It was a story right from a movie script.
A game called the greatest state championship final ever played.
And it didn’t happen in Indiana.
In 1963, the Marshall boys’ basketball team won the Minnesota High School League state championship, finishing with a 25-1 record beating both large and small schools before defeating Cloquet 75-74 in an epic battle to claim the title in the one-class system.
“That’s one of those things that I really appreciate the older I get, we only had one class,” said Terry Porter, who led the Tigers with 22 points in the championship game. “When the sub-districts started, in the whole state there were 480 schools (trying to win). That was a heck of a feeling.
“We had 93 kids in our graduating class. We played against Anoka, which probably had about 600-700. They were probably the biggest school in the state. It showed that you don’t have to have classes.”
On Friday at the Marshall boys’ basketball game against Windom Area, the team will be honored for the 50th anniversary of winning the state title in 1963. But the story of the 1963 state champions started long before that season.
In fact, it had started when four of the five starters were still in sixth grade.
“I had it written down on a notebook in sixth grade,” said Loren “Whitey” Johnson. “I had ”63 and ’64 state champs.’ And it probably would have been if in our senior year we wouldn’t have got knocked out by two points.”
For these boys, basketball was a way of life and they would play every chance they got.
“I had an older brother and Terry had an older brother. We would play against them,” Johnson said. “As we got older we could hold our own, and eventually we were a little better than them.
“In seventh grade, every team we beat by about 80 points. Stu McDonald was the coach and he would load us up after the game and take us to play other towns that were two years older than us and we would beat them, too. That’s all we did. We played in the summer time out at Legion Field for hours.”
When it came time to begin the 1962-63 season, juniors Porter, Johnson, Dennis Schroeder, Sandy MacDonald and senior John Nefstead came together for what would prove to be an amazing year.
“It was a long time coming. We had some pretty good athletes,” said Nefstead, who was captain of the squad. “I was just a little bit older than those guys. They went about a year-and-a-half without losing a ballgame.”
The Tigers opened the season with a pair of strong wins before what could be called a galvanizing moment for the team.
They lost to Southwest Conference rival Luverne for the only blemish on their record.
“Luverne, we weren’t playing well and the coach benched us. We were like four or five points down, and he told us if we don’t straighten up at halftime he would bench everybody, and he did. He benched everybody,” Johnson said. “We didn’t even play the second half, basically. He said every position was open the following Monday, which was probably a good deal. It probably straightened us out.”
Coach Glenn Mattke, who was assisted by George Korver, was known by his players as tough, but fair, and he let his team have it during and after the Luverne loss.
“He was very grumpy, but a hell of a guy. I think that was more of a message than anything else,” Nefstead said. “That was the only game I can remember that I sat on my butt for half of a game. It was pretty quiet on that bus coming home.”
Porter also remembered the ride home.
“It was a long ride home from Luverne,” Porter said. “About an hour-and-a-half those days, you didn’t go much more than 50 miles per hour. It was mighty cold in January.”
After that loss, the Tigers never looked back. As Porter said, it was a lesson they had to learn.
“It usually comes down to a lack of effort. Things don’t go your way, you get lazy, and sometimes you learn from it, sometimes you don’t,” Porter said. “But we learned from it.”
Marshall didn’t look back after that loss, finishing the conference season with a 10-1 record. The Tigers defeated Ivanhoe and Milroy for the district title to start their run at the state championship, but they weren’t easy wins.
“In our district, we had two teams, Ivanhoe and Milroy. Milroy was undefeated and Ivanhoe had just lost one,” Porter said. “We knew they were good ballclubs. Ivanhoe we only beat by four or five. They could have competed with the top 30 schools in the state.”
In the next round, the Tigers knocked out Hutchinson, 54-52, and Granite Falls, 52-47, to become the Region 3 champions.
“The club we barely beat, Hutchinson, got beat in the regular season by 20 points by Granite Falls,” Nefstead said. “To me, that was as big (a win) as any.”
As the Region 3 champions, the Tigers had earned their way as one of eight times to enter the state tournament, which was held at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Though now their games would be played on a much larger stage, the Tigers had been there before, defeating Rochester in a preliminary game before the Gopher men took the court, which made a difference for the players.
“It was just the pregame stuff, you weren’t so enamored with walking into the locker rooms and stuff,” Johnson said. “You could be more concentrated on what you were there for. That definitely did help.”
In the first round of the tournament, Marshall defeated Austin in an overtime battle.
“We had them down like 13 or 14 at half,” Johnson said. “We came out and we let up, tried to play control ball, and all of a sudden the lead was gone. We went into overtime.”
In the next game, the Tigers faced off against one of the largest schools in the state, Anoka, which they defeated 61-35.
“Anoka, they had a pretty good-sized team,” Johnson said. “But we didn’t even play the second half. (Coach) rested us.”
The win set up the championship game against Cloquet, who was the second-ranked team in the state when the region tournaments started. The Lumberjacks drew the No. 1 team, Bloomington, to open the tournament and promptly knocked them out.
The championship game was played before a crowd of over 18,500 people jammed into Williams Arena. The two teams went back and forth, and in what could only be described as the perfect ending, Dennis “Red” Schroeder sank two free throws with 15 seconds left to give Marshall the 75-74 win in a game where both teams left everything on the court.
“That was about as much exhaustion as you could have,” Nefstead said. “If you look at the pictures, you wouldn’t know who won or who lost.”
“I was so tired I couldn’t even think. I couldn’t spit from running around,” added Johnson. “I remember Sid Hartman interviewed me and asked what I would like, and I said a cold Coke. The Shermans owned the Coke plant in town, and when I got home there were two cases of pop at my house.”
And as Porter recalled, “The first thing I thought was I can’t wait to get back to Marshall for the celebration. The celebration was better than I thought it would be. The next day it was a really nice day. It was like March 21 or 22. We were driving through Redwood Falls, Gibbon and Gaylord. People were along the street waving to us and cheering us. It was a fantastic feeling. You knew you won it for the community and the surrounding towns.
“I don’t know how they do it up in the Cities, but I know they don’t have a celebration like that.”
The 1963 team will always be remembered for its incredible run to the championship in the one-class system, and on Friday night, the current team, which sits at 21-2, will honor them at their final home game before what could be their opportunity at a state championship.
“I think it will show them the possibility of winning a state championship,” Porter said. “As long as you play every game to full tilt and don’t be intimidated by any other team that you play. They shouldn’t be intimidated. They’ve done it right this year. They’ve gone out and played the top teams in South Dakota and they’ve played Blake. They’ve done it right.
“They’ve gone out, got out of their comfort zone and done real well. I like the way it looks for them.”