Championship still on their minds
Fargo – Memories of the 1954 Leeds High School boys basketball team that won the Class B state championship are still shared 60 years after the final buzzer sounded.
No details – even the smallest ones – have been forgotten in large part because all 10 players, and even the team manager, are still around to retell the story of how the Lions became champions.
Last week, the Leeds Class of 1954 gathered for its 60th reunion in Fargo and part of that celebration was a reunion of the basketball team.
The Lions 1954 roster was made up of seniors: Jim Jorgenson, Carl Long, Larry Marchus, Kirk Cowan, Curtis Nordhougen and Eugene Snyder along with juniors: Donald Haugen, Ronald Julson, Brian Larson, James Hill and the team’s student manager Marvin Schaap.
All but two of the players were in attendance for the reunion. Over the years, the team has gathered several times including its 50th anniversary in 2004, which was attended by the team’s coach Robert Sellberg. Sellberg passed away in February at the age of 87.
A lot has happened in the 60 years that have passed since the Lions’ title run, but when the team gets together stories start to fill the room like they did last Tuesday at the C’mon Inn in Fargo.
“The camaraderie is still there after all these years,” said 77-year-old Long, who resides in Red Wing, Minn. “For all of us to be around at this stage of the game is pretty impressive.”
“They are the same stories every time we get together, but they are sure enjoyable,” added Marchus, 78, who has kept a large folder full of photos, newspaper clippings and programs chronicling the 1954 Lions squad.
Anyone paging through Marchus’ collection quickly understands how important the ’54 team was to the small town of Leeds and the surrounding communities. Leeds had never had a basketball team qualify for a state tournament prior to 1954.
“Everything added up that year,” said Cowan, 78, who lives in Washington. “It was just a great team effort by everyone involved with the team. We were the small town team and I really believe that is one of the reasons we had so much success that year. All the parents, fans and businesses in town were behind us.”
Behind most good teams there is usually a good coach and the Lions had one in Sellberg, who was a newcomer to Leeds in 1954.
“Anything he said was the law,” said 78-year-old Julson, who lives in Wahpeton. “I can’t remember anyone talking back to him or getting into an argument with him.”
Leeds entered the state tournament – held at Swain Hall Gymnasium on the campus of Minot State Teachers College – with a 21-6 record. The Lions were fresh off a 45-44 win over rivals Cando in the regional tournament final. Long clinched that game by sinking two free throws with seconds remaining.
At that time, the top two teams from the state’s four regions in Class B qualified for the state tournament and the win against the Cubs – a team that had beat the Lions in the regular season – turned some heads.
“We felt Cando was the best team we had played that year, to that point, and we thought if we got by them we were in good shape,” said 78-year-old Nordhougen, who lives in Moorhead.
Along with Leeds, the B tournament field was made up of Fargo Oak Grove, New Town, Beach, Cando, Casselton, Sherwood and Ashley.
The Lions’ quarterfinals opponent was Casselton, who had defeated Leeds 48-43 earlier in the year, but Leeds proved to be a tough team to get the better of twice in ’54. No team defeated Leeds twice and the Lions cruised to a 54-45 win over Casselton.
“We were labeled as dark horses heading into the tournament because we came into state already having lost six games, but that was deceptive,” said 77-year-old Snyder, who lives in Kerrville, Texas. “We steadily improved the entire year.”
Schapp saw the team’s progression keeping stats and sitting next to Sellberg on the bench. The 76-year-old remembers the opening-round win well.
“After we won the first game someone said ‘well the worse we can do now is fourth place,’ but we kept winning,” Schaap said.
In the semifinals, Leeds defeated Ashley 70-62 setting up a title-game matchup with Fargo Oak Grove.
in title game
Leeds showed no jitters in the championship game.
Co-captains Long and Jorgenson combined for 32 points and the Grovers couldn’t answer Leeds’ dominating front-court combo. Leeds led by 10 at halftime and won the game 54-40.
“It was a complete team effort,” said 78-year-old Jorgenson, who lives in Fargo. “Everyone was working hard. It was just plain exciting to be playing in that game. We never got flustered.”
The stars may have been aligned for underdog basketball teams across the country on March 20, 1954.
On the same night, a thousand miles away in Indianapolis, Milan High School won the one-class, Indiana boys basketball championship. The inspiration for the popular sports movie “Hoosiers” came from Milan’s championship season.
A ride to remember
Leeds never had its story adapted into a screenplay, but for Haugen, 77, the Lions’ season remains one of a kind.
“Those experiences are ones you remember your whole life,” said Haugen, who resides in York, N.D., near Leeds. “When we got home cars were lined up all over town to greet us. It was exciting.”
After winning the championship, Leeds made the 90-mile journey home in three cars, but the caravan quickly grew larger.
Law enforcement officials in Rugby, N.D., provided a police escort for the Lions’ motorcade all the way to Leeds.
A pep fest for the team was held in Leeds an event that drew a big crowd including members of the Rugby basketball team, one the Lions’ bigger rivals that season.
“The whole season was memorable,” Long said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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