Blast From the Past: In '91, W-WG was tournament-tested and ready

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week's "Blast" (May 12) established the background of Westbrook-Walnut Grove's memorable 1990-91 boys' basketball season as a first-year paired high school.With a tall starting lineup -- featuring 6-4 senior Nick Kuehl and 6-3...

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week’s “Blast” (May 12) established the background of Westbrook-Walnut Grove’s memorable 1990-91 boys’ basketball season as a first-year paired high school.
With a tall starting lineup - featuring 6-4 senior Nick Kuehl and 6-3 junior Tim Fowler at forwards, high-scoring 6-6 senior Jason Bakke at center, along with 6-5 junior Troy Steen and 6-2 senior Juhl Erickson at guards - the Chargers were 14-1 in early February of 1991 under the steady guidance of long-time head coach Steve Kjorness and his loyal assistant Gary DeBates.
While Kjorness was monitoring the safety of his son Mark, a recently-commissioned second lieutenant in the United States Army who was serving in the ‘91 Persian Gulf War, he was also preparing his team for one of its major challenges of the remarkable season.
W-WG reeled off a pair of seven-game winning streaks with a low-scoring (48-43) loss to Windom in the championship game of the Eagles’ Holiday Tournament its only loss.
Things continued to get exciting for both communities as 1991 progressed.

This is Part Two of the two-part W-WG Blast:

