Underdog team's championship season brought purpose to underdog in lifeby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
SHERBURN, Minn. — The Minnesota boys' state high school basketball tournament celebrates its 100th year this week with games that start today.
In that long history is a memorable win that came 42 years ago this evening, when a team from tiny Sherburn — population not quite 1,200 — in southwestern Minnesota knocked off metro powerhouse South St. Paul for the championship.
More than 18,000 fans packed Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for the championship game showdown in 1970.
As play began, WTCN television announcer Frank Buetel offered this concise analysis of the game.
"Both teams with big men," Buetel said. "And muscle."
The Sherburn High School Raiders had three players in the range of 6 feet, 5 inches. Guard John Tirevold, now a banker, says the team was also agile and known for its ability to run.
"People liked the way we played, the speed of the game. It was entertaining for the audience," Tirevold said.
Sherburn came into the game undefeated, but South St. Paul was the favorite because of its tougher metro area schedule. Sherburn's size and muscle produced a high-scoring offense, but team member Jeff McCarron said the Raiders also had an unlikely secret weapon — the town outcast, George Packard.
"He didn't have a lot of money, he worked for farmers once in a while, he trapped animals," McCarron said. "He scared us as kids, we were sort of afraid of him. Dogs would bark at him when he walked by and he was kind of this mysterious person around town."
But George Packard, then 67, loved sports. The previous fall, Packard drove to an out-of-town Sherburn football game in a car with no headlights. He spent the night in the car, and drove home the next day.
Packard's dedication to the hometown teams impressed the high school coaches. When the basketball season started, McCarron said they let Packard ride in the safety of the Raiders' team bus, where members of the undefeated team would ask for his take on their next opponent.
"And he'd always tell us about their best player or two. How good they were. And that got us off our high horse a little bit. Thinking, 'OK, better not take this for granted,'" McCarron said.
Packard liked to play up Sherburn's underdog status by calling them "the hicks from the sticks." By the time the team reached the championship game, a tight bond had formed: the small-town basketball team, underdogs in the state tournament. And George Packard, underdog in life.
Sherburn opened a 13-point lead in the first half. South St. Paul guard Todd Mettler recalls Sherburn's discipline on the court, and how that focus was on display even during a pre-game meal for the competing teams.
"We were messing around, right? Having a good time and relaxing," Mettler said. "And they sat down there at the other end and didn't say a word the whole time."
During the second half of the game, Sherburn snuffed out a South St. Paul comeback, and pulled away to win by a lopsided 16 points. This was the call of the final moments of the game by WCCO Radio's Ray Christensen.
"They start up court, throw it the length of the court and the ball game is over. Sherburn is the unbeaten Minnesota state high school champion," Christensen said.
Sherburn's win ended a storied phase in the boy's tournament; it was the last to feature schools of every size in a single field. In the 1960s, three other teams from small southwestern Minnesota towns won the championship. But in 1971, the field was split into large and small school divisions.
Sherburn's victory brought the town lasting fame. Player McCarron said a good share of it rubbed off on the original hick from the sticks, George Packard.
"People in the community -- when he was younger, growing up -- had made fun of him," McCarron said. "The whole experience of the tournament really elevated him. He became sort of a celebrity. And so that really changed his life, I think."
Packard died in 1983. But his memory is captured in a photo of Sherburn's five starting players crouching around their trophy. Packard is right behind them, arm outstretched, his hand signing, "We're number 1."
- Morning Edition, 03/21/2012, 6:45 a.m.