Celebrating 75 years of Tomahawk Conference boys’ basketball
The conference first formed in 1944 as the “Tomahawk League”, borrowing the name from the old Tomahawk baseball league. The initial seven schools that represented the league were Gaylord, Morton, Morgan, Franklin, Fairfax, Gibbon and Winthrop, although Franklin didn’t actually start playing with the league until the following year due to the lack of a playing court.
According to the Gaylord Hub, coach Jim Pappas of Fairfax served as the league secretary that provided weekly standings to each participating schools.
The first Tomahawk champions for the 1944-1945 season were the Gaylord Spartans, who finished the season 6-0 in the league. The Spartans were coached by coach Hilbert Sandholm.
Sandholm coached the Spartans their first two seasons in Tomahawk play, going 15-0 in the conference over those two seasons. Gaylord went on to win 17 conference titles and had 38 seasons at or above .500.
The first game in league history was on Tuesday, November 28, 1944 at Gaylord. Gaylord won that game 30 to 10 over Gibbon.
Steve Sather, a longtime historian and statistician for the Tomahawk Conference, has collected a vast number of statistics, stories and information from the conference with decades of research. He also credits the late William Greve for always being willing to help him in the past with his research and recalls the stories he used to tell.
Greve was a part of the original 44-45 Tomahawk League champions in Gaylord.
“William Greve, he wrote sports for the Gaylord Hub and he helped me find a lot of information there,” Sather said. “He was the grandpa of Ben Greve, who is married to Lindsey Whalen, so that’s a neat little connection there. But he was a great guy to work with, he’d always have good stories when I’d go up there, it was fun.”
Sather said that one specific statistic that stood out to him from 75 years of Tomahawk action was the most points scored by a team in a single game.
“The most points we ever had in a game [by one team] was 124,” Sather said. “Morton got 124 way back in 1969-70, way before the 3-pointer and all that stuff, it was just crazy.”
The 3-point line was later introduced to Minnesota high school basketball during the 87-88 season.
GFW’S 43 CONSECUTIVE CONFERENCE WINS
Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop joined the conference in the 1987-1988 season, and it didn’t take long for the school to find success on the court. Currently holding 11 Tomahawk Conference championships in boys’ basketball, GFW is the top current school in conference titles won.
GFW found success particularly in the late 80s and early 90s when they won four conference titles in a row from the 1989-90 season to the 1992-93 season. During that conference-winning streak, the Thunderbirds also went on a 43-game winning streak in the conference that ended in the 92-93 season after a loss to Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s after starting out 5-0 in the conference. GFW also went to the state tournament in 1991 and 1992.
Current GFW Athletic Director and girls’ basketball coach Richard Busse was a part of those dominant teams, with his graduating senior year being in 1991. But Busse said he wasn’t paying too much attention to the streak at the time.
“Nobody really ever thought anything of that at the time,” Busse said. “For me, it was one year plus however many [wins] we had in 89, two, three, four, as part of that streak. That [streak] didn’t really start to mount until I suppose the 92-93 season, somewhere in there. … Lyle Muth was the head coach at the time, who is still coaching at GFW right now, he’s the c-squad boys’ coach. Coach Muth still walks into that gym at St. Mary’s and has something to say about game No. 44 like, ‘This is where that streak ended,’ or ‘I hate playing here!’ One of those. [laughing].”
With a state appearance his final season as a player at GFW in 1991, Busse remembers pieces of each game and the crowds and atmosphere the most.
“There are small parts of each of those games that you remember,” Busse said. “For me it was, I don’t know how many people Gustavus can hold, but there wasn’t room for another person, I don’t believe. They were sitting on the floor at the base of the bleachers, that hallway up on top was packed, it had to be two or three rows deep of people. We ended up playing Mankato Loyola for the District Championship that year. That was a team with Dan Ward, John Landkamer, [Landkamer’s the AD at Mankato Loyola right now], Rick Theuninck, who coached the Mankato Loyola girls. A lot of guys that you hear a little bit about. That was a very intense game that we ended up winning.”
Busse also remembers playing against Belle Plaine in the Regional game in front of another packed crowd, where GFW won in overtime.
Busse started coaching at GFW in 2000 and said that the biggest change from being a player in the conference to coaching in the conference was how his views adjusted to appreciate his rivals and opponents even more today.
