Scoreboard Chapter III: Basketball Continued

– 1930-1931-

Upon Coach Houle’s resignation, the school authorities began a search for a successor. As described in Chapter I, Joe Benda, who had starred in football at Notre Dame and had been a successful head coach at Duluth Cathedral in 1929-30, was chosen for the position. He reported on April 1, 1930, to take over spring football practice, while Bill Houle devoted his last few months to coaching the baseball team.

In basketball, as well as in football that fall, there was no noticeable improvement. Only five lettermen answered Benda’s call for candidates- Bill Geist, Rusty Hogan, Jack Murphy, Ambrose Osendorf, and Bucky Hennen. Other prospects included Roy Donaldson, former Prep star, Martin Ernesti, and George Klasen, who later played an important role on the 1932 championship football team. St. John’s squeaked by St. Cloud State 23-22 on the home floor but lost another squeaker, 23-24, in the new St. Cloud State gym a week later. The Johnnies clipped Hamline twice, the second time on the strength of a last second basket by Roy Donaldson. The highlight of the season was a 40-32 victory over a powerful Gustavus club, in which Osendorf made 17 points for St. John’s.

However, St. John’s won only three conference games (4-11 overall) to rank seventh in the conference. Concordia won the title with an undefeated season.

– 1931-1932 –

Although the Johnnie fortunes in football took a turn for the better in 1931, the same could not be said for basketball. Red Fairbanks, former Prep star of whom much had been expected, dropped out of school, and Bill Geist was injured in mid-season and dropped off the squad. Donaldson at center and Osendorf at forward, with the support of George Klasen and Bucky Hennen and Zook Hen, piled up points, but usually not quite enough. The Johnnies won only two conference games (5-10 overall) and finished again in seventh place. Hamline won the title for the first time and began its long reign as the winningest basketball team in the MIAC. Roy Donaldson, one of the high scorers in the conference, was chosen all-conference center on the second team.

– 1932-1933 –

Although St. John’s won its first football championship in 1932, things were not so bright on the hardwood court. Ambrose Osendorf had entered the novitiate, Bill Geist did not go out for basketball, and George Klasen was sidelined with heart trouble midway through the season. Coach Benda had to rely heavily upon veteran Bucky Hennen, Earl Meinz, former St. Cloud Cathedral star, now deceased, and Robert “Red” Burkard, former Prep. The team finished with a 4-7 record in the conference and 6-7 overall, good for sixth place. Hamline took the title for the second time in a row. Donaldson and Hennen received honorable mention by the coaches.

– 1933-1934-

The 1933-34 season showed no improvement. Five veterans- Burkard, Iten, Donaldson, Geist, and Meinz-were on hand, but the freshman crop was inexperienced and did not provide much back-up. St. John’s won only one game, a 29-26 victory over St. Cloud State, in which Zook Iten, whose exploits on the gridiron are described in Chapter I, made 16 points. He almost equalled that mark against Gustavus later in the season, but the Johnnie effort that night fell short by five points.

The team won no conference games and ended up in the cellar. Hamline took the title for the third time in a row.

– 1934-1935 –

Through the addition of freshmen Bernard “Barney” Meinz, former St. Cloud Cathedral star and brother of veteran guard Earl, and Vedie Himsl, later a big league baseball pitcher, and with the alert play of Bob Halverson, Sparky Coyle, and Ralph Koenig, the ’35 Jays won five and lost seven games (5-9 overall). The wins included two thrilling victories over St. Thomas which in part offset the severe beating St. John’s received from Hamline in the last game of the season. Earl Meinz was high scorer in several games, and second highest in the league with 102 points. However, he was chosen all-conference only on the St. Paul Pioneer Press second team. Hamline took the title for the fourth straight time.

– 1935-1936 –

Since most of the 1934-35 squad, including the Meinz brothers, were returning, expectations for 1935-36 were high. However, after two victories over St. Cloud State, the Johnnies went into a slump from which they emerged only after the middle of February when they rose up and clobbered league-leading Hamline 33-30 and Concordia 42-35. This resurgence was squelched by St. Thomas in the final game of the season by a convincing 36-21 score.

