’62 title still fresh in their minds
The story of the 1962 Class A champions always goes back to David Lysne’s backyard. That was where the last Rugby High School state champions in boys basketball honed their skills daily.
“We were there every day, rain or snow, even in the winter time,” said Carlan Kraft, a junior on the championship team. “At minimum, eight people showing up off that team every time.”
The team known for its camouflage caps captured the imagination of every basketball-crazy small town in North Dakota. The Panthers played giant slayers in the semifinal game, upsetting Fargo, which was a city of 47,000 then. Rugby was about the same size it is now with nearly 3,000 residents.
Paul Presthus, who had people coming from all over to see him play in Rugby, posted 44 points on Fargo.
Frank Hornstein, then the Tribune publisher and editor, wrote: “Presthus had writers and sportscasters exhausting their adjectives.”
Teams threw two or three defenders at the junior star. “The gamble was the other boys couldn’t hit shots,” Hornstein wrote.
Presthus set the tournament’s single-game scoring record in the opening round against Park River with 35 points. He quickly reset the record in the semifinal and joined senior Ray Ellingrud with 19 points each to lead five players in double figures in the championship – a 78-68 win over Phil Jackson and the Williston Coyotes.
“You have to look at it and see the impact that getting to state and winning the state title has on a community like Rugby,” Presthus said. “It was incredible. The people that were waiting for us and the reception we got when we got home was amazing. Everybody was excited and proud of you and pulling for you and we played before packed houses. You had to get (to the armory) at 4 p.m. to get a seat.”
Presthus went on to play for the University of Minnesota though many fans remember the Fargo game more than any other moment in his career. Former RHS coach Dick Vinger, 83, was 31 at the time and in his first season as a head coach.
“He took over the game and he was scoring from all over,” Vinger said. “He scored from what would be 3-point line now. He scored from in the post and off the rebounds and he just did everything. I never saw a player have a game quite as dynamic as he had. Fargo only had one public high school then and they had a good team. I think we caught them by surprise. They didn’t think they’d have too much trouble with little Rugby.”
Said Presthus: “I was hot. My teammates were giving me the ball and it was just one of those special nights. I’d scored that many points before, but the idea to do that against that opposition was special.”
Williston couldn’t have had any more trouble with the Panthers. Despite having University of North Dakota and NBA legend Jackson, the Coyotes fell five times to RHS in the junior and senior seasons of Presthus.
“There was always a lot of hype around the matchup with Phil and myself and we were both surrounded by pretty good supporting casts,” Presthus said. “We weren’t a cocky team, but we were a confident team. … I just wish we’d got a chance to play them in the finals our senior year.”
Rugby lost in the semifinal the following season and Williston won the title.
Presthus was encouraged by some to forego his senior football season in order to stay healthy for scholarship offers, but he never hesitated from helping his school fill its football and baseball rosters. Despite the hype, Presthus remembered staying grounded.
“There were enough people to put you in your place if you got too big for your britches, but I don’t think I had an issue,” Presthus said. “I was able to deal with it, keep things in perspective and I was very fortunate. I think I was brought up the right way.”
Backup center Myron Sliper remembers spirited practices that kept the starting five of the All-American and four seniors sharp.
“It was a good chemistry and we provided a good practice squad for them just about every day,” Sliper said. “Coach Vinger knew his stuff and worked us hard and it paid off.”
First man off the bench Doug Stempson remembers things a little differently.
“I was the hero and Paul Presthus wasn’t,” Stempson said with a chuckle. He actually remembers a team of one great player (Presthus) and nine decent players. Stempson, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, wouldn’t be surprised if he still held a state tournament record for most fouls in the shortest span.
“When we played Park River, they went after Presthus by fouling him really rough to try to get him to retaliate and get kicked out of the game,” Stempson said. “They thought that was their only chance. Vinger put me in and told me to get ’em and I fouled out in three minutes. I knocked out one guy completely and no one messed with Presthus after that. I would assume I still have the record for that.”
The team caught up at last year’s Homecoming and was honored at the 2012 Class A tournament to mark the 50th anniversary. Life has taken the players and coaches around the world, but they still keep an eye on the Panthers, especially this year’s team.
“I follow them as good as I can by the newspaper and I’ve been kind of thinking to myself is that (Brad) Heidlebaugh a baby Presthus,” Vinger said. “He’s only a junior and he’s 6-5. Maybe he’s better than Presthus.”
Presthus sent RHS coach Mike Santjer an e-mail earlier this week wishing the Panthers well.
“Hopefully Rugby can win it,” Presthus said. “They have to listen to the coach, trust in their teammates and believe in (themselves). If you can do that and stay calm there’s a good chance.”
Presthus resides in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis where he’s lived since graduating as a Gopher. He served active duty in the Army reserve, retired from the financial business in 2011 and is in good health following two heart attacks that year.
Sliper lives in Dayton, Ohio, and served 30 years with the U.S. Air Force. Vinger went on to coach Grand Forks Central to two state titles in the 1970s and lives in Grand Forks. Kraft went to West Point Military Academy, served in Vietnam and practiced law in Rugby for 25 years. He now splits time between Bismarck and Surprise, Ariz. Stempson also served in Vietnam before being a warden at a Washington D.C. prison, and is retired near Tampa, Fla.
Every member of the team, all four cheerleaders and the student manager graduated from college, which wasn’t commonplace in the ’60s. Half the team served in the military.
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