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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Fifty years ago, tall and talented Okabena Bluehawks finish 19-2

OKABENA -- During the second week of March 50 years ago, a tall and talented boys' basketball team, representing tiny Okabena High School, was capping a wonderful season with a pair of District 7 tournament games at the jam-packed Worthington Hig...

1960-61 Bluehawks team photo
Submitted Photo The 1961 Okabena Bluehawks boys' basketball team poses for a team photo. Pictured are (back row left to right): Mark Schmidt, Raymond Hussong, Byron Christoffer, Howard Sievert, Mike DeWall, Lynn Schmidt, Lyle Peters, Steve Rohwer, Arlo Baumgarn, Philip Folkers, David Johnson and Jerry Schroeder; (front row, left to right) Coach Darold Baumgard and manager Dennis Hartman.

OKABENA -- During the second week of March 50 years ago, a tall and talented boys' basketball team, representing tiny Okabena High School, was capping a wonderful season with a pair of District 7 tournament games at the jam-packed Worthington High School gymnasium.

"Tall Okabena Buries Mountain Lake Quint, 69-44" ran the banner headline in the Daily Globe sports page on Thursday, March 9, 1961.

"Bluehawks Meet Jackson In Finals" was the sub-head.

Yes, it was tournament time in southwest Minnesota -- which had become the state's "hotbed" of action after Edgerton's magical state championship run the previous March.

The defending state champs were again looking good in District 8, claiming tournament wins over Beaver Creek (80-49), Hills (71-58), Worthington (70-56) and Luverne (58-49).

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To the east, in District 7, defending champion and perennial tournament power Mountain Lake had advanced to the semifinals with an impressive 68-41 triumph over Westbrook (the '59 champs) as Charlie Dick (22), Pete Toews (15) and Jerry Enns (12) each tallied double figures for the Lakers.

Jackson advanced with a 60-52 win over a fine Jeffers squad, while Windom defeated Butterfield, setting up a semifinal matchup between the Bluejays and Eagles.

With Lyle Peters scoring 18 points and sharpshooting Phil Folkers (7-of-11 from the field) netting 16, Okabena rolled past Lakefield, 65-37, in the other quarterfinal, earning the right to tangle with Mountain Lake.

"Okabena had some pretty big boys and they could move and shoot, too," remembers Lakefield's Dean Frantsen, who scored a team-high 12 points for the Panthers that night as a junior forward for LHS. "The Bluehawks were good, no doubt about it."

Mountain Lake, which battled Edgerton to a six-point game in the 1960 Region 2 finals and had a remarkable tradition of tournament success (13 state tournament trips, including the 1939 state championship), found out just how good Okabena was on Wednesday evening, March 8, 1961.

Coached by Ewington Township farm boy Darold Baumgard, who graduated from Okabena High School in 1949, the '60-61 Bluehawks were a veteran team -- loaded with all-around size, skill, athleticism and basketball experience.

Baumgard, who was a standout three-sport athlete for OHS in the late '40s, began his teaching and coaching career at Okabena in the fall of 1957, after graduating from Mankato State in June. A three-year stint in the United States Coast Guard occurred between his junior college days at Worthington and his enrolling at Mankato for the winter quarter in January of 1955.

At WJC, the five-foot-seven Baumgard started two years as a defensive back on the football team and was on the field for about a third of the plays as a "Y" back in Coach Lem Herting's unique XYZ offensive system. He was also a contributing reserve on the Bluejays' basketball team.

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"Those were good days playing for the Bluejays," recalls Baumgard, who majored in physical education and health at Mankato. "I had a lot of fun playing sports in high school, too, especially six-man football -- which was really a wide-open game, requiring skills in the fundamentals."

During Baumgard's four years ('57-58 - '60-61) of teaching in Okabena, he was the head coach for 12 seasons -- four each in football, basketball and baseball.

"There wasn't much else to do in Okabena," he said. "I had some good coaching help from Augie Scheppman (former OHS athlete, Class of 1947), which was a plus."

Baumgard started the high school baseball program at Okabena in the spring of 1958 and had good success in all three sports, especially with his football and basketball teams during the '60-61 school year.

Paced by the hard-running of All-State halfback Steve Rohwer, the Bluehawks outscored nine football opponents by a combined 269-50 margin in the fall of 1960, while winning eight games -- five of them by shutout. A 13-6 loss to East Chain was the only OHS defeat.

"As a senior, Rohwer was 6-2 and 190," said Baumgard. "He was big, fast and clever. He had a heck of a spin move and was hard to bring down."

Although he never played college football, Rohwer was recruited by several schools, including Northwestern College at Orange City, Iowa.