Despite the stellar performance of both Meinz brothers and Vedie Himsl, the Johnnies won only two out of ten conference games and five out of fourteen overall. The championship was taken again by Hamline for the fifth time in a row.

– 1936-1937 –

Strengthened by the addition of freshmen Jim Roche, phantom halfback in football, Joe Kirchner, later Fr. Kirchner of the St. Cloud Diocese (now deceased), Homer Hurd, Bud Carlin (also deceased), and Orner Huntington, the Johnnies split with the Brainerd Independents in the first two games, then lost to St. Cloud State, Duluth Teachers, Virginia Junior College and Macalester in that order before coming up with a win-a thrilling 38-37 squeaker over St. Cloud State.

They then slipped into a slump until about mid-season when they came alive and won five straight games over Augsburg, St. Mary’s, and Concordia, and two games over St. Thomas. This skein of victories enabled the Johnnies to end up in third place with a .500 standing in the MIAC and 8-11 overall-its highest standing in the conference since 1928-29.

Vedie Himsl, second highest scorer in the conference with 120 points, was named to the all-conference first team-the first Johnnie to win that distinction since Bart Rooney was similarly honored in 1920 in the old Minnesota-Dakota Conference. Bud Carlin with 99 points received honorable mention.

Macalester finally broke the hold of Hamline on the championship by taking the title with a 10-2 record.

– 1937-1938 –

In 1937, Joe Benda left to join the coaching staff at his alma mater, Notre Dame, and George Durenberger, with a good deal of hesitation, took over as head coach of football and basketball, while retaining most of his duties as athletic director and professor of physical education. Only three lettermen-Himsl, Kirchner, and Roche-were among the 50 players who responded to his call for basketball. Several promising prospects were among them-Jim Boyd, running mate in Prep School of Jim Roche, Joe Erchul, Tim Donahue, up from the intramural ranks, and freshmen from other high schools-Bill Browne, Francis Modde, John Ebnet, Homer Hurd, Ben Lorenz, Gerald Sheehy, and several others. With all this inexperienced material on hand, the season’s prospects were more of a question mark than usual.

The team started out with a bang and won its first five games, one of which was against North Dakota State on the dedication night of the expanded and remodeled St. John’s gym-a game in which Himsl and Boyd produced 25 points between them, a rather high scoring performance in the day of the two-handed set-shot.

But after taking St. Thomas 42-33, the team went into a midseason slump from which it never emerged. The Johnnies lost all the rest of their games, three by only one point. But close doesn’t count in basketball, and they ended up with a 1-11 record and last place’ in the conference (5-11 overall). A contributing cause was Himsl’s departure for the South to begin baseball practice with a pro team, obliging him to miss the last two games, one of which St. John’s lost by one point. Himsl had done well enough in the earlier games, however, to make the all-conference second team. Gustavus and St. Mary’s tied for the championship.

– 1938-1939-

In 1938, the Johnnies began to roll in basketball as well as in football. Led by the former Prep Touchdown Twins, Jim Boyd and Jim Roche, Durenberger’s team took the championship in football, and his basketball team came up with their best performance ever. The experienced first string of Jim Boyd and Joe Erchul, guards, Bill Browne and Joe Kirchner, forwards, and Dick Maertz, center, backed up by a strong bench, carried St. John’s to a 10-7 record overall, and an 8-4 standing in the conference, good for third place. This matched the previous high records of 1920-21, 1928-29, and 1936-37.

Joe Kirchner, who became a priest of the St. Cloud Diocese and died of cancer some years later, was second highest scorer in the MIAC and made the all-conference first team. Bill Browne made the second team, and Red Erchul and Jim Boyd (who was later killed in a plane crash in World War II) made honorable mention.

In the sensational 39-37 win over league-leading Hamline, Kirchner poured in 19 points. That, however, did not prevent Hamline from tying St. Mary’s for the championship.