Les Knutson
Daily Globe sports columnist

Huge crowd watches two state-ranked teams tangle in Westbrook
Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, which featured the all-around athleticism of future NFL quarterback Todd Bouman, was ranked second in Class A on February 5, while the Chargers were third.
“The Westbrook gym was packed by four o’clock,” recalled Erickson. “It was an unbelievable crowd with a tournament-like atmosphere.”
R-T-R opened up a 17-14 first-quarter lead and widened the gap to 32-24 by halftime. A solid third quarter by the Chargers gave them a slim 45-42 edge as the final eight minutes began. W-WG won the fourth quarter by a 24-16 margin, improving to 15-1 with the 11-point victory (69-58).
Fowler, who averaged right at nine points per game (the only starter not averaging in double figures), came up big that night, scoring a team-high 20 points and pulling down 13 rebounds.
“Tim could score and he was always a strong rebounder,” declared Kjorness. “That was a good example of how balanced we could be.”
W-WG rolled to wins over Storden-Jeffers (94-54), Comfrey (102-60), Fulda (84-47) and Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield (84-67) to finish with a perfect 14-0 record in conference action. HL-O-L’s Silver Bullets were second at 10-4.
“I look back and remember the great times of going to places like Storden and Okabena, playing in gyms just packed with fans,” recalled Bakke, who is a high school referee these days. “The crowds up here in the Metro area are nothing like they were ‘back in the day’ back home.”
In the victory over Comfrey - W-WG’s second 102-point night of the season - Erickson passed for 21 assists, an amazing accomplishment which still ranks among the all-time state’s bests.
“Juhl was the glue,” declared Kuehl. “He had fantastic vision and he played fast. His motor was constantly running and his brain was two passes ahead of his body.”
While Kuehl, Fowler and Bakke patrolled the boards on the inside and Erickson set them up with his ability to drive and dish, the outside shooting of Steen - who later starred at Augustana - was also an asset, as he along with Erickson and Kuehl could knock down three-pointers.
“That team had everything,” summed up former Cottonwood County Citizen sports editor Dave Fjeld, who covered the Chargers for the Windom-based weekly newspaper. “They were really fun to watch.”
Close victory over Marshall sets tone for tournament play
With the conference title in their pocket, the Chargers had one more regular-season contest before beginning action in the last-ever District 7 tournament. As Westbrook’s athletic director the year before, the multi-dimensional Kjorness had scheduled a late-game in ’91 against the Marshall Tigers, perennial powers in the Southwest Conference.
Played at Marshall on the evening of Feb. 22, the Chargers needed to play great defense down the stretch, changing a 51-44 deficit into a 53-51 victory - holding the Tigers scoreless the game’s last five minutes.
“There was a lot of atmosphere for that game,” recalled Steen. “It was a packed house and a lot of fun.”
“We had to play physical and really work on defense,” added Erickson. “That game helped prepare us for some of the teams we would play after that.”
Determined to get to the District 7 finals at Worthington, which had eluded them the previous year, the Chargers rolled past ML/B-O (70-33) in the district quarterfinals and S-J (82-57) in the semifinals. Both games were played at Windom.
The Jackson Bluejays upset Windom in the other semifinal and the anticipated rematch with the Eagles never materialized. “We really wanted to play Windom again,” Kuehl said. “But things worked well against Jackson.”
They sure did.
Living out the dream of playing on Worthington’s tournament-rich court on March 7, the Chargers doubled up the Bluejays in each of the first two quarters and took a 42-21 lead into intermission. With four guys finishing with between 16 and 18 points, W-WG’s rout continued in the second half and the Chargers were District 7 champions with an 88-45 victory.
“That was special,” recalled Kjorness. “There was a lot of tradition in District 7 and we were able to win the last tournament. The state was re-aligned to sub-sections and sections the following year and we became part of Sub-Section 9 and Section 3.”
In 1991, however, it was on to the Region 2 tournament and another game at Worthington.
Postponed following a March blizzard, the Chargers tangled with District 6 champion Maple River in the semifinals on March 14.
Sinking 13 three-pointers - in 14 attempts for an incredible .929 percentage, the Eagles gave W-WG a challenge all night long.
Erickson wasn’t feeling well, but Bakke was unstoppable inside and Kuehl sank four clutch late-game free throws in a 77-74 win which sent the Chargers to the Region 2 championship game - the next night - at Mankato State’s Highland Arena.
“As kids growing up, we always wanted to play at those two gyms - Worthington and Highland Arena - some day,” said Erickson. “We accomplished that in 1991, doing what we had seen the ’82 team do.”
W-WG’s opponent was District 5 champion Fairmont, the defending regional champion and a group which had defeated Westbrook’s seniors when they were freshmen in Worthington’s annual post-season Wild Turkey Shootout.
“We were leading, but we got in foul trouble and lost by four or five points,” recalled DeBates, who coached Westbrook in that 1988 tournament. “I told our guys later that would be the bunch you would need to beat some day to get to the state tournament.”
It turned out that DeBates was right.
“David’s bringing lots of rocks”
On Friday evening, March 15, Highland Arena was packed and Kjorness delivered a pre-game message which the Chargers have never forgotten and helped loosen any built up pressure of having to win the “big game.”
“I think that we felt some tension before the finals,” remembered Erickson. “Fairmont was very good and the winner of this game was going to state. We were all big into the movie ‘Hoosiers’ and Coach Kjorness eased our goose bumps when he compared us to David and Goliath, saying that ‘tonight, boys, David’s bringing lots of rocks,”
