Chad Walthall was Class of ’87 at Staples High School and Dave Joerger was Class of ’92 at what had become Staples-Motley. They were Lynn Peterson guys, meaning they played basketball with intensity and saw firsthand what can be accomplished with excellent coaching.
Joerger is 41 and in his second season as an NBA head coach for Memphis. The Grizzlies, second best in the West at 41-15, play the Timberwolves at Target Center on Saturday night.
Walthall and Joerger text one another with frequency, and Chad would be in attendance Saturday, if not for another commitment.
Walthall, 46, is in his fifth season as the head coach at Minnesota State Moorhead. The Dragons are 30-2, rated fifth nationally in Division II and will be playing Upper Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Northern Sun men’s tournament at noon Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The eight-team tournament at the 3,500-seat Pentagon runs through Tuesday.
Staples had a glorious quarter-century in athletics starting in the late ’70s, and the alums who were part of it have a bond. Walthall’s appreciation for that bond has been reinforced over the past five years, when he heard a basketball bouncing in a mostly empty Nemzek Fieldhouse and looked inside.
Joerger told me a couple of years ago that Staples’ era of basketball excellence could be traced to 1979, when Peterson arrived as coach and found John Riewer and Craig Wolhowe as sophomores.
Walthall had taken a job in 2007 as an assistant to Todd Lickliter at Iowa. That looked like a good deal, since the Hawkeyes had given Lickliter a seven-year deal to leave Butler.
MSU Moorhead fired Stu Engen after eight seasons on March 11, 2010. Four days later, Lickliter got the boot with four years left on his contract.
The assistants were on year-to-year deals. Walthall handled the transition to the hiring of Fran McCaffery, and then he needed a job. He applied at MSU Moorhead and was hired in the middle of May.
“It was a scramble,” Walthall said. “We did what we could to get new players into the program.’’
Walthall was aware of a player in Staples with strong pedigree: Jordan Riewer, a slender point guard and John’s son.
“Jordan was our first recruit,” Walthall said. “No other school in our league had offered him. We redshirted him that first winter, hoping he would get a little bigger. He used that time to get even better as a shooter.
“Every day for five years, I’ve been able to look in the gym a couple hours before practice, or maybe after, Jordan would be in there shooting. In Division I, they talk about 50-40-80 shooters. I have a 50-50-90 shooter.’’
Those numbers are shooting percentages for field goals, three-pointers and free throws. Through 32 games, Riewer is 173 of 329 (52.6) from the field, 94 of 180 (52.2) on threes and 102 of 108 (94.4) on free throws.
“I guess he missed one when I wasn’t looking,” Walthall said. “I thought he was 97, 98 on free throws.”
This week, Walthall was named the Northern Sun’s Coach of the Year, and Riewer, a 6-2 senior point guard, and Augustana’s Dan Jansen, a 6-9 junior forward, were named co-MVPs.
“I was a junior high kid watching John play, and now I see Jordan, and it’s the same,’’ Walthall said. “From the waist down … they weren’t jumpers and they wouldn’t win a foot race. From the waist up, great.”
John Riewer went to Concordia to play basketball and baseball. He came back to Staples to coach baseball and assist in basketball.
Walthall’s starting two-guard is Tyler Vaughan, son of Braham’s basketball coaching legend, Bob Vaughan. Aaron Lien is a second-team all-conference player, and his mother, Char Lien, is the Moorhead High volleyball coach.
The Dragons also developed a gem in Isaac Sevlie, once a gangly, unrecruited player from Red Wing, now an all-conference 6-9 center. They have done well with JUCOs and transfers Prescott Williams, Ngijol Songolo and Urbane Bingham.
Add them up and it’s 30-2, with Augustana — 27-2 and winner of the teams’ only meeting — in the other bracket in Sioux Falls.
It’s not the NBA, or even the Big Ten, but it’s basketball.
“Pretty good basketball,” Walthall said. “We have players in this league who were the shooters in high school … the gym rats.”