– 1939-1940-

The loss of Kirchner, Boyd, and Lorenz was felt this year, as the Johnnies finished the sixth place, with four wins and eight losses (12 out of 23 games overall, including wins over North Dakota State and Moorhead Teachers). High scorers were Red Erchul with 154 points, Bill Browne with 148, and Dick Maertz with 144.A high point in the season was the St. John’s comeback against Gustavus from 24-7 at half-time to a 40-36 victory.

Erchul was chosen guard on the all-conference second team and Bill Browne made honorable mention. St. Mary’s laid undisputed claim to the title.

– 1940-1941 –

A resounding 55-36 victory over Augsburg in the final game of the preceding year built up expectations which were not realized in 1940- 41. Erchul, Browne, and Maertz had graduated, and it was evident that St. John’s was in for a year of rebuilding. The decimated squad of inexperienced players could manage only 2 wins to 10 losses in the conference (5 to 15 overall), and returned to the bottom of the MIAC standings. Tom Paul and Walter “Spud” Tooley, reserves of the previous year, were the main support of veteran Ed Claussen. Hamline resumed its leadership of the conference with an undefeated season.

– 1941-1942-

Joe Benda returned in the fall of 1941 to resume his former position as head football and basketball coach, but the change in coaches had little effect on the team’s performance or conference standing. Captain Ed Claussen and freshman Henry “Lefty” Ranweiler (each with 106 points for the season) carried the brunt of the attack, aided by Pat Freuen (now deceased), Spud Tooley, and freshmen Fran Miller and Otto Schaefer. The latter pair showed great promise for the future- Miller by his height and Schaefer by his speed and ball handling. Maertz, who had dropped off the squad to hit his studies, returned for the last five games but failed to reverse the trend. The Johnnies won only one conference game (3-13 overall) and ended again in the cellar. Ed Claussen and Lefty Ranweiler received honorable mention. Hamline won the title with a 10-1 record.

– 1942-1943-

Although World War II had made inroads in the St. John’s student body, the school made an effort to continue business as usual. The football team finished in third place, and it was hoped that the basketball team would finish higher in the win column than in the past three years. However, there was no noticeable improvement in the Johnnie performance on the hard court. They won three out of eleven in the conference (3-13 overall) which was good for seventh place, above St. Olaf and St. Mary’s.

Fran Miller was gaining experience and showed his potential scoring power by almost matching veteran Ed Claussen in total points- 93-95; Otto Schaefer continued to display his wizardry in dribbling and ball handling.

The team was strengthened by the addition of three freshmen from the Marshall, Minnesota High School, who held out great promise in all sports-Murnane “Red” Maenhout, Bernard “Barney” Gervais, and Bill Osborne.

A bright spot in the season was a 51-41 victory over St. Thomas, which was threatening to take the conference lead from Hamline. The latter came through, however, with an 11-0 record to win the title for the ninth time in twelve years.

– 1943-1944-

By 1943 the war was at its height and the college student body at St. John’s, which had fallen to less than one-fourth of its pre-war enrollment, was composed mostly of pre-divinity students, students under 18, and others who were deferred for reasons of health or physical disability. Coach Benda hesitated to field a team because four MIAC schools had Navy training programs (V-12) which permitted the cadets to compete in intercollegiate athletics, whereas the Air Force program at St. John’s was not of this type. However, when it was decided not to award official championships, St. John’s decided to play a full schedule.

One benefit of this decision was the discovery of Stan Wilfahrt, a freshman from New Ulm, Minn., who was high scorer in the MIAC that season (162 points in ten games) and who starred for three more years at St. John’s. However, despite Wilfahrt’s performance, St. John’s ended up in eighth place, with two wins and eight losses. St. Thomas finished in first place with a 12-2 record. Wilfahrt was chosen as forward on the all-conference team and was elected captain for the following year. As agreed before the season opened, no championship was awarded.

