John's Journal
Seventy Years Later, A State Champion Remembers3/22/2012
When George Smilanich celebrates his 90th birthday in June, the day will be filled with memories. There will be childhood stories of growing up on the Iron Range during the Depression, thoughts of friendships forged and friends lost during World War II and memories of a lengthy career as a teacher and coach.

And if anybody happens to mention the Minnesota state high school basketball tournaments of 70 years ago, George will be happy to chat about that, too.

“I remember playing in the Minneapolis Auditorium in ’41 and we opened up the fieldhouse here in 1942,” George told me Thursday. “This is what they call Williams Arena now.”

I sat with George and one of his closest friends, Chisholm basketball coach Bob McDonald, in the tournament headquarters at Williams Arena (Bob's on the left in this photo). In 1941 and 1942, George was a starting guard for Buhl teams that won state titles.

“I played guard, one of those standing guards,” he said with a smile. “The other guys scored more points in one game than I did all year. “

The 1942 tournament was the 30th state tournament, and this year’s version is the 100th. Between 1941 and 2012, George (whose nickname is “Pecky”) has missed only three state tournaments. Those were the years he spent in Europe during World War II.

Less than a year after graduating from high school in Buhl in 1942, Smilanich was driving tanks in North Africa. He served under General George Patton in the Army’s 2nd Armored Division, he was on Omaha Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Bronze Star. After the war, he served in an honor guard at the Potsdam Conference.

Returning home, he went to St. Cloud State and played basketball for one year, helping the team finish second in the NAIA national tournament. Then came his marriage to Mary Jane in 1946, three children and a career as an educator. George coached first in Erie, Illinois, for four years, was hired in Buhl in 1954 and moved to Hibbing High School in 1967. He retired in 1984.

“We go a long ways back,” said McDonald, a 1951 Chisholm graduate. “He was at Buhl when I first started at Chisholm (in 1961 after coaching in McGregor and Barnum). Ever since I came back we’ve been close. We’ve been friends forever. It’s been a long haul, but he’s always been around. He’s my guru and advisor.”

Smilanich never coached a team in the state tournament. “I wasn’t as good as Bob,” he said. “Chisholm gave us the most problems in basketball.”

“We had great rivalries,” said McDonald, whose has been coaching since 1956 and is the winningest coach in Minnesota basketball history. “Hibbing, Chisholm, Buhl; typical Range stuff.”

And wonderful memories.


When the pairings for the Class 1A state basketball tournament were announced, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa coach Dave Montbriand knew what to expect from the unbeaten Jaguars’ quarterfinal opponent, Lakeview Christian Academy from Duluth.

Montbriand had seen Lakeview Christian play one game in person this season. It was on Feb. 25, when Lakeview’s Anders Broman scored 71 points in a 114-110 loss at Melrose.

Broman, a 6-2 junior, averaged 44 points per game this season for the Lions, who led the state with a scoring average of 93 points.

“I saw Anders score 71 and I was impressed,” Montbriand said. “I know if he’s got a little daylight he can do some fantastic things.”

The Jaguars defense kept Broman in the dark during most of Thursday’s game at Williams Arena and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa won 85-76. Broman made five of 19 field-goal attempts and scored 18 points.

“We switched defenses on him,” Montbriand said. “Whatever defense we were in, we had an extra guy or two keeping an eye on him.”


Southwest Minnesota Christian was in control of its 1A game against Fosston on Thursday, holding the lead and the ball with about 15 seconds to play. Fosston coach Ben Hemberger was trying to get his players to commit a foul, so the game would be stopped and he could get some of his seniors into a state tournament game.

The Fosston players, however, couldn’t hear their coach over the din of the crowd. But Southwest Minnesota Christian coach Jamie Pap saw what was happening and called a time out so the Fosston reserves could get in the game. Well done.


A unique postgame celebration took place Wednesday evening at Target Center.

While the Perham Yellowjackets – who had just defeated Worthington in Class 2A – were getting their things together in the locker room, Perham activities director Fred Sailer stuck his head in the room and hollered, “Hey! Everybody out in the hallway! Let’s hear it for the band!”

The band was streaming single-file through the corridor, carrying and rolling their instruments and equipment to the bus. And the sight was spectacular: Players and coaches high-fiving the band members and band directors as they filed past.


Before the Perham team left town for the state tournament, they made several stops. Their itinerary included elementary schools and a local nursing home. One of the highlights of the nursing home visit was a duet by senior Mark Schumacher and Dan Cavanagh; they sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“We’re in choir, and our athletic director asked us to sing, because we did it last year,” Schumacher said. “Me and Dan were flipping through this church songbook and we were like, ‘Hey! We both know this song!” The old-timers love it and we love making the community happy.

