ROCHESTER – Ron Larson was the boys’ basketball coach at St. Francis High School for 28 seasons. He resigned in 2008 and soon was being hired as the men’s coach at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
There were only two junior colleges in the Twin Cities competing in basketball, and the president at Minneapolis Community and Technical College decided to kill Jay Pivec’s illustrious program a year later.
Pivec always had a roster of players getting second and third chances at school and basketball, and the death of basketball at Minneapolis changed the roster at Anoka-Ramsey considerably.
“We started getting those players here,” said Rory Larson, Ron’s son and assistant for the nine seasons at Anoka-Ramsey. “If we started telling you all the back stories, we wouldn’t get to the gym on time for tonight’s game.”
The Larsons were sitting in the lobby of a low-priced hotel at midafternoon Friday. Anoka-Ramsey would play North Lake from Irving, Texas — and come away a 56-54 loser — in a semifinal of the Division III national championship for junior colleges.
There are scholarships for Division I JUCOs, and tuition, books and fees for Division II. There is no athletic aid for Division III, although there isn’t much difference in talent between D-II and D-III.
Anoka-Ramsey came here with a 27-3 record and with the No. 1 seed in this week’s eight-team tournament. That’s eight out of 146 colleges, so it wasn’t a walk in the park for the Golden Rams to get to this championship site at Rochester Community and Technical College.
Then again, it hasn’t been a walk in the park for most of the 10-player roster assembled by the Larsons.
Mahad Haji and Mamadou Ngom, a pair of guards, are Somalian. Jefferson Belmont, another guard, was recommended by a “Minnesota guy” who was coaching in Golden Gate, Fla., and wanted to get Belmont into a new environment.
Ramose Riddley, a 6-1 forward, played at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul, went briefly to Concordia University in St. Paul, dropped out, and was working as a security guard at Minneapolis North.
“We had North in our gym for a section game a couple of years ago, Ramose was here, and wound up contacting us about wanting to go back to school and to play basketball,” Rory Larson said.
The Larsons took a look, saw strength and defensive ability, and now Riddley is a 25-year-old freshman and scratching the itch to return to the court in a competitive way.
There’s also Chris Morgan, a 6-6 freshman. He never played basketball in high school. “He came in one day and told us he wanted to find out if he could be more [than] a player in pickup games,” Rory Larson said. “He’s a self-taught player, and pretty good.”
And then there’s the tale of Zane Lind, a 6-7 post player from Underwood, Minn. That’s a town of 350 people in Otter Tail County.
“It’s also the first place that I was a teacher and a coach in the early ’70s,” Ron Larson said. “One of my players was Lee Obright. Lee’s daughter was dating Zane, who was working as a nurse’s assistant in Fergus Falls. He wanted to play basketball again and to become a nurse. We have a strong nursing program, and Lee told him to come and see me at Anoka-Ramsey.
“He’s now a 23-year-old freshman for us, mostly because I coached Lee 45 years ago in Underwood.”
Ron Larson smiled and said: “It can be a big world or a small world when it comes to junior college basketball. But I’ll tell you, these are guys looking to make a better life for themselves and to play the game they love.
“It’s been great. We work with good kids ... good men, too.”
The loss to North Lake was part of an unfortunate day for Anoka-Ramsey basketball. The women’s team has been a longtime D-III power and also lost in the national semifinals, 83-71 to Roxbury (Mass.) in Utica, N.Y.
The men’s team put itself up against it with a horrible first half — shooting 7-for-29 (21.9 percent), including 1-for-13 on threes, and committing 11 turnovers. The Golden Rams were down 33-19 at the half, came back to take a couple of short-lived leads in the second half, but in the end, shooting 26.5 percent from the floor with 20 turnovers …
Well, it means these second-chance guys will be trying to add a third-place finish nationally rather than a title to their intriguing stories Saturday.