– 1944-1945-

This was the last year of the war, and again no championship was awarded. Led by Stan Wilfahrt, who was supported on offense by Jerry Kosek, LaVerne “Red” Soltis, and Bob Cesnik, and on defense by Dave Rodgers and Henry “Bruts” Welsch, the Johnnies had their best season since 1938. They finished in a tie with St. Olaf for fourth place with a 5-5 record in the conference, and 6-5 overall. Gustavus finished in first place.

– 1945-1946-

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to the war, and St. John’s was already returning to normal as GI’s returned to finish their studies. Stan Wilfahrt left for a year to complete his tour of duty in the service, but this loss was to some extent compensated for by the return from the service of play-maker Mouse Schaefer and other returning servicemen, some of whom, like Fran Miller, were clapped into a basketball suit and thrown into the fray the day after they hit the campus. Others who returned to help St. John’s in its reversion to normal were Tom McHale (father of Timothy, ’77, and Shaun, ’80), Bud Streitz, Doug Gits (now Fr. Gits of the Winona Diocese), Chuck Miller, and Don Gray (a charter member of the J-Club, its first vice-president and now district judge of the Seventh Judicial District of Minnesota). The latter three were primarily football players whose performance on the gridiron is described in Chapter I, 1946, p. 43, but they wanted to give their all for good old Siwash, so went out for basketball as well. Miller made a real contribution on the hard-court and was named to the all-conference second team, but Gray had trouble distinguishing when football ended and basketball began, and it was thought that it would be more merciful to have him confine himself to the one sport in which eh could use all his energies without being interfered with by men in striped shirts. Which he did.

Other standouts on this first post-war team were Jim O’Brien, a former Cretin High School star, and Chuck Jackson and Myrle Welsch, forwards.

Since the teams of the other schools were also strengthened by returning servicemen, the Johnnies gained no advantage and finished with a lower standing than in 1944-45, with three wins and nine losses, good for seventh place in the conference (5-13 overall). Augsburg and St. Thomas tied for the championship.

– 1946-1947-

This year saw a complete turn-around. In addition to the ex-servicemen who had given the team a shot in the arm in 1945-46were Red Maenhout, whose long suit was catching passes in football and

throwing the shot-put in track; also Jerry Landsberger, whose son starred in basketball at the University of Minnesota in the 1970’s, George Borgerding, Jack Browne, John Kasch (now Fr. Kasch of the Sioux Falls Diocese), Bill Osborne and Ed Hasbrouck. The latter two eventually became head coaches in basketball at SJU-Osborne from 1953 to 1959 and Hasbrouck from 1959 to 1964. The team received another boost with the return of Stan Wilfahrt, who was high scorer in the conference in 1943-44.

The team performed brilliantly on the home court, but had trouble getting up steam away from home. They won eight and lost four on the home court, but only four out of eleven on foreign courts. With a record of 7-5 in the conference, they tied for third place with St. Thomas. Overall, their record was 12-8.

Hamline again won the title, beginning another skein of seven championships, one of which was a tie with St. Thomas. Fran Miller made all-conference center and Otto Schaefer all-conference guard. Miller was third high scorer in the MIAC with 196 points.

– 1947-1948-

The loss of Fran Miller, Otto Schaefer, and Carroll Seymour through graduation or discontinuing school, and the lack of comparable replacements, dashed the hopes for a continuation of the performance of the preceding year. Wilfahrt, Osborne, and Landsberger bore the brunt of the attack with support from George Marsnik, George Borgerding, Jim O’Brien, Jack Pollei, and Jack Browne (brother of Bill, ’40), but they couldn’t get it all together and finished in last place with a 1-10 record and 4-18 overall.

Some brilliant individual play was forthcoming from Wilfahrt, who was high scorer for St. John’s with 183 points, and also from Jim O’Brien, who established a new St. John’s individual scoring record with 31 points. But this didn’t show up in the win column. Hamline took the championship with a 12-0 record.

