Groundbreakers and a basketball ‘bomb squad’

Oftedahl reflects on 1st Tomahawk Conference girls basketball season

Pictured is the 1974 Wabasso girls basketball team’s co-captains with head coach Val Oftedahl. From left to right is Roxanne Hoffman, coach Val Oftedahl and Carol Guetter.

WABASSO — In 1974, Val Oftedahl was able to be part of Minnesota high school basketball history as the Tomahawk Conference had its first season of girls basketball.

Oftedahl was just one of 10 coaches to be a part of that history as she coached the Wabasso girls team to a 6-3 conference record and 8-5 record overall.

While the girls basketball season has traditionally been held during the winter months, the first season in the Tomahawk took place in the fall of 1974. Before the conference started, Wabasso played a three-game season of what was called “intramural games” in 1973, defeating Sleepy Eye 34-25, Redwood Falls 41-21 and New Ulm 43-23.

Oftedahl, who attended the University of Minnesota Morris and played women’s basketball there, moved from Eagle Bend to Wabasso to take a teaching job in 1973. While she was eager to get her career started, she said she never knew she’d remain in Wabasso as long as she did.

“Everybody who came to Wabasso said later, ‘I was going to stay two or three years,'” Oftedahl said. “Thirty-six years later I retired. [laughs].”

In addition to coaching girls basketball for five years at Wabasso, Oftedahl said she also coached volleyball and track and field.

When the conference finally began its inaugural girls basketball season, players were excited for the chance to showcase their abilities in a full, organized season with a host of conference matchups that ended up being a 50-year run of Tomahawk Conference girls basketball.

“The kids were so excited, absolutely so excited to be able to play,” Oftedahl said. “So it was just fun to go down there because those kids, if you’d say, ‘Let’s run through this wall,’ they were ready to run through that wall. They were just ready to do anything you said. Their excitement level was so high.

“Yes, they didn’t shoot so well and didn’t dribble so well and we had turnovers and whatever, but they were excited to be together and they were excited to be able to play. So that was kind of an exciting time because kids who were not able to do that were finally able to do it. It was a real groundbreaking kind of thing. It was fun to be part of that initial start.”

The conference began with 10 teams: Morton, Morgan, Gaylord, Winthrop, Springfield, Sleepy Eye, Fairfax, Franklin, Gibbon and Wabasso. Morton won the conference with an unbeaten 9-0 record, but Wabasso put together a solid season to finish fourth in the conference.

Oftedahl said some of the 1974 team’s success was aided by height, led by senior team captains Carol Guetter (5-foot-10) and Roxanne Hoffmann (5-foot-8). Another senior leader from that 1974 team was guard Jeanne Franta.

Oftedahl said she liked to get as many players involved as she could during the games, which were played in quarters at the time. In doing so, she introduced what she called “The Bomb Squad” during her early years of coaching at Wabasso.

The Bomb Squad was a completely new rotation of players that was often subbed in near the end of each quarter to defuse the opposition’s offense.

“With about two minutes left in the quarter, I would say, ‘bomb squad!’ And they’d get up and go to the scorers table and all five would check in and all five of the starters would come out,” Oftedahl said. “And those girls pressed from the second they hit the floor until the quarter ended. It just drove the other teams absolutely bananas [laughs]. … They took pride in that, they were really proud that that was their job. And the starters really cheered them on when they were out there, so that was fun to see.”

With early uncertainties and new things to learn, Oftedahl wasn’t alone in her quest to keep her team competitive. In addition to buying many basketball books and studying them for drills and ideas, Oftedahl frequently checked in on the Wabasso boys basketball team practices and got help from then-head boys basketball coach Leo Grossman.

“He was the boys basketball coach and he was also the athletic director, and I used to talk a lot with and ask him questions about full-court presses and offenses and stuff,” she said. “And he always encouraged me right from the very beginning, ‘You can come and watch practice.’ And so I did that.

“I would make sure I went down to the gym a half an hour before our practice was going to start or an hour and I would sit there and watch a practice quite a few times. … He was very good to sit down with me or come over and say we’re doing this or this. He was very good about giving that help.”

Oftedahl currently lives in Sauk Centre but still keeps a close eye on the conference as she is now in her 35th season as the Tomahawk Conference’s executive secretary.

“I enjoy going back and many of the athletic directors and coaches are the ones that are still there from when I was there and it keeps me involved,” she said. “I know how the teams are doing, and you kind of see the same names, except that now it’s kids of the ones before [laughs].

“A lot of names are very common to certain schools like Frank in Wabasso and Steffensmeier and just some of those names that are familiar in schools. So it’s kind of fun to just keep following them and I enjoy getting the awards for the kids and stuff. That’s an important thing for them.”

And in the conference’s 50th and final season of girls basketball before it merges with the Valley Conference, Oftedahl originally had mixed emotions but has come to terms with the conference living on in a new way.

“The Tomahawk is still going to be a division of this conference, and those same teams are still going to play each other,” she said. “So Wabasso will still play Springfield and Sleepy Eye and GFW, they’ll still play those same teams. … I think for our team sports — the basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball — I don’t think we’re going to notice any change necessarily except right at the very end of the season where we’re going to have a championship game.

“So I’m OK with the fact that we still have the Tomahawk, it’s still there. They’re still going to be playing those same kind of rivalries. At first I was kind of sad about it, but I’ve kind of decided that yeah, it’s OK.”

1974 Wabasso Girls Basketball Schedule

Regular Season

9/10 vs. Morgan (43-35 loss)

9/17 at Gibbon (58-15 win)

9/19 vs. New Ulm (48-37 win)

9/24 vs. Franklin (57-13 win)

10/1 vs. Springfield (39-16 win)

10/8 at Morton (47-46 loss)

10/15 vs. Winthrop (54-29 win)

10/22 at Gaylord (43-39 loss)

10/24 at Sleepy Eye (42-25 win)

10/29 vs. Fairfax (46-29 win)

10/31 at New Ulm (40-36 loss)

District 10 Tournament at Sleepy Eye

11/5 vs. Sleepy Eye (41-25 win)

11/7 vs. Morton (39-26 loss)

(8-5 overall, 6-3 Tomahawk Conference)

1974 Tomahawk All-Conference

Girls Basketball Team

All-Conference Team

Joleen Schiller (Springfield)

Michelle Bidinger (Morton)

Mary Beth Bidinger (Morton)

Diane Zeman (Franklin)

Laurie Huelskamp (Gaylord)

Mary Nesvig (Gaylord)

Debbie Trochlil (Sleepy Eye)

Roxanna Hoffman (Wabasso)

Donna Steffl (Wabasso)

Carol Guetter (Wabasso)

Vicki Zimmerman (Morgan)

Lisa Steffensmeier (Morgan)

Lana Luedtke (Fairfax)

Connie Kruggel (Winthrop)

Nancy Trebbensee (Winthrop)

Honorable Mention

Barb Schweiss (Gibbon)

Shelly Frantz (Springfield)

Connie Grages (Gaylord)

Deb Lowinske (Sleepy Eye)

Heide Fischer (Morgan)

Conference Standings

Morton 9-0

Gaylord 8-1

Morgan 7-2

Wabasso 6-3

Winthrop 5-4

Sleepy Eye 4-5

Springfield 3-6

Gibbon 1-8

Fairfax 1-8

Franklin 1-8


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