Headline told story: ‘Pelican out-hustles, out-plays, out-rebounds Moorhead Spuds’
By Louis Hoglund
A half-century later, it is not uncommon in casual conversation for the topic to come up: the 1969 Pelican Rapids boys basketball team.
No. They were one game away from the Minnesota high school tournament.
Yes…until they ran up against Crosby-Ironton Section title game, and lost 68-67 in two exciting overtimes.
Season record? 22-1
But it was the squad’s District victory over state-ranked Moorhead High during “March Madness” 1969 that is perhaps most remembered. Sportswriters from around the state, including the big Minneapolis dailies, were calling Pelican’s defeat of Moorhead the “Upset of the Year.” In retrospect—it may have been the upset of the decade in Minnesota, depending on who you talk to.
In fact, this 1969 Pelican basketball story is really the last of the true, Minnesota “David-Goliath” tales from the days of the one-class, statewide basketball tournament era. By 1970, Minnesota went to a multi-class system, with schools of similarly-sized enrollments competing on a more level field.
The drama firmly established Pelican’s reputation as a “basketball town,” which continues to this day—including the state title teams of the 1980s and 2000s, plus the state-qualifying Pelican girls teams of the last several years.
The 1968-69 squad, under coach Rex Haugen, will be ushered into the Pelican “Hall of Fame” Oct. 1.
To gain the District 23 crown, the Vikings “downed a stubborn Dilworth team by a one point margin; recovered with their finest performance of the year to outplay Moorhead, the fourth-ranked school in the state; and topped it off with a come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Lakes Lakers.”
That was the Pelican Rapids Press account March 13, 1969. That edition of the newspaper was “All Basketball,” as the front page proclaimed.
Pelican businesses closed at 2 p.m. so an entourage estimated at more than 1,200 fans could travel to St. Cloud for the Region title game against Crosby-Ironton.
The Press front page had action photos of Dan Elliot, Paul Swan, Glen Trygstad, Dale Robley—and the entire team being greeted by then-superintendent, the late Chauncey Martin. The Vikings defeated Melrose in the Region opener, setting up the clash with Crosby-Ironton.
But the “legend” of 1968-69 was cemented with the undefeated run into the District playoffs.
Pelican one of only three “small schools” to advance in two decades
By beating Moorhead and then Detroit Lakes for the crown, the Vikings were only the third team in history to beat the “Big Three” in the District: Moorhead, Fergus Falls, and Detroit Lakes. Barnesville did it in 1948; Hawley in 1950. But until Pelican of 1969, the bigger schools dominated the District.
“The District trophy presentation, following a tough battle with Detroit Lakes, was almost anti-climatic … when the Vikings downed the Moorhead Spuds by a six point margin, 75-69,” wrote the Press.
Moorhead had been picked to win the District and Region—and potentially, the State championship.
An “upset mob” is how Colleen (Klovstad) described the Moorhead fans after the loss at the Concordia College fieldhouse.
“I was in the Pelican pep band. We came in uniform and were up in the bleachers,” she recalled. “I remember almost feeling endangered when we were leaving…the Moorhead fans were so upset.”
Colleen went on to marry Mark Engebretson, a player on the 1969 team. They both graduated in 1970, and will be attending the Hall of Fame induction.
The next night, Pelican defeated Detroit Lakes 65-56 for the District crown.
1968-69 team inspired book by Pelican grad Richard Toftely
The legendary aspects of the 1968-69 team are so compelling, the topic inspired Pelican 1965 graduate Richard Toftely to assemble an entire book—specifically on that team.
With just a few exceptions, Pelican has had a tradition of a respected basketball program, year in, year out.
“About every ten years, Pelican has a team that really stands out,” said Toftely, retired in Fergus Falls, who stopped by the Press offices recently. He mentioned the obvious Pelican squads—1969, 1977, 1984, 2009. But there are great basketball stories between and before those years, too.
Most notably, said Toftely, the 1960 team, which barely lost to Detroit Lakes for the District title. When the boys of 1960 returned home, a hundred or more cars lined County Road 9—flashing their headlights as the team bus passed by. Among the star Vikings in 1960 was Wally Halbakken, another local “Hall of Fame” prospect, who went on to play college ball before returning home to the farm.