Rohwer, Peters start in basketball as freshman, Schmidt starts in '58-59

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Baumgard's first basketball team finished with a 14-6 record in '57-58, as Rohwer and Lyle Peters -- a pair of freshmen -- joined seniors Ray Milbrath and Wes Kazemba, along with junior Dale Peters (Lyle's brother) in the usual starting line-up.

The following year, only Rohwer and Dale Peters returned as starters as Lyle Peters was injured in a car accident and missed the entire basketball season.

Seniors Dale Peters and Dale Aden teamed with junior Randy Rohwer (Steve's brother) and sophomores Steve Rohwer and Lynn Schmidt in the starting line-up for the Bluehawks in '58-59, finishing with a 13-7 record.

Then in the '59-60 campaign with Randy Rohwer as the only senior on the roster, a junior-dominated squad compiled a fine 14-4 regular season, won a sub-district title, a quarterfinal district game and advanced all the way to District 7 semifinals, ending 17-5 after being defeated by Mountain Lake in the District 7 semifinals.

"Mountain Lake beat us in 1960 because we couldn't handle its full-court diamond press," recalled Baumgard. "I went to several clinics before the next season to learn how to better attack that kind of a zone press, but then in '60-61 hardly anyone ever pressed us."

Johnson, Folkers, Hussong give Bluehawks solid guard corps in '60-61 campaign

With Lyle Peters (6-3), Steve Rohwer (6-2) and Lynn Schmidt (6-4) all returning as multiple-year starters, Baumgard had a tall, talented and experienced front line for the '60-61 campaign.

Rohwer was in his fourth year as a varsity starter and both Peters and Schmidt were back for a third year in the starting lineup.

The senior trio of Phil Folkers (6-1), Dave Johnson (5-10) and Ray Hussong (5-10) had all shared time as starters the previous season, giving the Bluehawks six experienced veterans as the 10-team Southern Star Conference began its second season of competition.

Junior Mike DeWall (6-4) gave OHS more size, as he effectively rotated in for the three big guys.

"We had a very good top seven, which gave us good depth and tremendous balance," recalls Baumgard. "We rotated three guys at the two guards, and had four tall guys, who were also well-built and could run the floor."

As expected, the Bluehawks started out well -- picking up from where they left off at the end of the football season.

In rolling to 11 straight victories, OHS outscored its opponents by a commanding 710-507 margin, averaging 64.5 points per game while allowing 46.1.

The only real close game had been a 46-40 victory over Huntley at Okabena just before Christmas.

"Huntley's 1-3-1 zone was giving us trouble," recalled Baumgard. "We switched our offensive scheme and Peters hit two in a row from the wing, lifting us in that one."

After a 59-50 loss at Ceylon, the Bluehawks finished the season with six straight wins, including a 68-55 non-conference win at Lamberton.

"I remember that game," recalls Hussong. "I broke loose for a fastbreak and got tangled up with Bob Gebhard (future Minnesota Twins pitcher and baseball executive with the Twins, Rockies and Diamondbacks) and fell to the floor, needing stitches to my chin later. That was quite an experience and I sure didn't know that I was playing against a guy who would become famous."

Five players notch double figures in win over Mountain Lake

Following Okabena's quarterfinal victory against Lakefield, the team was pitted against Mountain Lake -- again -- in the semifinals.

"We wanted that game," Hussong said. "There was a revenge factor because we thought we should have or could have beat them the year before."

Playing in front of a large crowd at the three-year old WHS gym, the Bluehawks displayed exceptional balance and effectively utilized a 2-1-2 zone defense to outplay the vaunted Lakers.

"I remember I had anxiety before that game," recalled Johnson, who was an all-conference end in football the previous fall. "But once the game got going, I knew we could win."

Breaking from an 11-10 first quarter lead, Okabena claimed a 26-18 halftime advantage and then broke the contest open with several fast-break baskets in the third quarter.

"We had a very effective three-lane fastbreak," explained Baumgard. "But at halftime of the Mountain Lake game we made an adjustment and went over the top after receiving the outlet pass and Folkers scored five layups in the third quarter."

Folker's 10 third-quarter points were part of an 18-8 run for the Bluehawks and with eight minutes to play, Okabena was leading 44-26.

The entire roster saw action in the fourth quarter, as OHS cruised to a decisive 25-point win and the school's first trip to the District 7 championship game since 1941 when Warren "Lefty" Gentry was the Bluehawks' ace.

Peters and Folkers each finished with 15 points in the victory, while Rohwer (14), Johnson (11) and DeWall (10) also notched double figures.

Schmidt scored just four points, but put on a remarkable rebounding performance according to the game write-up in the Globe.

