Looking back and looking forward on the… MLC Lutheran Invitational Tournament of Champions
The tournament featured 56 teams from 38 schools, with Division’s 3 and 4 (boys and girls) playing from Feb. 16-18 and Division’s 1 and 2 (coed teams) playing from Feb. 23-25. Division’s 1 and 2 featured smaller schools like St. John’s Lutheran of Sleepy Eye and Trinity Lutheran from Nicollet, while Division’s 3 and 4 featured the larger schools like St. Paul’s Lutheran of New Ulm and Bloomington Lutheran.
The tournament began in 1955, making the previous two weekends the 63rd annual event. There have been four directors in charge of the event with Ed Nolte being the first in 1955.
Harold Kaiser was second in charge, before Gary Dallman took over from 1977 to 1997. The current director of the tournament is Jim Unke, MLC Director of Athletics.
Unke is entering his 21st year of running the tournament and has plenty of experience as a result. Unke credited Dallman with the success of the tournament.
“He’s really the guy who made the tournament kind of what it is today,” Unke said of Dallman. “I’ve got to give Gary a lot of credit because I’m just following in his footsteps. He still lives here in New Ulm and we give him the t-shirt every year. [laughs]”
Unke fondly recalls his years of coaching St. Paul’s Lutheran from 1983-1987 and remembers coaching in the tournament.
“I have run the gamut of this tournament,” Unke said. “I’ve coached in it. My first call was St. Paul’s, New Ulm. And I got to coach that team in this tournament  and Trinity Belle Plaine was the No. 1 team. And we upset them in the championship with a sixth grader making a hoop at the buzzer. So that is a very vivid memory.”
Unke also said that he appreciates hearing the feedback of the event from parents and hopes that the kids participating carry a fond memory of MLC after the tournament is over.
“But every year, just talking to all of the moms and dads, it makes all of the work worth while,” Unke said. “There is definitely a goal to bring all these kids to this campus. There are campus tours going on all the time, there’s kids eating down in the cafeteria, we want them to become familiar with Martin Luther College. Some day maybe they will choose to study for the ministry and they will have fond memories of this campus.”
Unke said that once the work and planning is all done with referees, concessions, ticket takers, student managers and more, he loves seeing everything play out.
“Once that’s all in place, it is so much fun just to watch the kids have fun,” Unke said. “The first weekend is kind of about winning the tournament, the second weekend is just about having fun. The small schools, they come in and they go ‘man, this is a big gym!’ Some of the small schools, this is there basketball season, they just play in this tournament and that’s it. “Most of the small schools don’t have gyms,” Unke added. “They play wherever they can get a gym. The small schools, it’s just fun to see the kids. Big schools, we’ve had a couple of Division 1 players play in this tournament, so they’re serious about the game.”
With the 63rd tournament in the books, Unke, along with many parents and students, will be looking forward to another solid tournament again next year.
Next year’s 2019 tournament is scheduled for Feb. 15-17 for large schools and Feb. 22-24 for small schools.
Below are several different photos from the tournament this year.