– 1948-1949 –

Joe Benda was gradually losing his battle with Hodgkins disease, and so it was decided to relieve him of basketball and allow him to devote his waning energies to football. His successor on the hard-court was John “Buster” Hiller who starred in basketball and baseball at Notre Dame, and had also rated All American in baseball at St. Michael’s High School, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

At the end of his sophomore year at Notre Dame in 1942, Hiller entered the Navy, and after boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station, stayed on to work in that program, which involved a good deal of basketball with other players of his calibre. In 1944 he was sent to a gunnery school in Virginia and then to an amphibian base on Long Island, where part of his duties consisted in coaching the basketball team, some of whom later became prominent in college and in pro ball.

Hiller returned in 1946 to complete his work for the bachelor’s degree at Notre Dame, and was on the first teams in both basketball and baseball, and received All-American honorable mention in basketball in his senior year. He was graduated in the spring of 1948 and came to St. John’s that fall as head basketball coach and assistant coach in football and baseball.

Hiller inherited a last place club, but had some promising veterans who had gained experience in the preceding years-Stan Wilfahrt, Jerry Landsberger, George Borgerding, Jack Pollei, and George Marsnik. New prospects were Don Chisholm, Merle Micheau, Bill Mosso, centers; Marty Cashman, Ed Chambers, Rich Rawlings, Jack Simonitsch, Dick Miller, and Bob Dahms, forwards; and Jake Leinen, Jim Heine, Jack Broeren, and Dick Calhoun, guards. Hiller shaped this assemblage of raw material into a speedy, high-scoring club, and pulled the Johnnies again up to a tie for third place with Macalester (with a 6-6 record in the conference and 9-11 overall). Wilfahrt made all conference and closed his college career with a total of 791 points.

Hamline and St. Thomas tied for first place with 11-1 records.

-1949-1950 –

In 1949-50 Coach Hiller built his attack around six lettermen from the preceding year: Rich Rawlings, Jack Pollei, Jake Leinen, Marty Cashman, Ed Chambers, Merle Micheau, and Jack Simonitch. The team also received strong support from freshmen Bill Christopherson and Bill McMahon as the season progressed. However, despite consistent play by Rawlings (209 points) and Simonitch (193), the Johnnies recorded only four wins out of 25 starts and won only two conference games (Gustavus and Concordia) out of twelve, to rank in eighth place. The title went as usual to Hamline.


In this season Rich Rawlings, two-time all-state guard from Wahpeton, North Dakota, transfer student Jack Litchy, and fast developing Bill Christopherson piled up a total of 871 points between them and helped the Johnnies improve their record to 8-15 and a tie with Macalester for eighth place. Bill Christopherson (father of Pat, ’78, whose .400 hitting in 1977 and three homeruns with men on base was highly instrumental in copping the title for St. John’s that year and whose .418 hitting in 1978 helped to hold the Jays to a fourth place finish and tie with St. Thomas), displayed terrific energy on the court and netted a total of 335 points with an average of 17.5 per game. This performance resulted in his nomination to all-MIAC forward by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The score of the final game against Hamline was 19-28, reminiscent of the 1930’s. The reason for the low score was Hiller’s tactic of taking the ball across the center line and then having one player just stand and hold it. Hiller argued that if the opposing team didn’t try to get its hands on the ball, St. John’s was not obliged to do anything, so the two teams just stood there and looked at each other. Here is how a sportswriter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press described the game in the issue for March 4, 1951:

Although the Pipers have won most of the time by wider margins, no victory during the season came easier as St. John’s chose to hold the ball from play for more than 18 minutes of the first half after Hamline took a 2-0 lead in the opening seconds.

So disgusting was the first half, 25 persons left the game between halves and all received their money back as they left.


After Hamline scored on the tip-off with four seconds gone, St. John’s brought the ball across the center line and then held it.

The Pipers, in front, let them stand, and stand they did for more than seven minutes without making a pass. Bob Gussner almost intercepted the first one and then the Johnnies became a little more cautious again. In the final minutes of play (of the first half), Hamline got the ball on a double dribble call (which Hiller questioned), and the Pipers missed the second shot they got of the half.