“Community is one of the biggest things we’ve stressed over the years. Last year we had twenty-five-hundred people coming down here, and that’s almost the whole population. We love to entertain them and keep them on our side.”


--Best National Anthem: The “Belgrade Acoustics.” Flawless.

--Best Pep Band Teamwork: The Osseo band playing “Hey Baby” and the Hopkins band members singing along.

--Best Pep Band Performance of a Lady Gaga Song: The Browerville kids performing “Edge of Glory.”

--Mascot of the Day: The Browerville Tiger.

--Delivery of the Day: I was sitting courtside at Williams Arena when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a security guard. He said, “Are you John?” He handed me a Diet Coke, pointed and said, “It’s from that guy down there.” Security kept a member of the Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin faithful away from media row, but his sugar-free gift made it to me.

--Diet Coke Count: 6 for the day, 11 for the tournament, 77 for the winter tournaments.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 439
*Miles John has driven: 6,927

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Osseo Ends Hopkins’ Reign; Lakeville North Also Wins3/22/2012
After 51 Years, Rocori’s Bob Brink Is A Coach To The End3/21/2012
Before the first game of the boys state basketball tournament tipped off at Williams Arena on Wednesday morning, a veteran hoops observer surveyed the court and made a declarative statement: “Rocori always plays hard.”

For 42 years, that phrase has been uttered about teams coached by Bob Brink at the school in Cold Spring. Bob is 74 years old and ready to travel with his wife Judy to visit his brothers, who live in South Dakota and Wyoming, and see the countryside. He announced earlier in the season that this would be his last, and the end came Wednesday with a 52-49 loss to top-seeded Minneapolis Washburn in the Class 3A state quarterfinals.

Here’s another declarative statement: There has been a boys state basketball tournament in Minnesota for 100 years, and Bob Brink has been coaching boys basketball for 51 years, spending nine seasons in his native South Dakota before coming to Rocori.

“Great season, great kids,” Bob said after the end had finally arrived. “Reflecting back, if anybody had told me I was going to coach 51 years and be at Rocori for 40-some years…” His voice trailed off. He was still thinking about the game that the Spartans almost won … what might have been done differently … if only the kids had made a couple more layups … if some crucial turnovers had not occurred late in the game … he was still in coaching mode.

“Down the stretch we had the lead and that’s usually our game,” he said. “We just didn’t execute in the last two or three minutes, and that’s unusual for my teams. We normally do it. It’s a little different playing in the state tournament against one of the top teams in 3A. They beat a lot of 4A teams.”

Brink had taken 12 previous teams to state, including a 26-0 season in 1988 that included a Class 2A championship.

As a player, Brink led his high school team in Plankinton, S.D., to the 1956 state tournament. His first teaching and coaching job was at the State Training School in Plankinton, a place for kids who had come from troubled home lives or had been in hot water with the law.

“When I first started coaching I taught in a school with kids that really needed some help in their lifestyle,” he said. “You tried to pick out their priorities for them, what they needed to do outside of just sports. I think that’s one of the main things that I tried to leave with (players over the years), the things that are taught on the court, believing in people and keeping your nose clean.

“We take a knee sometimes and we believe in that; between their family and their religion and stressing some of those things a little bit without overdoing it. And academics next and extracurricular activities. That’s probably the most compliments (I’ve received) from my ex-players, and I’m proud of that.”

Brink ranks second in all-time career boys basketball coaching victories in Minnesota behind Chisholm’s still-active Bob McDonald. The No. 3 coach on the list, Zig Kauls of Mounds View, also retired this season. Brink is a member of the Minnesota basketball coaches association hall of fame, the MSHSL hall of fame and the Rocori athletic hall of fame.

A person learns some things over 51 years, and Brink knows that you win some and you lose some.

“It was a good game, great atmosphere and someone had to lose,” he said. “And we happened to be on the wrong end of it.”

Before meeting with the media, Brink spent time in the locker room with the last team he will ever coach. As he exited, he said softly, “That was hard.”

During the postgame interview – in fact, in what turned out to be the final question of the postgame interview – I asked Bob if he thought his players had felt pressure in knowing that if they lost it would be the end of their coach’s career.

“I think they did,” he said. And then, something happened that has rarely happened during the coach’s long and successful career. He became emotional. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought about his players. His team. His boys.

