After 94 years, it s a return of state fever for Detroit Lakes

  • Article by: BRIAN STENSAAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 11:15 PM

Detroit Lakes played in the sixth boys' basketball state tournament in 1918. This week, the Lakers make their second trip.

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The 1918 team was the last Detroit Lakes boys' basketball squad to make it to the state tournament.

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As another unusually warm March day came to a close Sunday, Mitch McLeod's seventh-grade son enjoyed some fresh air but left his ever-present baseball glove inside. He was shooting hoops instead.

Basketball fever has hit Detroit Lakes.

For the first time since 1918, Detroit Lakes will play in the boys' basketball state tournament. The Lakers (22-7) tip off at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Class 3A field against No. 2 seed DeLaSalle (23-6) at Williams Arena.

"Everybody wants to be a part of it," said McLeod, the Lakers' athletics director. "We're going crazy right now. It's been nuts nonstop."

Joe Mollberg, a senior guard who is the Lakers' career leading scorer, said, "We're going in as underdogs, and we know that. But we think we can play with any team in Class 3A when we play our game."

By late Monday afternoon, enough Detroit Lakes supporters to fill six buses had signed up to witness something no one in town has seen since Woodrow Wilson was U.S. president, a time many sporting events were called off because of World War I. Coach Robb Flint has received more than 250 text messages of congratulations.

"Ninety-four years to wait for a chance to play for a state championship is a long time," said Flint, in his fifth year as coach. "I give a lot of credit to the kids for playing on some bad teams the last few years but who hung with it and put their time in and really showed what hard work can accomplish."

Flint coached the Lakers to three consecutive losing seasons to begin his tenure.

At times, "they didn't like me after I didn't make things too fun for them," Flint said. "But we've figured out that we're all shooting for one common goal and our work is not done yet."

Detroit Lakes advanced to the section championship game a year ago but was throttled by St. Cloud Apollo. Last Thursday, Detroit Lakes was back in the same spot, this time against Fergus Falls.

Ahead by one point with 10 second remaining, Mollberg calmly made two free throws. A three-point attempt by Fergus Falls caromed off the backboard at the buzzer, setting off bedlam as a red sea of Lakers fans swarmed players on the floor.

Though the 44-41 victory clinched the Lakers' second trip to state, it's the Lakers' first section championship.

The 1918 team had to play a two-game, total-points affair with Barnesville to qualify for state. It won the first game at home 18-4, then three days later traveled to Barnesville and won again 22-16.

"This leaves the Detroit team undisputed champions of their district after having defeated all the other schools that have anything whatever in the championship," according to a published account of the game.

The team was invited to be part of the 14-team state tournament field, eventually won by Waseca. It was only the sixth statewide tournament.

Sixteen presidents later, the Lakers are back.

"We've broken the seal on the pickle jar," McLeod said. "We'll definitely do something -- a banner -- to commemorate this."

Flint said despite all the hype, his main job this week has been X's and O's and not that of a psychologist.

"There are eight seniors on this team and [they] understand how important this is and what it means," he said. "They'll be nervous, but they won't back down."

The Lakers' tallest player, senior forward Brian Labat, stands only 6-2, but the team isn't short on athletic talent.

Labat and Mollberg are both headed to play football at North Dakota in the fall while junior guard Kirk McLeod, Mitch's son, is receiving interest from college baseball teams as a catcher.

DeLaSalle's physicality and height figure to cause fits for the Lakers, but they're ready.

"We'll get up there and we'll rebound," Mollberg said. "There are a lot of little kids from town that are excited for all of this and are going to be watching us down there. We want Detroit Lakes basketball to be around this time of year. March madness, you know?"

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