There had been a long absence for the Wayzata Trojans from the state basketball tournament. They had to get past a long-standing rival in the Lake Conference for this opportunity.
It finally happened on the first Saturday of March, as the Trojans played stout defense and ball-control offense to defeat “perennial power Park’’ – as in St. Louis Park – for an upset victory in the District 18 title game.
The year was 1959. It had been 32 years since the Trojans won the district, and 33 years since they had reached the state tournament.
“Getting past Park and out of the district was quite an accomplishment for us,’’ Ray Zitzloff said. “The Lake Conference was outstanding – Richfield, Edina, Robbinsdale, Bloomington, Hopkins – and Park was always a team to beat in basketball with Lloyd Holm as the coach.’’
Once St. Louis Park was conquered, Wayzata started plotting strategy for a Region 5 semifinal vs. Maple Lake, and then a possible matchup with Minneapolis South and 6-6 Eric Magdanz in a region final.
“Not really,’’ Zitzloff said. “I’m not sure I knew who Magdanz was, until we got on the floor to play against him. With ‘Coach’ [Jack Thurnblad], all of our preparation was about playing our game, about doing what we did.
“Press full court and ‘keep ‘em away from the basket.’ That was Coach’s No. 1 thing: ‘Keep ‘em away from the basket.’ ’’
This message would be offered on several occasions as Wayzata made the drive to road games during the winter of 1958-59.
“Five or six of us would go to the game in Jack’s four-door Plymouth,’’ Zitzloff said. “It was Coach’s car, but Sully always would drive. There would be another car with the rest of the players.
“As I recall, we didn’t take a school bus when we went downtown for the state tournament. Sully drove us in Jack’s car then, too.’’
Dean Sullivan was Wayzata’s best player, Zitzloff said, followed by Don Mueller, the other pressing guard. Bo Vanman and Zitzloff were the forwards, and 6-3 Tom Winkler was the center.
“And then Dean Korsgen would come in when I fouled out,’’ Zitzloff said. “That was most of the time.’’
Wayzata took care of Maple Lake in the Region 5 semifinals and there waiting to prevent a Trojans’ return to the state tournament for the first time since 1926 were Minneapolis South and Magdanz.
There was also Bill Brechler, a guard who scored 29 points for South in a Region 5 semifinal victory over Willmar. Sullivan held down Brechler, Zitzloff and Winkler worked to keep Magdanz from dominating completely (he had 20 points) and Wayzata earned the trip to the state tournament with a 51-47 victory.
There was no girls’ competition in 1959 and the eight-team, one-class basketball tournament received a crazed level of coverage in Twin Cities newspapers, with TV stations and, of course, on WCCO’s dominant radio signal.
Wayzata was a not a suburb in 1959. It was a village on a shore of Lake Minnetonka. It ranked with Mound as the smallest high schools in the nine-team Lake Conference, with a graduating class of 140 in 1959.
“You know how remote it was?’’ Zitzloff said. “You could walk from town with a shotgun and in 10 minutes you’d be hunting in the country.’’
It was so remote that my favorite of the photos on the Trojans’ trip to the 1959 state tournament in the Star Tribune’s archives was the team members standing in downtown Wayzata, waving goodbye to the city as if they were off on a trip to Australia.
In actuality, they were headed to the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis.
Wayzata opened with a 57-51 victory over Mankato, and then took on another team from the Big Nine – defending champion and pre-tournament favorite Austin -- in the semifinals. There was a tournament record crowd of 18,492 on Friday night at Williams Arena, to watch Wayzata take on Austin and North St. Paul vs. Carlton in the semifinals.
The Trojans were described as “upstarts’’ in the Morning Tribune, but they certainly weren’t the “darlings’’ that were always coveted by the thousands of Minnesotans who were regulars at the basketball tournament. That label went to Carlton, a town of 700 located 20 miles from Duluth.
Don Mueller scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and Wayzata beat Austin 55-52. Carlton escaped North St. Paul, 50-49, even though its 6-4 center, Fred North, had fouled out with two minutes left.
“Beating Austin was a big deal,’’ Zitzloff said Monday.
And as he said to a Minneapolis reporter precisely 58 years earlier, on March 20, 1959: “We won’t have any letdown tomorrow night. The state finals are no time for a letdown.’’
Wayzata handled Carlton 55-41 for its first state title. Thurnblad soon moved to a different Carleton – the university in Northfield – where he was the basketball coach and then the athletic director.
And now, for the first time since 1959, and for the second time in 91 years, Wayzata will be playing in the state boys basketball tournament. The Trojans defeated perennial power and Lake Conference rival Hopkins in the section final and will face Lakeville North at noon Wednesday in the Class 4A quarterfinals.
One basketball tournament from 1926 to 2016 for Wayzata — once in 90 years.
“Isn’t that amazing?’’ Zitzloff said. “We were given keys to the city in 1959. It’s a different city now, I’d say.’’
Even more amazing was where I tracked down ‘’Coach’’ – Jack Thurnblad – on Sunday. He’s 96 and living in Northfield, but he was on a visit to Las Vegas, “playing slots’’ at the Flamingo.
Thurnblad was sitting in front of a slot early on Sunday morning when he answered his cell phone. “I’m a little ahead, but that will probably change,’’ he said.
Ray Zitzloff doubts it. “I guarantee you, if Coach is playing slots or poker, he’s winning,’’ Zitzloff said. “He grew up in Chicago. And he’s always had that Chicago in him.
“And as a coach, you know who he was? He was another Butch Nash, the assistant who coached ends forever for the Gophers. Butch was my coach at the U, and Butch and Jack … they were just coaches who got it, who knew how to get the best out of you.’’
In turn, Thurnblad offered this as he waited for a Vegas slot to issue its verdict:
“Winning a state championship with great people like that was the highlight of my athletic career by a long shot. We still talk all the time. They check in with the old coach.’’
This isn’t “Coach’’ said with a feeling of obligation based on past discipline. It’s “Coach’’ as a compadre, a character, a guy so trustful of his players that he let Sully drive the Plymouth.