“They wanted to win it for…” He was unable to say the word “me” because it’s never been about him. “But usually the most pressure is to get here …” His tears were stronger now and the small cluster of reporters all said the same thing.

“Thanks coach.”


--The state tournament had not yet begun when I saw a student from Minneapolis Washburn checking his face paint in a restroom mirror. I told him he looked great.

--Giant posters of all the Timberwolves players line a corridor at Target Center, and some Eden Prairie cheerleaders took photos of each other posing with Ricky Rubio’s picture. This was followed by a giggle and the words, “I’m going to make that my profile pic!”

--The enthusiasm meter was nearly broken by the fans from Austin, who took over Williams Arena to watch their team play at state for the first time in 30 years. My cheer of the day? “Here we go Packers! Here we go!”

--Tingles Up The Spine Department: Whenever one of the public-address announcers said, “Welcome to the 100th boys state basketball tournament!”

--Best Fashion Statement: The Detroit Lakes Lakers wearing red and white Zubaz as warmup pants.

--How Time Flies: In 2009, Royce White was named a Class 4A all-tournament player after helping Hopkins win a state title. On Wednesday, the Iowa State player announced he was turning pro.

--Diet Coke Count: 5 for the day, 5 for the tournament, 71 for the winter tournaments.


*Schools/teams John has visited: 431
*Miles John has driven: 6,902

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Kicking Off The 100th Boys State Basketball Tournament3/20/2012
History is in the air as we kick off the 100th boys state high school basketball tournament. Quarterfinal games will begin Wednesday at Williams Arena and Target Center and the tourney will continue through the week, culminating with the crowning of four state championship teams on Saturday at Target Center.

I’m planning to be at Williams Arena on Wednesday morning for the 10 a.m. game Class 3A game between Rocori and Minneapolis Washburn. Rocori coach Bob Brink, 74, has announced his retirement and will finish his 51-year coaching career this week. Brink has taken 12 previous teams to state, including a 26-0 season in 1988 that included a Class 2A championship.

In the second 3A game at Williams Arena, the Austin Packers will play at state for the first time in 30 years, meeting St. Paul Johnson at noon. There is even more history in the 2 p.m. 3A game between Detroit Lakes and DeLaSalle. Detroit Lakes is making its first state appearance since 1918.

At some point Wednesday I will travel from Williams Arena to Target Center. In Class 2A, defending champion Perham will face Worthington in the 6 p.m. game at Target Center, followed by Litchfield vs. Watertown-Mayer at 8 p.m.

It’s going to be a great week of basketball, with history – old and new -- everywhere you look.

--Diet Coke Count: 0 for the day, 0 for the tournament, 66 for the winter tournaments.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 425
*Miles John has driven: 6,877

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
State Tourney Trip Is A Long Time Coming3/18/2012
By Kurt Hildebrandt

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then forgive the players, coaches and fans of the Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin boys basketball team if they look a little love struck Thursday as they make their way to the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

At 1 p.m. that day, the Wolverines will take the floor at Williams Arena against Browerville in the quarterfinal round of the Class 1A boys state basketball tournament. That game will mark the end of a rather lengthy dry spell for state appearances by either of the schools which make up the MLBO pairing.

Until this year, the Wolverines had never made a trip to state in boys basketball in the 25 years the two schools have shared athletic programs. Butterfield-Odin made its one and only appearance in 1978 and while Mountain Lake has made 13 state appearances in its illustrious past, its last one came way back in 1952.

The Wolverines earned their 2012 trip to state courtesy of a 72-56 win over Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s in the Section 2 championship game Friday night at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Making the state trip even more noteworthy is that it comes in the last year of the MLBO sports pairing, as the schools will dissolve the arrangement after the 2011-12 school year.

Butterfield-Odin, with a combined population of around 900 at the time, made its one and only state tournament appearance in 1978. If not for the efforts of one particular state tourney legend -- Lake City’s Randy Breuer -- that school might be remembered fondly among the likes of Edgerton, Sherburn and some of the other small towns that experienced state tourney glory. As it was, Breuer scored 36 points in the semifinal round against B-O to force the Indians to settle for a third-place finish that year.

(In this photo: MLBO coach Shawn Naas, co-captains Beau Herrig and Kaleb Grev along with Willie Krahn, a member of the last Mountain Lake High School team that went to state in 1952, pose with Mt. Lake's 1939 state championship trophy in the balcony area of the school's "old gym" where the Lakers rose to prominence from 1922 to 1958.)

Mountain Lake’s state tournament history is a rather prominent one, although all of it took place during the early years of the event.

