OPINION — As the pandemic loosens its grip on us — or so we hope — we long for a return to routine.
The same ol’, same ol’. The comfort of the familiar. Doing what we know how to do, over and over.
It’s not just running errands without worrying you will catch a deadly virus, or actually shopping for groceries inside the store. Frankly, I like picking them up in the parking lot.
It’s the regular pleasures we also missed. Stopping for a beer after work. Visiting with family and friends. Watching basketball tournaments in the spring.
It’s been great to indulge in sports this year, after COVID-19 cut so many activities short last year. There were no 2020 high school state basketball champions, and that’s a shame.
It was smart, since we didn’t need thousands of people gathered together as the pandemic swept across the prairie last March. But it was painful to see the girls’ tournaments halted. Castlewood defeated Ethan 45-43 in Spearfish on March 12, 2020, before the AA, A, and B tournaments were stopped.
The boys’ never got underway.
Along with thousands of South Dakotans, I always watch the state high school tourneys. They are all shown on three South Dakota Public Broadcasting channels, including the consolation rounds, and I try to catch as many games as possible in all six tournaments.
This year, there were several thrilling games, with last-second shots, overtimes and great plays down the stretch.
In the girls’ B tourney, Castlewood made it all the way to the title game before falling to White River. Hamlin got to the A championship game before losing to Aberdeen Roncalli, while Sioux Falls Washington claimed the AA crown.
Sioux Falls Roosevelt won the AA boys’ title, while Sioux Falls Christian won the A championship. De Smet won its sixth state title by ending a 25-1 season with the B title.
I will always remember the great De Smet teams from 1969-71, when the Bulldogs went to three straight finals. They lost to Onida 93-90 in 1969; it remains the highest-scoring title game in state history.
De Smet, led by Randy Jencks, one of the greatest athletes who ever competed in South Dakota prep sports, smashed Stickney 76-39 for the 1970 championship and repeated in 1971, defeating Lennox 53-49, as Terry Long, Jencks’ running mate, led the way.
I discussed those teams with my brother Vern, who played against the Bulldogs. He said they were special because they did everything well, led by Jencks, who could dominate a game on defense, by rebounding, passing or scoring.
A decade ago, I interviewed coach Larry Luitjens, who led the Bulldogs to that memorable run. I spoke with him and longtime Mitchell Kernels coach Gary Munsen when their teams came together for a special contest at the Corn Palace.
For a hoops fan like me, it was a privilege to sit back and let those old friends recall games, players and practices. South Dakotans love basketball, and those men taught it as well as anyone.
I have attended a pair of state tourneys. In 1976, my senior year at Estelline High School, I went to the tourney with my friends Dale and Calvin. Most of our class was in Sioux Falls that weekend, as going to the State Bs was an annual rite of passage for kids.
While there may have been a little partying — I am sworn to secrecy — what I remember the best was the games. I went to every session except for the Saturday afternoon contests, and enjoyed being part of the throng.
The B’s were the biggest thing in the state then, overflowing the Sioux Falls Arena and drawing huge ratings for KELO-TV as veteran sportscaster Jim Burt donned one of his collection of plaid coats and called the game for seemingly the entire state.
Dell Rapids defeated Custer 73-55 in the finals that year. Luitjens, who had left De Smet after four seasons and made his way to the Black Hills, coached Custer.
I next saw a tourney in person in 1981, when the B shifted across the state to Rapid City. I covered it for a sports magazine I briefly edited in Brookings.
Once again Custer made the finals and once again the Wildcats fell short, losing to Stickney 44-37. But don’t feel bad for Luitjens, who won five titles in Custer and finished his 45-year career with 748 wins and seven state championships.
There have been so many memorable tournaments for me, including the 1968 Brookings Bobcats, led by my cousin Tom Osterberg, a 5-5 lightning-fast, smart point guard, and Lee Colburn, a 6-6 forward who ran and jumped like a deer.
We had lived in Brookings before moving to the family farm outside of Estelline in April 1966, so we still bled red and black for Brookings. The Bobcats defeated Sioux Falls Lincoln 69-57 for the State A title with our whole family cheering, keeping score and munching popcorn in the living room.
The next year, Brookings returned to the title game but lost to Rapid City 57-50. Those were intense tournaments and we followed every second.
I also vividly recall the 1973 State A, when Brian Shanks, a 7-0 center, led Huron over Yankton, which was led by 6-11 star Chad Nelson. South Dakota had a crop of giants playing on the hardwood for a few years, with several players 6-10 and up competing. It’s never happened before or since.
Some of those old title games have landed on YouTube. It’s great to see the players, hear the roar of the fans and listen to Jim Burt say “He hooks it up” whenever a shot was taken.
New announcers have taken to the mic now, including my friend Mike Henriksen, a worthy successor to Burt as the voice of South Dakota sports. Mike and his fellow vocal artists add to the games with their respect for the kids and coaches, their insights and humor.
The 2021 tourneys were special for the players, coaches, cheerleaders, students and fans. They will recall the season and the final contests played before the cameras, with South Dakota basketball fans glued to their screens, waiting for the next memorable moment.
It’s good to get back to such joyful moments. They may be part of our routine, but they are often anything but that.
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