Moorhead took second at state in 1967, 1968
But it was the 1969 team that grabbed newspaper headlines—statewide.
Forgotten by many: The 1969 Moorhead Spuds were a team of the highest high school caliber.
In 1967 and again in 1968, Moorhead made it all the way to the State Championship title game. Both times, defeated by Edina.
“The same Moorhead team was largely still intact for those three years (1967-69),” recalled Mark Engebretson, who was a Pelican junior at the time. A core of the Moorhead team played together since they were sophomores, according to Engebretson.
Nobody, literally, nobody— expected Pelican to get past Moorhead, recounted Toftely in his 1968-69 book.
Nobody—except Pelican’s well-known coach, Rex Haugen.
Coach Haugen anticipated eventual confrontation with Moorhead
Early in the 1968-69 season, Haugen was anticipating an eventual showdown between Pelican and Moorhead. Almost from day one of pre-season practice, Haugen assembled his Pelican squad into two units—one of them, mostly underclassmen, who were instructed “re-create” the Moorhead offensive model.
“We had two practices. One normal; and one with the starting line-up working out against our (makeshift) Moorhead offense,” recalled Engebretson. In fact, in this role-playing excercise, Engebretson took on the character of Moorhead star player Mike Sapa.
“My nickname was ‘Sapa’ that year,” laughed Engebretson. “(Coach) Rex had the vision to practice against a Moorhead strategy,” said Engebretson.
Truth is, Moorhead was by no means the only threat in the neighborhood.
Believed to be the first undefeated Pelican basketball team, at least in “modern” basketball history, the 1969 schedule had all kinds of boogeymen that could stand in the way. Dilworth was a great ball club. So was Fergus Falls. Even Rothsay was a big threat for a small school, said Engebretson. “Detroit Lakes was a good team, they weren’t push-overs,” said Engebretson.
So—the 1969 Vikings made it past all those roadblocks, plus Melrose, to ultimately face Crosby-Ironton.
If you overlooked the “Moorhead Miracle,” the Pelican vs Crosby -Ironton clash was equally epic.
At that time, compared to Crosby-Ironton, which had been an iron-mining community with lots of families and lots of kids, Pelican would have likely been a substantially “smaller” school. And the Cuyuna iron mine community also had its own considerable sports heritage. Crosby-Ironton went to the early state basketball tournaments three straight years, 1936-38, among other notable accomplishments.
Pelican had connections to Crosby-Ironton
Adding colorful side stories to the 1969 drama, Pelican school superintendent, the late Chauncey Martin, was not only a Crosby-Ironton native—he played in all three of those state tourneys. Meanwhile, Pelican band director, Mr. Couture, was a Crosby area native. Both Martin and Couture were “shot” in a Pelican school Pep Fest.
• The 1969 Regional title game between Pelican and Crosby was believed to draw a record crowd of 7,800 to St. Cloud’s Halenbeck Hall. Spectators “got more than their money’s worth in the thrill-packed encounter,” wrote the Fargo Forum.
• Blood was reportedly dripping from the lips of Crosby’s Dave Heglund when he stepped up to shoot two free throws to win the game for Crosby. He was fouled by Pelican’s Charles Nord, and crashed into the bleachers—sustaining a cut lip, but stayed in the game to net the winning free throw. Final 68-67.
• To give an idea of what one-class basketball was like before 1970, little Crosby-Ironton went on to the state tournament to face a “big-city” school in the first round: Minneapolis South.
• It was Pelican’s Glen Trygstad who took the final shot of the final game for the 1969 Vikings. Down 68-67 to Crosby Ironton with seconds remaining, Trygstad’s shot “swirled around the rim but refused to drop through the net,” wrote Richard Toftely in his account of the legendary team. “…This was the end of the Pelican Rapids Vikings’ journey to basketball greatness…”
But, as far as locals go, the memories will always be great—and you can bet more memories will be shared Oct. 1 in Pelican, as perhaps Minnesota’s last great “David-Goliath” basketball story takes the spotlight for the 1968-69 team’s induction into the Pelican Hall of Fame.