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March Madness in Glenwood

It has been 55 years since March Madness hit Glenwood.       Stores closed for days at a time, basketball was the sole topic of discussion all over town and hundreds of residents scrambled to get one of the schools allotted tickets for the first round of the Minnesota State Basketball Tournament.     On Thursday, March 22, 1956, the town emptied out as residents headed to Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota Campus to watch the Glenwood Lakers take on the Blue Earth Buccaneers in the first round of the tournament. Although it wasn’t termed “March Madness” in those days, the Pope County Tribune stated that the community was “gripped by that infectious disease ‘state basketballitis’.”     “Basketball and Glenwood’s chance in the state tournament Thursday (today) have been the sole topic of conversation in the city as everyone has gone basketball ‘nuts’ to put it mildly,” the Tribune reported in a front-page story on March 22, 1956.  The banner headline across the front page read: “Lakers Entered In State Today!  Play Blue Earth at 2; 900 to go.”     The front page also carried a photo of three Glenwood high school grads who played on Glenwood’s district title-winning teams of 1927 and 1928.  The photo featured Howard Vegoe, Cliff Hansen and Erv Haldorson.  “They would have slaughtered us,” was the trio’s opinion of the local team compared to their winning teams.     Jim Stradtman, long-time businessman and former owner of Corner Drug in Glenwood, remembered that year in a conversation recently.  He said he had just moved to Glenwood a few weeks prior to the tournament play of the boys basketball team and started working at Corner Drug.  “Everyone went to the games each Tuesday and Friday night and I went during the tournament games and in just a week or so I knew everybody in town,” Stradtman said.  “We always closed the store a couple hours early for the games, and I remember closing for two days when the team played in the regional tournament in Moorhead.   The whole town went to the games.”     After the Glenwood High School team won the District 22 basketball title, Glenwood Mayor Russell Torfin proclaimed March 15 and 16, 1956 as Laker Basketball Days in Glenwood.     The Lakers had nipped Alexandria 36 to 34 to win the district and move on to the regional tournament.   In the district Tournament that year, the Glenwood fans watched as the Lakers won over Sauk Centre by one point, outlasted Melrose by three points and then beat defending District Champion Alexandria by two points in the finals.   Alexandria had won the district the year before and came into the game with only three losses on the season and ranked 7th in the state poll because all five starters returned for the 1955 season.       The Lakers were lead by first-year head coach Jim Gremmels, who had joined the Glenwood community just before school started in the fall of 1955.  Here’s what the Tribune said about coach Gremmels.       “It’s refreshing to see a basketball coach get much of the credit for a winning team.  Such is the case with the likeable Jim Gremmels, the Laker mentor.       “Gremmels knew how to play Alexandria in the final game.  During the final period the Lakers used up the their allotment of time outs, and each time Gremmels plotted out the strategy. Of course the players had to carry it out, and their play showed sound coaching and sound tactics during that final quarter and all during the tournament for that matter,” the March 15 Tribune article stated.     Gremmels was featured in a photo page of the welcome home party after the regional tournament getting a kiss from his wife, Ruth, The captions stated: “A kiss for the coach.”  Gremmels guided the Lakers to their first cage title in history in his first year as head coach at Glenwood high school, the caption stated.     Robert McCrory is the man who rekindled the fervor in Glenwood when he recently donated the 1956 State Tournament team photograph to the Pope County Museum.  This copy of the photo enlargement belonged to Jim Gremmels, who recently gave it to McCrory, who was a starter on the 1956 basketball team. “He told me he wasn’t going to live forever and wanted me to have the photograph,” McCrory told the Tribune recently. Jim Gremmels, who moved on to teach English at the University of Minnesota Morris, started the boys’ basketball program at the college in 1960.   He and his wife Ruth raised a family in Glenwood and continued to live here until his death last fall, Sept. 25.  He was 82 when he died. McCrory, who was a starting guard on that triumphant 1956 basketball team, was also featured in the March 22 Pope County Tribune, but he wasn’t on the basketball court. He was photographed milking a cow on his parents’ dairy farm.  The caption under the photo identifies Bob McCrory as a starting guard for Glenwood’s first regional title team and stated that he was “one young man who didn’t get to sleep in after the final win over Fergus Falls in the regional tournament.  I just can’t sleep after 7 in the morning, the husky junior commented.” Reliving the tournament games     For those not old enough to remember how the Lakers fared after the District Championship title, the news dominated the local newspaper.  Glenwood became a “ghost town” as well; over 1,000 of the city’s residents headed to Moorhead to watch the Lakers in action at the Region 6 basketball tournament at Concordia College field house.     The Lakers defeated Little Falls in the first round.  A news item in the March 15 Tribune stated that “if the Lakers win tonight,” defeating Little Falls, “all stores will be closed on Friday.  The stores in Glenwood closed at 2 p.m. on the day of the first regional game to “give everyone a chance to get to Moorhead in time.”     To just say the Lakers defeated Little Falls would not be enough to capture what really happened in that game.  Those who were there still talk about it in Glenwood. The Lakers held a potent Little Falls team without a point during the last 10 minutes of the game.  The Lakers, who became adept at stalling and winning from behind, trailed Little Falls by eight with just two minutes remaining in the third period. Then, the Lakers, who thrived on adversity, came storming back when Jim Schroeder hit a pivot shot and Zeke Olson hit two straight jump shots before the quarter ended to bring the Lakers within in two points at 43-41.  After about one minute of the fourth quarter, McCrory, playing one of his finest games, stuffed in a rebound to tie the score at 43-43.     Glenwood got the ball back with 6:53 to play in the game and coach Gremmels called a timeout and had his team go into a stall.  They successfully stalled until Little Falls fouled Jerry (Jeke) Olson with just 2:53 to play. He made one of two and gave the Lakers the lead they would never relinquish. In the end, the Lakers beat Little Falls 54-43.  After that game, the Lakers went on to defeat Fergus 68-65.  It was the only tournament game where the Lakers started out with a good lead and then had to fend off a comeback by their opponents, according to accounts in the Tribune.               The next week in Glenwood was more of the same with stores closing and a ghost town effect took place as thousands of fans left town to watch the Laker team in the school’s first State Tournament appearance at Williams Arena.  Uncharacteristically, the Lakers went cold in their first round game, shooting only 24 percent and were defeated by a tall Blue Earth team.  They came back in their second game and defeated Montevideo 48-47 before losing to Bemidji 69-54.       For a few weeks in March 55 years ago, the town lived and breathed Laker High School basketball.  And, on a given day in March these days, you might still hear a few Glenwood elders talking about when the town “went nuts” for a boys basketball team lead by a young, first-year coach.

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