During the first six minutes of the second half, while the Pipers, who came out to force the play despite the fact that they were leading 4-0 after Jim Fritsche scored on a second half opening tip-off, the Johnnies opened up and took four shots. During that time the Pipers built up a 9-3 lead, St. John’s points coming on a trio of freethrows by Bill Christopherson.

The Pipers pushed their lead to 17-7 before the Johnnies with Jack Litchy doing most of the scoring, cut the margin to 18-14 with seven minutes to play. Then the Pipers pushed ahead 27-15 as Thorgaard broke away for a trio of field goals and Jim Fritsche hit one.

 Final score: 28-19.

All of these shenanigans did not prevent Hamline from winning the title for the fifth time in a row, while St. John’s was 4-8 in the conference for eighth place and 8-15 overall.

The Johnnies and Hiller will go down in history as the instrumental cause for the new rule which requires that a player must get rid of the ball whenever an opposing player gets within three feet of him.

– 1951-1952 –

With eight returning lettermen, it was hoped that St. John’s would turn the corner in basketball. They started out strong and won eight out of the first ten games, including two games against St. Cloud State, and one each against North Dakota University and St. Olaf. Then, as in 1946-47, they began to cool off. Despite brilliant individual performances and high scoring by Jack Litchy (337 points), Bill Christopherson (262 points), and Jerry Opatz (205 points), the Johnnies finished 11-10 overall and 4-8 in the conference, ending up in seventh place.

Despite the lowly station in the win column, the team broke several records this season-highest total points in one season (337) and most field goals in one game (15) by Litchy, most points in one season for the entire team (1469),and highest game average (69.8).The trouble was that most of this high scoring was in non-conference games. Hamline, ho-hum, won the title.

This season represented Rawlings’ fourth year of basketball at St. John’s, during which he started in every game he played.

– 1952-1953 –

The 1952-53 season started out strong with a 100-78 victory over Eau Claire State, and closer victories over Stout and Superior. However, after that the roof fell in. Of the next 11 games St. John’s was the winner in only one (72-60 over Concordia), and then lost seven out of the next nine to finish 8-14 overall and 4-12 in the conference and seventh place.

One reason for the poor showing was the loss of guard Jerry Opatz through induction into the Navy and of other lettermen through graduation or dropping out of school.

Bill Christopherson played brilliantly, almost tying the conference record of most points in one game (41 against Augsburg); sophomore Bill Sexton began to give indications of his future greatness as a deadeye shot from the outside; and both players received recognition by being chosen on the Midwest All-Catholic Team, with Christopherson making the first team and Sexton the second. However, no matter how you cut it, it was an unsuccessful season in most respects, and Buster Hiller decided to resign. His place was taken by Bill Osborne, ’48, former football, baseball, and basketball star.

Hiller went on to great heights as a basketball coach. After leaving St. John’s, he returned to New Mexico where he coached in turn at a high school in Farmington, at St. Michael’s in Santa Fe, his alma mater, and at Albuquerque Academy. After five years at Albuquerque, Hiller took a flier at the big time-becoming head coach at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, which was seeking to become a name school in basketball. However, his family could not get used to the chill and dampness of the north, so he accepted an appointment to his present position as head basketball coach and physical education instructor at New Mexico Military Institute, Roswell, N.M.

He has been highly successful in high school ball. His present team handed him his 500th career victory in 1975, and by the spring of 1978, he had run his total to 550 won and 208 lost, for a won-lost ratio of 72.5 percent. He had been pointing toward that 500th victory, but says he is not going to stop now. He hopes to coach for another ten years, if possible, because he enjoys kids.