“As a coach, I really learned to appreciate the guys that I coach against,” Busse said. “When you’re a player, the guys you’re against are kind of acquaintances. Sometimes you want to make sure you have a little fuel going into the game, they certainly aren’t your friends, you want to beat them, that kind of thing. But as a coach, 25-30 years after the fact, you really pay attention to how other guys do their job, you really can appreciate what they can get their teams to do. Craig Morgan, he was coaching [at MVL] one year before I did. We’ve had a number of really great battles and even the games aside, we can have some fun during the game with each other, and you learn to appreciate that and the guys you coach against.
“I remember guys like Peter Roufs at Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s. He had some really good teams and he was one of those guys that you really learn to respect how his kids played, and you tried to pull pieces away from how he tried to do his job. Alan Woitas, who is coaching now at [New Ulm] Cathedral, he was a player on Peter Roufs team at St. Mary’s when we [GFW] won the conference in 2006. That was the first time for myself as a coach that we won it, so we had to go through Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s and the Woitas brothers, Alan being one of them, and a number of years later I was coaching against Alan. You kind of learn to appreciate these guys on a different level than you do as a player.”
Minnesota Valley Lutheran joined the conference in the 1990-1991 season, and just like GFW, it didn’t take the school long to get something started. With 10 Tomahawk titles, MVL sits one spot behind GFW for most conference titles won among the current nine Tomahawk teams.
MVL won its first conference title during the 93-’94 season and won four more titles from 95-96 to 99-00 before finishing 17-1 in the conference in both 00-01 and 01-02.
In 05-06 and 08-09, MVL finished with a 17-1 conference mark also before winning its most recent Tomahawk title in 2016 after posting a 15-1 conference record.
Current MVL head boys’ basketball coach and Athletic Director Craig Morgan knows full well the kind of success the Charger boys have had over the years as he’s been the head coach for the boys since 1999. He has coached several dominant teams over the years and it’s hard for him to decide who the top MVL team was during that time, but he does have a memory that sticks out from one of his earlier teams.
“We lost in the subsection semifinals to Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s in 2000,” Morgan said. “We had beaten Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s by over 20 at St. Mary’s [earlier], then in the subsection semifinals, we were really cold and we ended up losing in a nail-biter. The [MVL] girls kept winning and they took second at state that year, and I remember at Williams Arena, sitting on the bench because our varsity girls’ coach wanted me to sit next to them. I remember looking down the bench and seeing my guys up in the stands still just shaking their heads and ticked off that they lost because that was the year that we were supposed to win it, the ball just didn’t drop.”
Morgan has witnessed several of his players break records at MVL, such as Dan Unke finishing his career with a total of 1,662 points, currently fourth among New Ulm area basketball players, and Galen Holzhueter setting the MVL record for career points scored in 2010 with 2,053. Morgan also recalled other top players like Greg Holzhueter, Jay Wendland, his first point guard, Brandon Smith, Jeff Dolan and Andy Beilke, who went on to star at Southwest Minnesota State University, where the Mustangs became the NCAA Tournament Central Region champions in 2009.
Morgan said that although he enjoys his recent time in the conference, he recalls the earlier days of his coaching for MVL the most and the trips to schools like Wabasso and McLeod West.
“I really enjoy our kids now and everything, but the early years — my first trip out to Wabasso, I think I remember the gyms more than the games,” Morgan said. “Earlier at Wabasso, when we’d go down into the basement, it was almost like a boiler room, hot, sweaty, before guys even warmed up it was warm down there. Then the courts were so small, they had restraining line, I don’t even know if people know what that is anymore. It was just the quaintness of places like McLeod West when we played in Brownton. It was an old wood floor, looked like you walked into Hoosiers.
“Just some of the different gyms, coaches, people around. I used to call it the characters of the conference. You’d have the people that have always done the scoreboard … just those guys. You’d always go to a certain school and you’d walk in — one school a guy would always give you a bag of popcorn and said, ‘Hey, I remember you liked the popcorn.’ Kind of funny stuff.”
Morgan also credited Jim Bauer, MVL head boys’ basketball coach before him for 18 years, for building the boys’ program from scratch and helping make it a success.
SPRINGFIELD’S 2011 STATE TITLE
On March 26, 2011, the Springfield Tigers did what no other boys’ basketball team in the conference has ever done: take home a Class A title. With a 70-58 win over the unbeaten-at-the-time Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, the Tigers were declared Class A state champions.
The 26-3 Tigers were led by head coach Lance Larson and a starting lineup of Jesse Kieper, Alex Fink, Dillon Schultz, Cody Milbrath and Ryan Beyer. Adding a returning 6-foot-8, and current Tennessee Titan, Tyler Marz to the bench in a sixth-man role, the Tigers were hard to bring down.
