12/27/2012 9:48:00 AM A DREAM SEASON, 30 YEARS LATER
On the left, the whole Trojans’ team celebrates in Duluth after winning the region final. On the right, Steve Bratrud cut down the nets as part of the postgame tradition for region and section winners.
Twin towers Keith Hasselquist (54 in white) and Paul VanDenEinde of Willmar battled in the post during the third place game in 1983.
By JEFF NORTON
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Saul Bellow once said, “Everybody needs their memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” For a group of 15 kids and two adults from Chisago Lakes, they need never fear that wolf. The year 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the Chisago Lakes Trojans’ run to third place in the boys basketball state tournament, including an upset of vaunted state powerhouse Minneapolis North in the first round of the tourney.
The unlikely group of boys were more than just a team. They doubled as a group of close friends. Friends who worked together for a common goal of postseason success. The Beginning Most of the guys on the team grew up in Chisago City, Lindstrom and Center City. A few of them remember the early rivalries they shared with each other before they joined forces. “In fifth and sixth grade, we started out as opponents,” Dean Thompson, who was a senior on that squad, said. “It was Chisago City against Lindstrom all the time, and it just continued from there.” After grade school, the boys joined up as one team, but that didn’t stop them from competing against each other and being around each other anyway. “We were always having fun and doing things together,” Keith Hasselquist said. Hasselquist was a 6’7” senior and the focal point of the Trojan offense. “Whether it was playing basketball, watching basketball, playing field hockey in the Thompson’s backyard, we were together.” Although there were seven seniors on the team including manager Brad Zoeller, there were no cliques on the team because everyone had worked together as youngsters.
“The seniors had been playing together since grade school and the Eickman brothers came a few years later, but as the younger kids came through the ranks, we incorporated them into our family,” Hasselquist said. “That paid huge dividends later because we were all so familiar with each other. When we were on the court, we could just look at each other and give a nod and we all knew what the other was thinking.” “We didn't stop playing after each season was over,” Thompson added. “We played in driveways, open gyms, and summer leagues. We played together so much that I usually knew what my teammates were going to do before they would do it.” The Journey The story doesn’t just start at the state tournament in 1983. In fact, it actually starts at the end of the 1982 season. The boys had just won the Rum River Conference and were one of the favorites in their region. However, they ran into the unbeaten Chisholm Bluestreaks, led by legendary coach Bob McDonald, in the region finals. Chisolm topped the Trojans and went on to finish in second place in the state tournament. Although most of the team was coming back for coach Dave Cox, there was one big difference that the Trojans didn’t have any control over. They were moved up to Class AA, with all the biggest schools in the state for the season. In the beginning, that didn’t change anything. Most of the group was back at it for the 1983 season and they were on a mission that year. They finished the season 20-2 overall and 12-1 in the conference, sharing the Rum River Conference title with Mora.
In sections, things were pretty ho-hum in the first two rounds. The Trojans dispatched Proctor 84-63 in the opening round. In the second round, Chisago Lakes cruised to a 72-45 victory over Grand Rapids. Their first big test of the postseason, however, came in the third round against Duluth East. The Trojans held a lead throughout the first three quarters in a low-scoring game, but the Greyhounds made their move late. They began the fourth quarter with a 9-1 run that gave them a 45-42 lead with under five minutes remaining. The two teams traded baskets until Steve Bratrud hit a set shot to cut the deficit to 47-46. After each team hit one more basket and East led 49-48 with 30 seconds left, Bratrud, a senior guard, made the biggest plays of the game. Advancing the ball up court, Bratrud was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one situation. Bratrud calmly and coldly knocked down both free throws to give CL the lead at 50-49. East got the ball back and put it in Paul Norlander’s hands. The senior forward from Duluth had scored seven points in the quarter already, but Troy Heilig provided lock down defense on him on the last possession and forced him into a missed shot. Bratrud got the ball and was quickly fouled again, sinking both free throws and sending the Trojans to the region finals against St. Francis.