When leaving St. John’s Hiller took something precious with him a beautiful Sauk Rapids girl as his wife. He married Donna Varner, sister of Mrs. Claude Menzhuber, the wife of the proprietor of the EI Paso Club, popular watering place of the Johnnies in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

– 1953-1954 –

Bill Osborne, whose performance in all major sports at St. John’s has been described in these pages, took over as freshman coach in football and head coach in basketball and baseball. He had had an excellent record as head coach at Central Catholic High School in Billings, Montana. As was described in the chapter on football, it was he who alerted Fr. Arno Gustin, O.S.B., then president of St. John’s, to the capabilities of another Montana coach, John Gagliardi. Bill’s success as coach in a large high school made him a natural to succeed Buster Hiller.

Osborne lived up to expectations in his first year and compiled an 11-12 record overall, and 8-8 for fifth place in the conference, the highest the performance of Captain Bill Sexton, master of the one-handed jump shot, disdained by some coaches of the 1920’s. Although only a junior, he had amassed a total of 969 points by the end of his third season. More spectacular was his 49 point production against Macalester in the final game of the season. This established a new conference record and insured his nomination as all-conference forward. The team also established a new St. John’s record of 72.9 points per game.

Gustavus finally broke the Hamline strangle hold on first place with a 13-3 record, with Hamline and St. Thomas close behind.

– 1954-1955 –

Prospects for this season were bright. Only one first-string man, Bob Johnson, was missing from the previous year’s line-up, and not only had Bill Sexton developed into a star of the proportions of Stan Wilfahrt of the 1945-49 period, but he also had a strong supporting cast in the persons of Jake Lynch, 6-4, and Fred Ethen, 6-5, at center, in addition to a strong back court in the persons of Dick Matchinsky (father of Richard, Jr., ’76, and coach and teacher at Perham High School), Jack Stackpool (coach and teacher at Glenwood, whose son was named all-state quarterback in 1977), Bob Kleinschmidt, Jack Rowles, and Bill McMahon. He also received help from forwards Bob McBride and Tom Sande. Although long on experience, the Johnnies were somewhat short on height, and became shorter still when Kleinschmidt and Ethen dropped off the squad soon after the start of the season. Nevertheless, the team charged into its formidable 25-game schedule with enthusiasm, and came up with more wins than any other Johnnie team in history up to then including the first win in sixteen years over Hamline. They didn’t lose a game on the home court until they dropped the last two games to Augsburg and Gustavus.

The Johnnies won 14 out of 25 overall and 7 out of 16 in the conference to rank in sixth place. They had piled up a total of 1,858 points for the season against 1,827 for the opponents. High scorers were Sexton with 511, Matchinsky with 399 and Lynch with 280. Sexton finished his career in a blaze of broken records-most points in one game (49 in ’54), most field goals in one game (19 in ’55), most points in one season (511 in ’55), best free-throw average in one season (.883 in ’54), and highest average points per game in one season (21.7 in ’54). He was a shoo-in for all-conference forward, the first Johnnie to achieve that honor twice. He also made the All-Catholic Midwest Team.

 Gustavus won the title with a 15-1 record.

-1955-1956 –

For the first time in years, St. John’s did not have a serious height problem; the starting line-up averaged 6-3. Three of the starting five- Jake Lynch, center, Dick Matchinsky and Jack Rowles, guards, also had had considerable experience. They were supported by freshmen Norb Kowalkowski (ex-Prep) and Jerry Grow at the forward slots. After a spotty season they ended up with an 11-14 record overall and 6-10 in the conference, to rank in seventh place. Captain Matchinsky was second high scorer in the league and made the all-conference team. Gustavus won the title.

– 1956-1957 –

St. John’s looked like a contender in the early part of the season, then suffered heartbreaking losses to St. Mary’s, St. Thomas, and Gustavus, and began to run out of steam. However, they broke even with 11-11 overall and 8-8 in the conference, which was good for a tie with St. Thomas for fourth place, the highest standing since Hiller’s first year in 1948-49. The highlight of the season was a victory over perennial champion Hamline, the only Piper loss of the year-which, however, did not prevent them from taking the title.

