’70 state cagers stand test of time
Sherburn boys basketball team celebrates 50th anniversary of last 1-class state event
SHERBURN — After their previous three seasons had each ended with a disappointing loss in the District Five basketball tournament, the Sherburn Raiders had one goal for the 1969-70 season.
“Suffering through the disappointment of two finals losses and one semifinals loss – all to Fairmont – in the previous three years was definitely an incentive,” said Jeff McCarron. “So, absolutely, we were motivated by our last chance to win the district.”
The Raiders had gone 54-8 in the previous three seasons – including an unbeaten 18-0 regular season in the 1966-67 season. Included in the three consecutive District Five tournament losses to Fairmont was a 67-65 loss – on a shot at the buzzer – in the championship game in 1968.
The 1969-70 Raiders, in their second season under 28-year-old coach Dennis Christopherson, not only reached their goal of winning the district title, they exceeded it.
“I was on the B-squad the previous year,” said John Tirevold. “We had a blend of veteran players and younger players. We had to learn about each other. Jeff (McCarron) and Tom (Mulso) were good coaches on the floor. Coach Christopherson did a great job of coordinating us into a good team.”
With McCarron, Mulso and Tirevold, who were seniors, and sophomores Pete Eiden and Paul Krohn in the starting lineup, the Raiders cruised to their second unbeaten regular season in four seasons.
The Raiders opened the season on Dec. 2 with a 74-38 victory over Jackson. They followed with victories over Butterfield, Mapleton, Truman, Trimont and Mankato Loyola to take a 6-0 record into the holiday break. In their first game after the break, the Raiders defeated Madelia 98-65 as McCarron scored a school-record 45 points. On Jan. 23, the Raiders defeated Butterfield 63-54 – their closest game of the regular season – to improve to 10-0.
Basketball fans in the area were starting to take notice of the Raiders.
“There was a lot of buzz going on,” Tirevold said. “It was nerve-racking. We had a group of fans who liked to watch us at practice every day. We heard that one of the guys who came to watch us every day had made hotel reservations in Minneapolis for the state tournament. We knew the pressure was on.”
The marquee game of the regular season was contested on Saturday, Feb. 7, when the Raiders played host to defending District Five champion Wells.
“Our coach had talked all year about the Wells game,” said McCarron. “We were well aware that Wells had two all-tournament players (Steve Feist and Steve Schultz) from their state tournament team of 1969. They had lost to eventual state champion Rochester John Marshall and then won the consolation championship.”
The matchup piqued the interest of basketball fans throughout the region and produced a capacity crowd.
“Coach had said ‘they’ll open the doors at 5:45 and close ’em at 6:15,'” said McCarron. “He was off by five minutes – they closed the doors at 6:20 with 400 people out in the cold.”
The crowd saw the Raiders defeat Wells, 76-57.
“When we beat Wells by 19,” said McCarron, “we started to believe we may have a special team.”
Tirevold said, “The Wells game was amazing. We heard stories about fans sneaking in. One story was two refs – who weren’t working – showed up with their equipment and said ‘we’re reffing’ to get in.”
Ten days later the Raiders were tested again in a game at Lakefield. Lakefield led 33-29 at halftime before the Raiders outscored the Panthers, 50-33, in the second half for a 79-66 victory.
On Feb. 20, the Raiders closed out their unblemished regular season with a 94-47 win over Lake Crystal. The Raiders led 32-1 after one quarter and 61-15 at halftime en route to their 56th consecutive Middle 8 Conference victory.
The Raiders were the top seed for the District Five tournament and faced Fairmont in the quarterfinals. The Raiders dispatched their nemesis, 73-57. In the semifinals, the Raiders defeated Delavan, 82-60, to earn a spot in the title game against Wells. The Raiders defeated the Wildcats, 71-48, for their first district title since 1960.
In the first round of the Region 2 tournament, the Raiders cruised past District 8 champion Luverne, 76-63, as McCarron and Mulso combined for 51 points and 45 rebounds. That put the Raiders in the region championship game against Jackson.
Jackson, which had an 8-12 record after edging Butterfield by five points for the District 7 championship, outscored Mankato, 25-8, in the fourth quarter to earn a 57-41 victory over the Scarlets in the other region semifinal.
Before a capacity crowd of 6,000 at Mankato State’s Highland Arena, Jackson slowed down the Raiders, who had been held to less than 70 points just twice during the regular season, and opened a 25-20 lead at halftime.
McCarron scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half to rally the Raiders for a 48-38 victory and the first regional title in school history.
“When we opened the season against Jackson,” said McCarron, “they didn’t have their best player – Roger Senesac. Their coach used him as a big guard to slow the (region) game down – almost stalling. We were scared at halftime. Five points was a lot in a game like that. We played zone in the first half. We switched to man-to-man and I know I’ve never played harder in my life and my teammates would probably agree they did too. We held them to 13 in the second half.
“I remember not even celebrating at the buzzer. The feeling was ‘relief’ that we had dodged an incredible, smart challenge by the Bluejays.”
The Raiders’ 23rd consecutive victory left them as the only unbeaten team in the state. Red Wing, the other unbeaten team heading into district play and considered as the favorite to win state, lost to Kenyon (coached by future Fairmont coach Ron Hested), 59-57, in the Region One championship game.
With Red Wing eliminated, South St. Paul, which had a 23-1 record going into the state tournament, was mentioned as the favorite to win the state tournament.
“The big thing for us was to ‘make it to state,'” said McCarron. “We didn’t even imagine ‘winning state.'”
The Raiders defeated Melrose, 65-54, in their first state tournament game. In the semifinals, they defeated Marshall, coached by Fairmont native Lowell Ziemann, 71-60. In the other semifinal, South St. Paul advanced with a 68-54 victory over Robbinsdale. South St. Paul defeated Park Rapids, 97-61, in the first round.
In the championship game before more than 18,000 fans at Williams Arena, Mulso scored 24 points in the first half to help the Raiders open a 13-point halftime lead. The Packers responded by outscoring the Raiders, 22-12, to pull within three going into the fourth quarter. The Raiders outscored the Packers, 24-11, in the fourth to pull away for a 78-62 victory. Mulso finished with 39 points.
“When we led by 13 at half, that was an incredible feeling,” said McCarron. “Tom Mulso had what has to be one of the greatest championship game shooting performances in Minnesota history. He was always someone that could pull a magic move when needed the most. Pete Eiden shrugged off a sprained ankle and played the game of his life, scoring 16 points. Our two guards were ‘everywhere’ on that zone and gave South St. Paul fits on the perimeter. It was truly a great team effort.”
Tirevold agreed, “The whole season was magical. It was a dream. Me being a farm kid from Dunnell, I was in awe. The stars lined up. We blended well as a team. All of southern Minnesota seemed to be rooting for us. We were undefeated and champion of a single-class tourney. That was something to hang our hats on.”
Adding to the memorable state tournament was the Raiders’ trip back to Sherburn on the day following the tournament. As the team traveled through Madelia, St. James and Trimont, it was greeted by fans lining the route. The team was greeted by an estimated 3,000 fans in Sherburn.
“I am so thankful to have been part of a team that was able to give the gift of that season to our parents, our coaches, our fans and our town,” McCarron said.
Fifty years later, fans have not forgotten the Raiders’ championship season.
“I still hear something every couple of weeks,” said Tirevold. “People come up to me and tell me what they were doing at the time.”
Editor’s Note: A 50th anniversary celebration will take place at halftime of Martin County West’s boys basketball game vs. Jackson County Central on Thursday, Feb. 20, in Sherburn.