its top seven. BOLD (25-1 during the regular season) was at the top of the list, while W-E-M (24-2), Cathedral (23-3) and Springfield (23-3) were ranked fifth, sixth and seventh. Between the Warriors and the Buccaneers were Henning (24-1), Ada-Borup (23-1) and Southwest Minnesota Christian (25-0) at 2-3-4.
In the past month, I saw six of the seven top-ranked Class A teams in action. Chad, who is a true high school basketball follower, saw nine of the top 12.
During the season, he watched ninth-ranked Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey (22-4). Then on March 12, he and his younger brother Logan traveled to the Rochester Civic Center to watch the Section 1A championship game between 10th-ranked Blooming Prairie (21-3) and 12th-ranked Hayfield (21-5).
Playing for Hayfield, which came out on the short end of a 59-51 final and finished 24-6 overall, was former Fulda athlete Ethan Slaathaug. A junior, Ethan averaged 22.9 points per game this season and was named the Section 1A Player of the Year.
While we wished there could have been more high-quality competition among these exceptional teams last week at Williams Arena and Target Center, we know how lucky we were to have seen as many great games as we did.