Korby's Connections: When basketball was king
December 25, 2020
When I was growing up in Cloquet and Carlton county in the 1960’s, basketball was, in popularity, definitely the king of winter high school boys sports. Most of who were considered each school‘s “best athletes” played hoops (OK, I might get a few arguments here and slightly I’m looking through rose colored glasses as I played basketball). However, for the majority of county players, and for sure all females, there wasn’t a sports option. Basketball was the only winter sport offered at many of the smaller schools. Girls high school sports in Minnesota didn’t become sanctioned until the passing of Title IX in the later 1970’s. Cloquet did have hockey, swimming, skiing and rifle (boys and girls) as winter sport options for boys. However, the Cloquet’s boys hockey team was still playing outdoors on a rink by the Washington Grade School. And, don’t forget, Cloquet was the perennial State High School skiing champions, coached by Joe Nowak, for nearly the whole sixties decade. There definitely was great individual athletes out at Pine Valley as well.
So, what was the barometer I used as to why I think basketball was king? Cloquet had qualified for the State High School Boys Basketball Tourney in 1958, 1962, and 1963. Get this.....in the mid 1960’s, there was a waiting list for those in the community that wanted to buy Cloquet boys basketball season tickets.....imagine, a waiting list! There were assigned seats for games in the Cloquet Middle School Gymnasium. I’m sure the Polar League gyms were packed as well with both Esko and Carlton having state tournament qualifying teams around this same time. My mom took me and my sister to a few Cloquet games and to get a seat/ticket, one would have to come at least to the middle of the “B” game and usually sit in designated general admission seats on the main floor. Harry Newby was there with WKLK radio to broadcast the games. The great Cloquet marching band with cheerleaders and majorettes, pomp and circumstance, performed before each game and at halftime. It was a spectacle. The gymnasium was packed with people with the Fire Marshall finally not allowing any more fans to enter after hitting the legal capacity.
When did basketball talent and culture peak in the Duluth/Cloquet/Carlton County areas? My vote, and this story’s subject, is for teams 50 years ago in the past, the 1970-71 basketball season. Here again there may be arguments and I’m open to discussion, for Barnum and Esko have been past boys state champions, Cloquet has gone to state and played against Kevin McHale and Hibbing in the Region finals, one season with the current basketball class structure - Cloquet/Fond du Lac/and Esko schools were all in the State basketball tourney in the same year, Carlton has twice been a state tournament runner up, but top to bottom — a strong case could be made for 1971 talent and area team's and that would be my choice.
Why this year? 1971 was the first year there was going to be more than one class participating in the Minnesota Boys state basketball tourney. Class A for the smaller schools and Class AA for the larger schools. I was a junior on the 1970-71 Cloquet Boys Basketball team and witnessed this season and talent first hand. Led by seniors George Lange, Bill Bloomquist, Dave Boyer, Pistol Pete Rimstad, and Whip Swanson, we (Cloquet) had a decent team but struggled against some of the other schools in the Big Ten Conference as it was known back then. The following is a summary of some of the talented individuals and teams in the Region in 1971.
In years just prior to 1971, Duluth Central had been boys state basketball runner-up in 1969. Duluth East won the District 26 tournament in 1970 in triple overtime over Two Harbors. It was Two Harbors first appearance in the District finals in 21 years. In 1970, they had wins over Duluth Denfeld and Duluth Central on their way to the 1970 District finals against East. Two Harbors would have the core of their team returning in 1971.
The 1971 Duluth Central boys team culminated their season by winning the 1971 Minnesota State Basketball AA Championship over North St Paul 54-51. They lost only one game, with a record of 26-1, to smaller Duluth Morgan Park in the regular season. In the first few years of two divisions, the state high league wanted one state champ and AA Central handily defeated single A champ Melrose in the 1971 finals 54-43.