The Lakers, as they were known when the school was by itself, qualified for the state tournament on average about once every three years during the first 40 years of the event (1913-1952). The small town (population was around 1,800 at the time) not only “went to state” but the teams competed toe-to-toe many times against much bigger schools and more than held their own.

The Lakers won the state title in 1939, finished second in 1913, 1915 and 1917 and placed third in 1946 and 1947. In five appearances over a seven-year span (1946 to 1952) Mountain Lake was knocked out of the first or second round at state by the eventual state champion, with three of those losses coming by just a single point.

One could forgive some of this year’s players if they weren’t too up to date on the past successes their schools have had on the hardwood, given it has been such a long time since anyone from the boys basketball program has made the state trip other than as spectators.

However, these boys are more than aware of it.

“Oh, definitely. Our coaches, especially Mr. Metcalf (assistant coach Paul Metcalf), have made sure we don’t forget it,” MLBO senior co-captain Beau Herrig said when asked if he and his teammates know about the program’s illustrious past. “It’s great knowing we now get to be a part of that.”

“I know it has been long time since we’ve gotten this far, and it’s exciting for us,” said MLBO’s other senior co-captain, Kaleb Grev. “What makes it even better is all the people that have been coming to our games during the tournaments. To look up and see so many people cheering for you is such a great feeling and something we’ll always remember.”

During the 19 years that MLBO coach Shawn Naas has been at the helm of the Wolverine program, his teams have maintained a connection with the past just prior to each home game. As part of the team’s pregame ritual for home games, the varsity team will make its way from its locker room down a long hallway to what locals affectionately call the “old gym.” There the Wolverine players gather up in the balcony area of the cracker box gym that served as the home to the Lakers during their heyday – from around 1922 to 1958.

“It’s been a tradition, ever since around the time I became head coach, for the guys to go to the old gym at about the nine-minute mark of the B-squad game,” Naas said. “It’s great for them to be able to step away from the noise of the crowd and go to some place quiet to talk among themselves and think about the game a little bit before taking the floor.

A Mountain Lake legend has it that should any type of storm or natural disaster ever be predicted for the small town, people should head to the high school immediately and hang out by the 1939 state championship trophy. The reasoning: not even Mother Nature herself would bring harm to that piece of revered hardware.

One of MLBO’s current assistant coaches, Larry Hempeck, was a post player for Butterfield-Odin during that magical 1978 season and his son Andrew is a sophomore at Mountain Lake High School and starts at guard for the Wolverines this year. The two co-captains, Herrig and Grev, each has a parent who graduated from BOHS.

(In this photo: MLBO sophomore Andrew Hempeck and his father and current assistant coach Larry Hempeck hold up the state third-place trophy that Butterfield-Odin won in 1978. Larry was a starting player on that team.)

“I still remember our trip to state very well, and it’s exciting to know these guys will be able to experience that feeling we had back then,” the elder Hempeck said. “We’re just telling the guys to enjoy it as much as you can because it is so hard to get there.”

“My dad has shared stories with me about going to state in the past and it will be great now being able to play there myself,” Andrew said.

To know just how important it was for MLBO to end their state tournament drought for many, all one had to do was scan the stands Friday night to see the scores of former Mt. Lake, Butterfield-Odin and MLBO players who made the trek to Mankato on Friday. Their goal? To hopefully see that dry spell come to an end once and for all and to share in the excitement of something that had eluded most of them all those years in the past.

Willie Krahn, a member of the Lakers’ 1952 state tournament team that won the consolation title, was one of those former players attending Friday’s game. Krahn has worked the scoreboard at MLBO boys home games for several years and has run the school’s winter open gym program since the late 1970s.

“It’s been fun watching these kids progress and come together as a team,” Krahn said. “I’ve already talked to at least one of my former teammates (Pete Franz) who said he’ll meet me at the game on Thursday. It will be fun for us because Williams Arena is where we played our state games in 1952.”

Win or lose come Thursday afternoon, what this year’s Wolverine team has done has hopefully helped write a happy ending on the final chapter on the MLBO program and begin a new chapter for future successes.

--Kurt Hildebrandt is a 1984 Mountain Lake High School alum who earned two varsity letters in basketball for the Lakers playing sitting guard (sitting on the bench & guarding the water bottles). He returned to his hometown in 1996 and served as sports editor for the Mountain Lake Observer/Butterfield Advocate until 2004. He currently resides in St. Peter with his wife, Teresa, and his family, where he works as news editor for the St. Peter Herald.