"Lynn was a tremendous rebounder," praised Baumgard about his rugged center, who was an all-conference tackle in football in 1960.

"Lynn, Lyle, Steve or Phil, any one of those guys could score 20 points on a given night," recalls Johnson, who was the team's point guard. "I could score some, but not like those guys. I maybe averaged eight or nine points a game and I never thought too much about winning or losing, I just liked playing basketball."

Baumgard credits his team with doing a tremendous job playing zone defense in the Mountain Lake victory.

"All year long, we played almost entirely man-to-man defense," Baumgard remembered. "But I didn't think that we matched up with Mountain Lake's quickness that well, so we went with the zone and our guards hustled on top, while our tall guys all worked hard and rebounded so well."

The Bluehawks held Dick, the Lakers' leading scorer, to just eight points with the zone defense.

A line from the Daily Globe's story on the game ran as follows:

"Okabena's Bluehawks soared high over Mountain Lake Wednesday night and bombed the Lakers out of the District 7 high school basketball tournament with a 69-44 shelling."

The article also referred to Okabena as one of the tallest teams in the state.

Jackson takes early lead, ends OHS dream, 55-50

After watching Edgerton win the state title in 1960, the Okabena boys had dreams of doing the same in 1961.

"We had such high aspirations," said Schmidt, who played freshman basketball at Mankato State with Dick and Toews the following year. "Beating Mountain Lake was something we really wanted. But, we expected to go farther."

Jackson entered the championship game (Friday, March 10, at Worthington) with a 15-5 record, but two of its losses were to Mountain Lake.

After its "upset" of the Lakers, many neutral basketball fans were predicting an Okabena victory.

But, the well-balanced Bluejays -- with four senior starters (Mark Wilhelm, Dick Hanson, Leonard Rowe, Bob Tusa), along with outstanding sophomore all-around athlete Kent Borchardt -- worked to an early lead and held off a late Bluehawk rally, earning the championship with a 55-50 victory.

"That was disappointing," said Rohwer. "We had such a good season, but that was a tough loss."

Playing with a hairline ankle fracture through the first half, the strong-rebounding Rohwer did not play in the second half.

Hussong, too, was hampered by a sprained ankle and saw limited action during the District 7 tournament.

"I remember that Steve and I spent a lot of time in the whirlpool over at Worthington, trying to get better," recalls Hussong.

"I think that Jackson had us scouted pretty well and I remember Borchardt really sliding down and stealing a lot of passes, disrupting our offense," said Schmidt, who scored a team-high 17 points that game for the Bluehawks. "Rowe also had a big game on the boards for Jackson and we weren't able to get as many rebounds as we often did."

Hanson (17), Tusa (15) and Wilhelm (10) all scored in double figures for Jackson, which led at all the quarter stops, 19-12, 32-23 and 47-36.

"We missed a lot of shots that night," remembered Peters, who scored 12 points in the finals and finished with a team-leading 45 for the three-game tournament. "It was the largest crowd that we ever played in front of. We had a great year, but I still think about that Jackson game a lot."

Peters tried out for basketball as a walk-on at the University of Minnesota the following year and nearly made it.

"I survived until the last cut, against guys like Terry Kunze and Mel Northway, who went to become stars at the U," said Peters, whose grandson Mike Schramm was a 1,000-point scorer for long-time coach Ziggy Kauls at Mounds View High School. "I still love watching high school basketball and will always remember the great times we had playing together at Okabena."

"Having one class with six athletes as good as those guys, in that small of a school (29 seniors), was really something," summed up Baumgard of his experience at his alma mater. "They were nice kids, too, and finished up their high school athletic careers by finishing as the runner-up in the District 7 baseball tournament that spring."

Baumgard left Okabena to accept the head basketball coaching position at Stewartville after the 1961 school year. He spent six years with the Tigers before becoming an assistant coach at Rochester John Marshall for 21 seasons, retiring in 1988.

Baumgard and his wife Alice (married in 1960) have three grown sons and live in Rochester where they stay very active, playing golf, visiting with family and watching their six grandchildren's activities.

"Last August, Alice had a surprise 80th birthday for me," concluded Baumgard. "The driver of the limousine was a retired Rochester school teacher by the name of Charlie Dick -- the same star athlete from Mountain Lake who played against us in the 1961 district semifinals."

The Bluehawks' Lyle Peters, Steve Rohwer and Lynn Scmidt
FILE PHOTO Mountain Lake's Bob Quiring (center) is surrounded by Okobena players Lyle Peters (34), Steve Rohwer (40) and Lynn Schmidt during the two team's District 7 semifinal game on March 8, 1961 in Worthington.

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