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The Good Ol’ Days: Defending Champs

By Staff | Mar 8, 2016

The Rugby High School boys basketball team has been the defending state champions a total of four times: In 1941 and ’42, after winning back-to-back Class B titles in 1940 and ’41; in 1963 after knocking off Phil Jackson’s Williston team in ’62 in Class A and again this season after winning the Class B title in 2015 (after almost running the table in 2014).

Being a defending champ can be like reaching the top of Mount Everest: Where do you go from there? How long can you stay on top? What’s it like to be the target? The out-of-nowhere Panthers went into the 1962 state Class A tourney in Grand Forks as the “Cinderella team”. When I first heard that, as an impressionable 8th-grader, I imagined our guys wearing tutus and ballet slippers. Of course, they wore the regulation short pants and skimpy jerseys of the day, along with store-bought ten-dollar tennis shoes, and managed to weave together three games of Cinderella-like magic.

We know the story of how they knocked off a low-blowing Park River squad, then shocked the high-flying favorite Fargo Central and, almost as an after-thought, cruised to a ten-point win over Phil’s Wills and kicked his Coyotes to the curb. Rugby became the darlings of the media. The only thing that kept Hollywood from making a movie about the Panthers was that the studios must have thought that “Hoosiers” sounded sexier. And Arnold “The Hoosiernator” Schwarzenegger was still learning his layups somewhere in Austria.

I was an RHS freshman in 1962-63 and played clarinet in the Pep Band led by Tilman Hovland during warmups. The games were played in the National Guard Armory and because of increased interest in our defending Class A champs, people came from near and far to see them (but mostly from near). Fans from as far away as Brandon, Manitoba made the journey, but if they didn’t get to the Armory before 5:30 p.m. for the 7:30 tipoff, they could find the doors locked, per the Fire Marshal.

Prior to the Armory’s construction, Rugby played its home games in the Memorial Hall, which used to put the “C” in “cracker box”, as far as seating capacity went.

The Armory could shoehorn about 2,500 people into the bleachers if everyone sat cheek-to-jowl, as they say in Rugby, England. But hoops fans in Britain have plenty of good seating available at their sparsely-attended tilts. In Rugby, ND in 1962-63 it was a different story.

Because God created basketball to be played as a winter sport, we all wore extra layers of clothing, plus scarves, mittens, hats and overshoes just to make the walk from the parking lot to the Armory’s lobby. Because we had to get there so early, we watched the entire preliminary game, usually featuring our “B-Squad” against the visitors’ “B” team.

One night the visiting team brought their freshmen unit and we freshmen got to play in front of 2,500 fans. Usually, our freshmen games were played before maybe 47 people, some of them National Guardsman who were awaiting the final horn in order to practice close order drill, coached by Ted Kjelstrom, the long-time NCO in charge of the Armory. His son Kent was a good friend and teammate and we used to shoot baskets in the spacious solitude of a Saturday on the always-shiny linoleum-over-concrete floor.

The night that we frosh frolicked before the largest crowd in our young lives, I arrived at 5 p.m. for the 6 o’clock tipoff and couldn’t find a place to park. I had to drive to the football field and trudge back in falling snow and cold temps, only to find the side door locked. A man inside said “We’re full, you can’t come in.” I produced a jock strap from my maroon Gronvold Motor Company sports bag and was admitted.

I think we played either Harvey or Bottineau and they had more stage fright than we did and we won. Whenever Ray Geisinger or Gary Wurgler or Larry Jack Volk or whoever scored, there was a thunderous, deafening roar unlike anything we’d ever heard. If the fans had to be there two hours early, they chose to enthusiastically cheer for us ninth-graders.

The Pep Band played on the Armory’s stage and we had a good view of the Seating of the 5,000 (or so it seemed). The growing crowd was asked to please move closer together, which was difficult because a) we like our personal space and b) everyone was wearing winter woolies. This would go on for almost an hour. Arrivees would be put into a holding area somewhere and then released to be seated in the gym, sort of like boarding an airplane. Just before tipoff the band would surrender our seats to more fans who would stand for two hours on the stage to survey what they thought would be a historical second run to the top of Mount Everest.

Some late-comers had to stand in the outer hallways and listen on their transistor radios to Don Erickson describing the action on KGCA from his perch atop the south stands. When there was a big play, these spectators would emerge from the shadows and try to peer over the huddled masses to catch whatever action there was to catch.

Spoiler alert: Rugby lost to Grand Forks Central in a state semifinal game and Grand Forks then lost to Williston in the 1963 championship duel. BTW: Rugby was 5-0 against Williston in Jackson’s junior and senior years.

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. Although he never played varsity basketball, many think he did and he’s fine with that. He resides in Orlando, Florida and his heart will always be with the Heart of America

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