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Rodd's Ramblings: In 1976, a classic tourney

 

January 3, 2020

1976 Cloquet yearbook

The 1975-76 Cloquet basketball team was part of a Wood City Classic in January of 1976 that really lived up to its billing.

The history of the Wood City Classic basketball tournament is rife with stories about games and players. But perhaps no tournament was more impressive than the Jan. 2-3, 1976 Classic, which featured the senior classes of 1976. Fans poured into the Cloquet junior high gymnasium filling seats an hour before game time in anticipation of what was to come as Esko, Cloquet, Cambridge and Hibbing all came with impressive rosters.

The opening game saw Esko taking Hibbing to double overtime before losing. The Lumberjacks narrowly defeated Cambridge in a wild second game.

Hibbing sported the most impressive roster. Kevin McHale - who later played for the Minnesota Gophers and the Boston Celtics - stood 6-foot, 9-inches and was surrounded by other redwood-tall players. Joining McHale were 6-foot, 5-inch point guard John Retica, forward Skip Bronniche (6-foot, 7-inches), as well as 6-foot, 6-inch guard/forwards Dave Cicmil and Scott Nehring.

McHale, who was nursing a sore ankle, did not play against John Gornik's Esko squad in the opening game and it nearly cost the Bluejackets a win. The Eskomos were a fearless group that had just won the state football tournament that fall. The Bluejackets had made it to the state basketball tournament the prior year and they were expected to be one of the top two teams in the Class AA state tournament again in 1976. Perhaps they didn't anticipate that Esko was as good as they were, but they found out in a hurry.

Esko featured a lineup that included Bob Soyring, Kevin Bohren, Roy Joki, Kevin Lindell, twins Jack and Joe Campbell and Dale Tondryk. Soyring, a hurdler during track season, usually jumped center. Lindell was a starter, but in games against taller lineups the Eskomos would often opt to have Joki, a junior, move into the starting lineup to help defend against the taller players.

Bohren went on to pitch at Minnesota while Lindell, Soyring, the Campbells, Joki and Tondryk all were exceptional athletes.

At the end of regulation, and with three seconds to play, the Bluejackets held a two-point lead. But they fouled Tondryk, who went to the free throw line to shoot a one-and-one.

"I can remember during the timeout that Coach Gornik told us when Dale makes these free throws, we were going to go into a full-court press," Tondryk said. "He didn't say 'if' - he said 'when' and I think that gave me the confidence to make the free throws."

The gym went crazy as Cloquet fans, who were spilling into the gymnasium, joined the raucous Eskomo fans in cheering for Esko. It was a great effort, with Hibbing outlasting the Eskomos.

That was just the opening game of the tournament.

The Cambridge roster was nearly as impressive height-wise as that of Hibbing. Cambridge featured the twin towers of Dave Michaelson and Henry Hanson at 6-foot, 8-inches and 6-foot, 7 inches. Leading the Cambridge offense was ultra-quick point guard Tom Klitzke - an All-State football player for the Bluejackets - who was adept at making quick passes to the right player at the right time allowing for the two big players inside to roam free.

Cloquet featured center Jay Sjogren and star guard Peter Franz. Sjogren was a slick-moving center who created matchup problems with his creative moves. Franz was a powerful and fast guard/forward who attacked the basket with a vengeance and was tough to defend against. The offense ran through Franz and Sjogren most of the time. Point guard Scott McAtee was quick and ran the offense, forward Tracy Rodd could shoot the lights out from the corner and forward Greg Kolodge was a strong and muscular defender of the hoop. The entire starting five were fierce defenders of the basket. They overcame a distinct height disadvantage with their tenacity on the defensive side of the court. The 'Jacks also had a number of players who could come off the bench and play valuable minutes including Keith Levinski, Ron Johnson and Scott Eldien.

Cloquet got the first round win and then had the tough task of taking on Hibbing. With McHale back in the lineup, Hibbing won handily. The game would be a harbinger of things to come when the Bluejackets downed Cloquet in the Region 7AA title game later that season.

The other second-round game featured the Eskomos battling Cambridge. In the end, Esko couldn't handle the height of the Bluejackets as they lost another tough game.

Fans coming to the games had to get to the school early. Parking was at a premium and fans were stacked on top of each other. The allure of seeing McHale and the Bluejackets, who were bigger than most college teams, was the drawing card.

Esko played in the Region 7A final that year against Orr. Both Hibbing and Orr played in the state tournament with Hibbing finishing as runner-up in Class AA.

To those players I might have missed, I apologize, but in this amount of space it is hard to get all the names of the great athletes and players in one of the best Wood City Classic tournaments ever played. It was a storied time for basketball in the Northland and for those of us who got to witness it firsthand, it was a truly amazing experience.

WKLK radio personality Kerry Rodd writes sports for the Pine Knot News. He sends a special thank you to former Cloquet coach Jerry Erickson for his input into the writing of this column.

 
 

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