Marz returned for that 2011 playoff run just in time after an injury kept him sidelined for the majority of the season; But when Marz was good enough to go, he used his size to put up 9.6 points per game and grab 5.1 rebounds per game.
Kieper, the 2011 All-Journal Player of the Year, led the balanced Tigers with 18.3 ppg, 4.1 assists per game and a 55 percent shooting percentage from the field. Fink averaged 13.3 ppg, 6.6 assists per game and 6.2 rpg, while Milbrath averaged 16.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg and two blocks per game.
Schultz added 10 ppg and 4.1 rpg per game, while Beyer chipped in 5.2 ppg.
Schultz, former South Dakota State University golfer and now the girls’ head basketball and golf coach at Springfield, described the team as a balanced group that could beat teams in several different ways.
“I would say that we were super balanced and you’ve got to pick your poison of who you were trying to take away defensively,” Schultz said. “Kieper was probably our most reliable scorer because he was a good defender that could get out in transition … I could stretch the floor shooting the ball, and then we had good post play down low as well, so if you went to a 2-3 zone and packed it in to stop the big guys, then we could beat you from the outside if we shot well. If we were shooting well and you tried to take away that, then Milbrath and Marz would just eat you alive down low. We just would take what the defense gave us, and any given night, we didn’t really know who was going to go off.”
Schultz added that the thing he remembered most about the historic title win was the celebration and the feeling after the final buzzer sounded in what was his final game with the Tigers.
“Just being with the guys and being a team, the bus ride home after winning it all was great,” he said. “Winning state was kind of our goal since were in third, fourth, fifth grade, growing up and playing basketball. It’s something we worked for for so long and just getting to celebrate that — because when we won state, we all kind of got taken out at the end because we had it pretty well wrapped up. And coming off and seeing how excited everybody was and getting to spend those moments on the bench, seeing your goals become reality was really special. That would probably be my memories — the celebration afterwards with all the team coming back and having a rally at the school after that and being on the bench those last few moments with my teammates, just that moment.”
Tomahawk Conference Boys’ Basketball Timeline 1944 — 2018 (74 Seasons) *Please note state appearances are from time spent in Tomahawk Conference only.
Gaylord — Joined the conference in 44-45. Left the conference following the 89-90 season. State appearances — (2) 1969, 1973. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 17.
Morton — Joined the conference in 44-45. Left the conference following the 84-85 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 4.
Fairfax — Joined the conference in 44-45. Left the conference following the 86-87 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 1.
Gibbon — Joined the conference in 44-45. Left the conference following the 86-87 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 5.
Winthrop — Joined the conference in 44-45. Left the conference following the 86-87 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 2.
Franklin — Joined the conference in 44-45. Didn’t play until 45-46 due to a lack of a playing court. Left the conference following the 81-82 season. State appearances — (1) 1965. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 3.
Morgan — Joined the conference in 44-45. Was part of the Red Rock Conference in 78-79. Left the Tomahawk Conference following the 82-83 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 9.
Morton/Franklin — Played one season as a co-op during the 82-83 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
Echo — Joined the conference in 50-51. Left the conference following the 58-59 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
Sleepy Eye — Joined the conference in 61-62. Longest time spent in the conference as a single school. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 2.
Wabasso — Joined the conference in 71-72. State appearances — (1) 1997. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
Springfield — Joined the conference in 75-76. State appearances — (4) 1986, 2010, 2011 (champions), 2017. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 7.
New Ulm Luther (MLA) — Joined the conference in 78-79. Played one season before relocating to Wisconsin. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
New Ulm Cathedral — Joined the conference in 84-85. State appearances — (1) 1999. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 2.
Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s — Joined the conference in 84-85. State appearances — (3) 1998, 2005, 2006. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 6.
Cedar Mountain — Joined the conference in 83-84. Left the conference following the 99-00 season. Rejoined the conference in 18-19. State appearances — (1) 1985. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 1.
Cedar Mountain/Comfrey — Joined the conference in 00-01. Left the conference following the 17-18 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 2.
Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop — Joined the conference in 87-88. State appearances — (3) 1991, 1992, 2007. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 11.
Minnesota Valley Lutheran — Joined the conference in 90-91. State appearances — (1) 1997. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 10.
Sanborn-Lamberton — Joined the conference in 90-91. Left the conference following the 92-93 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
McLeod West — Joined the conference in 93-94. Left the conference following the 08-09 season after the school’s closure. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
Buffalo Lake-Hector — Joined the conference in 94-95. Left the conference following the 09-10 season. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.
Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart — Joined the conference in 10-11. State appearances — 0. Tomahawk Conference Titles — 0.