One of those rocks was Bakke, who - after scoring 36 points against Maple River the night before - tallied 32 points in the title game and the Chargers dominated.
W-WG erupted from a 13-13 first-quarter tie by outscoring the Cardinals 27-11 in the second period, holding a commanding 40-24 halftime lead. Fairmont never got within 14 points after intermission and the Chargers were state-tournament bound with an impressive 83-68 victory.
“I remember how fun winning that game was,” said Bakke. “We were singing songs and really whooping it up on the bus ride home. That’s one of my fondest memories, it was quite a night.”
Two state-tournament wins and an eight-point point lead in the championship game
With the goal of reaching the state tournament accomplished, the Chargers were geared up to win three more and bring home a state title.
Playing at Williams Arena in the quarterfinals, W-WG took the first step with a hard-fought 63-61 victory over the Rushford-Peterson Trojans, champions of Region 1.
A right-side three-point jumper by Erickson gave the Chargers the lead with 1:19 left and a short right-handed hook by the left-handed Bakke 12 seconds later widened the gap.
Effectively running the floor, the Chargers dispatched of the Region 3 champion Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks in the semifinals at the St. Paul Civic Center by a final score of 80-66. D-B’s Jeff Nordgaard was one of the state’s best players and later had a stellar career at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.
Erickson hit a shot from near mid court at the first-quarter buzzer which tied the score at 16-all. The Chargers began to take control after that, winning the middle two quarters (22-16 and 21-13), capped off by a 17-4 burst to end the third period.
On the other side of the bracket, the Chisholm Bluestreaks, coached by legendary Bob McDonald, defeated Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (59-51) and Becker (86-56) to advance to the title game.
It was Chisholm who had ended Westbrook’s 1982 title run with an overtime victory over the Wildcats in the state-tournament semifinals.
Playing on Saturday afternoon, March 23, at the St. Paul Civic Center, second-ranked W-WG and top-ranked Chisholm played for the 1991 Class A state championship.
The Chargers were poised in the first half, building a 38-30 lead with two minutes left. The Bluestreaks rallied with the last six points of the second quarter and it was 38-36 at the break.
Still playing well, the Chargers extended the lead to 45-40 midway through the third quarter.
But, Chisholm - behind high-scoring Joel McDonald (3,292 career points, fifth all-time in Minnesota) - finished the third period on a 14-5 surge and took a 54-50 advantage into the fourth.
After W-WG came within two, the Bluestreaks responded with their championship-winning 14-0 run and eventually won the contest by a 77-61 spread.
Erickson, who scored 24 points for W-WG and finished the tournament with 48 points and 18 assists, was devastated by the way the game ended.
“That wasn’t like us,” he said. “I still can’t explain it. I know we gave up some easy baskets and, offensively, we just didn’t attack ourselves - like we usually did - in the second half.”
Still intrigued with ‘Hoosiers,’ Erickson says that he watches that basketball classic - about small-town Indiana basketball in the early 1950s - about once a month with family or friends, but still has never watched the second half of that Chisholm game. Neither has Bakke. Kuehl says that he’s watched the third quarter, but not the fourth.
“I’ve never watched any of it,” said Steen. “I didn’t play my best that game, it seemed like I just couldn’t hit a shot.”
Kjorness, DeBates provided 27 seasons of consistency
With Steen and Fowler returning, the Chargers had another great season in ’91-92, finishing 19-4 with a loss to Jackson in the sub-section finals.
Two years later, Kjorness and DeBates, took another W-WG team to the state tournament, winning in the quarterfinals before concluding a 22-5 campaign with losses in the semifinals and third-place game.
“We were blessed with so many great kids over all the years,” summed up Kjorness, who has been honored as an inductee to both the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame and the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame. “That ’91 team was something special because they were so tall and all-around talented. We turned them loose because they really ran the floor well.”
“Steve did such a good job year-after-year because he could change with the situation so well,” said DeBates who was Kjorness’ valued assistant for 27 years. “Some years, we played at a lot slower tempo. But that ’91 team was really a special crew which was capable of being very up tempo.”
Both Erickson and Kuehl, who later played together at Worthington Community College, mentioned the importance of the consistency of the coaching that the Chargers were blessed with.
“We had a great coach in Steve Comnick during junior high and then had DeBates, who helped give us our thick skin when we were on the B-squad,” said Erickson. “Kjorness and DeBates worked so well together as coaching partners when we became the varsity.”
“Steve Comnick put the ‘fire in our bellies’ when we were in junior high,” declared Kuehl. “I really enjoyed playing for him and learned early about the importance of working hard on defense, something that I later took a lot of pride in.”
Comnick was a key player on Westbrook’s ’79 district championship team, the one which helped turn the corner for the basketball progress that occurred in northwestern Cottonwood County over the next decade.
“That success enjoyed by that first basketball team in ’90-91 sure helped solidify Westbrook and Walnut Grove,” concluded Kjorness who had the rare experience of being both the coach and superintendent at the same time. “Ten years later, the two districts voted to consolidate and the proposal passed by the largest positive margin in state history, very close to unanimous.”

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