Qualifying for a state high school team tournament in any sport and in any era is a great accomplishment, as the feat is cherished and shared by the team itself as well as fans and community supporters.
Yet, when it comes to hysteria surrounding any state high school tournament here in Minnesota, there has perhaps never been, nor ever will be, anything like the state-wide attention that the boys' high school basketball tournament garnered in the 1950s and '60s.
Over the course of three days in March, 18,000 to 19,000 fans typically packed Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota for each session, watching the drama unfold in an eight-team tournament that was not divided by school size. The whole state, it seemed, followed the action via television and radio broadcasts as well as large headlines in almost every newspaper.
Smack in the middle of this "golden era," the 1965 Minnetonka boys team, coming off a lackluster season the year before, made an incredible, somewhat improbable, run through the district and region tournaments before capping off the season with the state championship, defeating Faribault, 71-60, in the title game.
The local frenzy had started to build after the Skippers defeated Edina 63-53 in the District 18 semifinals – a bit of a shocker since Edina was perhaps the favorites to win state and had defeated the Skippers twice during the Lake Conference schedule. By the district finals, it looked as if the Skippers might be a team of destiny, and they bested another powerhouse, Richfield.
"I don't think that we as fans and students were thinking about making it to state when districts started, because we would have to get by Edina and Richfield," recalls 1965 MHS class president Don Mark, who went to every game but one that year, "But I remember that a lot of us were thinking that if we could get through the district, we might have a chance. And the players on the team really started stepping up. If one of them was shut down by another team, someone else would come through with a big game."
After capturing the four-team Region 5 tournament and stamping its ticket to Williams Arena, the hoopla began throughout the Minnetonka School District. A pep rally at Minnetonka High Schools sent the boys off to downtown Minneapolis and their home for much of the week, the Curtis Hotel.
"I think we all realized that making it to state was something special, but I'm not sure we, as players, understood the magnitude of what it would be like to play in the tournament," Paul Knight, a forward on the team, said. "We were down at the Curtis Hotel and somewhat isolated from all of the excitement. Of course, once we ran out on the court and saw those 18,000 people, well, it kind of blew you away."
As noted, the Skippers, head coach Earl Christ and assistant Einer Anderson, had logged through a lackluster previous season. But the wind shifted and blew a couple of players the team's way to start the 1964-65 year.
One of them was Knight, a 6-foot-6 transfer student from Southern California. He bolstered a front line that already included 6-foot-6 Bob Abel. The team also added Arthur "Buckey" Ives, a sharp-shooting guard who grew up in the Minnetonka area but had spent the previous year in Wisconsin. He was in a backcourt that included ball-handler Jerry Marquardt.
"Getting those two players really helped us out," Austin said of Ives and Knight. "And then to win state, well it's something you'll never forget."
In order to understand what the state title meant to the local area at the time, one has to remember that the Minnetonka School District was a relatively new entity, having been started just 14 years earlier through the merging of several small school districts and Excelsior and Deephaven high schools. Fledgling suburbs, small neighborhoods, small towns and plenty of farmland composed the area.
"I think it was a galvanizing event for the students as well as the community," Mark said. "Instead of being from Cottagewood, Deephaven or Excelsior, people were cheering for Minnetonka High School and the Minnetonka School District."
As for the Class of '65, the state basketball title was the "showpiece" of a successful year not just in athletics, but also school spirit, social events and academics, according to Mark.
"When our class gets together to this day, the basketball title as well as the tornado the night before our Prom are the biggest memories," Sharon (Haley) Hermel, a former cheerleader who today helps organize class reunions, said. As for attending the tournament itself, she says: "I just remember the whole thing as being fantastic, and nerve-wracking," she added on attending the state tournament.
After the championship was in the books, the Skippers returned to Minnetonka High School the next day for a massive parade, with people lining local streets, Highway 7 and downtown Excelsior. The players waved from atop fire trucks that drove them through the big crowds and into local history.