“There’s so many memories, but as a specific one, those four free throws I made in the final 19 seconds to help solidify the win were some of the best,” Bratrud said. The region finals against Rum River Conference foe St. Francis weren’t as dramatic. The Saints did build an early lead but Chisago Lakes had reclaimed the lead midway through the third quarter and iced it down the stretch with tough defense and pinpoint free throw shooting, winning 52-43. “Beating St. Francis in the region finals at the DECC in Duluth was huge,” Heilig, a senior guard, said. “We lost to Chisholm the year before in the class A finals in the same building. I remember the fans cheering as we cut down the nets and just walking around the court celebrating with the guys.” However, Chisago Lakes’ draw put them against state powerhouse Minneapolis North in the first game of the first round of the state tournament at the St. Paul Civic Center. The Polars were only three years removed from a state championship in Class AA and had been to the tournament four years in a row. The Trojans were also competing in the large class for the first time. In 1983, local Reverend Robert Knutson was quoted in the newspaper likening the match up as David versus Goliath. Just like in the Bible, David won in 1983, too. The Polars and Trojans were deadlocked almost all the way through the game until senior Scott Eickman made the last of his 11 points to pull Chisago Lakes within one at 43-42. On their next possession, a turnaround jumper from Hasselquist put the Wildcats in front for the first time in the second half at 44-43. After North turned the ball over, Hasselquist hit one-of-two free throws with four seconds to play and the Polars’ buzzer beater shot fell short, sending the Trojan-heavy crowd into a frenzy. Steve Nelson, who assisted on Hasselquist’s go-ahead basket, said, “Just playing at the Civic Center and beating Minneapolis North with my family in the stands was great.” “Minneapolis North was heavily favored to win that game,” Brad Eickman said. “And we beat them.” Hasselquist echoed those sentiments, saying, “North was just a powerhouse and the excitement and thrill to step on the big court was amazing.”
Waiting in the next round of the bracket was undefeated Woodbury. The crowd was electric because this game was played at night, when there were more people in the stands. The earlier game against North was played at 1:05 in the afternoon. The Trojans stayed with Woodbury until about five minutes left. Hasselquist hit a jumper to pull CL within one, but the Trojans suddenly went cold and Woodbury knocked down its free throws down the stretch. The Royals eventually pulled away for a 45-35 victory. “Although we lost, the atmosphere was electric that night because we played in front of something like 17,000 people and to be a part of something like that was an honor,” Hasselquist said. In the third place game, the Trojans beat Willmar in another game that went down to the wire. Before the game, Cox decided to play his six seniors for a majority of the game. The trophy was theirs to win or lose. “I was so glad Coach Cox had decided to play the six seniors a majority of the minutes in the third place game,” Scott Eickman said. Hasselquist led the way for the Trojans in their 58-55 victory with 31 points and 13 rebounds, outplaying fellow Mr. Basketball finalist and seven-footer Paul VanDenEinde. For the tournament, Hasselquist averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds in the three games. Some of the best memories came out of the public eye, however, when Mother Nature dropped a huge load of snow on Minnesota the day of the third place game. Because of the flakes, the team had to stay an extra night at the Raddisson Hotel next to the Civic Center after their third place victory. It gave them a little bit of extra time together to be loose and really savor their accomplishments. Brian Peterson, a sophomore on the ‘83 team, said, “From the huge fan base that came down to watch and cheer us on; to Brad Zoeller making us laugh before our opening game by opening a large box and pretending to be walking down the stairs; to staying an extra night in the hotel because we were snowed in. The whole experience was just incredible. You had to be there for Zoeller’s joke, though.”
The Trojans returned to a cavalcade of revelers welcoming them home. There was a ceremony in the Ward Gym where the seniors on the team presented then-CL Principal Bob Masche the third place trophy. Also, thousands of fans turned out to salute the accomplishments of the Trojans. The Aftermath With six seniors graduating, the Trojans couldn’t repeat their accomplishments in the next few seasons. But, what they did accomplish was so big to so many in the area. “The biggest effect of that team’s success, and that state tournament appearance was how it brought the Chisago Lakes Area together,” Cox said. “The schools had consolidated in 1970, and for 13 years, people still held on to their allegiances to either Lindstrom-Center City or Chisago City. “In my opinion, that team, to this date, is the most influential factor in changing the way people thought about the Chisago Lakes Area.
Chisago Lakes High School was now everybody’s team to support, no matter if they were from Chisago City, or Lindstrom-Center City.” A handful of the players went on to play at the next level. A few more still had a year or two of eligibility left at Chisago Lakes. Hasselquist played four years at Augustana (S.D) College and was elected into their Hall of Fame in 2000. Cox continued coaching the team for eight more years until he took an early retirement from teaching in 1991. These friends, these brothers as a few of them affectionally called each other, brought out the best in each other and the best in the community 30 years ago, and for that, they won’t be forgotten in Chisago Lakes history. “We were successful because we played as a team,” Scott Eickman said. “We believed in each other and trusted one another. We never got out-hustled, and most importantly we just had a blast.”