Coach Jim Hastings headed up the Duluth Central basketball program for many years, guiding teams to state championships in 1961, 1971 and 1979. The 1971 team had a balanced attack but was definitely led by their two seniors, 6’8” Como Pontliana and 6’5” Larry Potter. Other starters were Paul Taylor, Mike Abrahamson and Dave Hart. It was the last year that Central played its home games at the old clock tower high school in downtown Duluth. It was a classic gymnasium with tight bleachers and the fans courtside right there with the players. I remember when Cloquet player Frank Yetka came over to a team huddle on a timeout while playing at Central and said “12.” I asked what that meant. He said “Larry Potter wears size 12 Converse All Stars … I just read it on the bottom sole of his shoe as he soared over me.”
Hastings, Pontliana and Potter have all sadly passed away. Pontliana and Chet Anderson, a star on Duluth Central’s 1961 undefeated state championship team, died in the same year and Potter just a few years ago. The 1961 team with Roger Hanson, Terry Kunze, and Anderson, and the 1971 Central team fuel debates as to which team was better.
Two Harbors, led by coach Ray Korteum, lost just three games all season in 1971. They had all-state player Scott McDonald, the Battaglia twins, and Lee Oling among others. Their losses were to Duluth Central, Duluth East, and Melrose in the state tourney by four points.
With the new A/AA format, both Central and Two Harbors played in the state tournament. The Agates had both a big lineup and a shorter, quicker unit they could have on the floor. Cloquet played them at Two Harbors, I think we lost by 39. In the state tourney, McDonald got in foul trouble early and had to sit out a good portion of the game against eventual state champ Melrose. Still, the outcome could have gone either way. It easily could have been Two Harbors and Duluth Central in the state finals, two teams from the same local conference.
Back in the ’70s, most athletes played three sports. McDonald went on to play Division I college basketball for West Virginia. As a senior, he also played football and caught the game-winning catch as a Mountaineer tight end in the Peach Bowl. The Battaglias and Oling played football and basketball at UMD. Both Battaglias went on to coach high school football and basketball for decades, with Dave’s three kids all representing Cloquet in state basketball tournaments. Dave coached and was a teacher/principal at both Carlton and Cloquet, is now on the Cloquet school board, and son Steve is the Cloquet High School principal and current boys basketball coach.
Some of the other regional school highlights:
Duluth East - had 6’10” Mark Lindahl, Curt Oberg, Loren Anderson, and guard Mark Johnson. They only had three losses all season...their three games against Duluth Central. Their long time coach, Irv St. John, stated after the Region finals “Our kids shouldn’t feel bad, we may have lost to the eventual state champion.” He was a good prognosticator.
Duluth Morgan Park - had one of their best teams ever with big man Dick Webber and guard Ron Gustafson. Gave Central their only loss of the year and lost to Two Harbors in double overtime during the regular season. Webber was an All-District center. Morgan Park had some great, undefeated football teams around this time with Gustafson an elite wide receiver. Gustafson had explosive speed, was a state championship sprint finalist, and played professional football.
Proctor- along with Morgan Park, gave Two Harbors their most competition in the single A classification. Rail legendary names like Egerdahl, Masterson, Thoreson, and Allen were on this team who’s core would lead them to the State tourney in 1972.
Other local talent included :
Cromwell: lost to Two Harbors in the first round of the single A playoffs but their All District junior guard Don Nyberg had 21 points. He’d become one of the finest long range shooters in Polar League history.
Albrook: lost in the second round of the playoffs to Two Harbors but actually out scored them in the second half losing 60-52. Two All District players Lawrence and Seeland.
Carlton: had a talented group of juniors — Bob Howe, Mike Axtell, Dan Summers, Frank Curtiss, Manny Kildahl — who would lead them to a successful 1972 season.
I would like to thank Gary Madison (DDS), a friend and fellow golf hacker, who helped me research some of this 1970-71 season history. Gary was a sophomore guard (and leading scorer at State) on the 1979 Duluth Central state championship team. His sister was a cheerleader for Central in 1971 (and kept a scrapbook) and he went, as a little kid, to the first AA-A state championship game. He was also a Coach Hastings assistant after high school. Thanks, Gary.