Four Johnny starters averaged in double figures: Lynch, Matchinsky, Kowalkowski, and Grow. Joe Crotty, whose speed at halfback was responsible for many long gains on the gridiron, showed the same speed and shiftiness on the hard-court and made his contribution by helping to work the ball in to where the taller men could get a shot at the basket.

– 1957-1958 –

This year the Johnnies hit bottom. They lost Jake Lynch through graduation and Jerry Grow through the death of his father, and the replacements-Pat Dolan and Dick Breen-lacked experience. The team failed to win a single game during the first half of the season and adopted the fast break in the second half in an effort to change their fortunes. This resulted in victories over Macalester and St. Mary’s, but the final result was a 2-14 record in the conference for last place and 5-19 overall. The monopoly over first place by Hamline and Gustavus was finally cracked by University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD).

– 1958-1959 –

Veterans Norb Kowalkowski, Dick Breen, Joe Crotty, and Jake Muhvik were given a real shot in the arm this season by the spectacular point production of freshman Bernie Kukar. He poured in 392 points and inspired Kowalkowski (with  348), Breen (378), and Muhvik (320) to go and do likewise.

This high-scoring quartet amassed a total of 1,749points, an average of 72.8 points per game. However, the total for opponents was 1,995 for an average of 83.1. Part of the difference was due to the fact that St. John’s was badly out-rebounded throughout the season.

The Johnny performance was, moreover, highly erratic. They lost by wide margins to teams which they had defeated earlier in the season, e.g., losing to Gustavus 71-101 after defeating the Gusties 90-89 a couple of weeks earlier. The explanation for these losses was evidently weak defense. The overall record was 8 wins out of 24, and 6-10 in the conference, good for seventh place. Duluth again took the title with a 15-1 record.

Bill Osborne decided to resign as coach and returned to Billings where he became a highly successful insurance sales representative. In 1978 he ran for the office of U:S. Senator from Montana. He was defeated in the primaries, but is expected to run again when opportunity arises.

– 1959-1960 –

Upon the departure of Bill Osborne, Ed Hasbrouck, ’50, returned to his alma mater to serve as head basketball and baseball coach, and as assistant to John Gagliardi in football. In the years since his graduation, he had had good records as coach at Albany, Wadena, and St. Mary’s High School, New England, N.D., and it was thought that he was a likely prospect for the position of college coach.

His debut at St. John’s was, however, inauspicious. The Jays lost their first 13 games and won only three after that, for an overall record of 3 out of 21 (3 out of 16 in the conference). The one bright spot in

the season was the performance of sophomore Bernie Kukar, who caged 433 points and won the conference scoring championship within average of 21.9 points per game. Hamline took the title with a 15-1 record.

– 1960-1961-

Despite the high scoring of Captain Bernie Kukar (406 points), Craig Muyres (351 points), Ken Roering (296), and Mel Kohorst (305), St. John’s had another disastrous year, winning 7 out of 24 overall and 3 out of 16 in the conference. Roering and Muyres were building a reputation as a great passing combination in football and were highly instrumental in pulling out the thrilling victory over Prairie View College in 1963 for St. John’s first national championship, as described in Chapter I, 1963, p. 57.

In basketball, however, the Johnnies held sole possession of the cellar, while Duluth took the title with a 15-1 record.

– 1961-1962-

Coach Hasbrouck’s third year as coach showed a glimmer of improvement. Craig Muyres, a natural athlete, was coming on strong and even out-scored his teammate Bernie Kukar, the former averaging 18.3 points per game and the latter slipping to 13.1. It was apparent that Bernie was receiving extra attention from the defensive members of the opponents’ teams. The Jays’ defensive play improved somewhat as a result of Mel Kohorst’s strong rebounding. They won 8 out of 24 overall and 4 out of 16 in the conference. This performance lifted them just one notch above the cellar, which was monopolized by Macalester. Bright spots in a dreary season were an 80-64 victory over Gustavus in the final game, and the election of Craig Muyres to the all-conference team. Duluth won the championship for the second time in a row.

– 1962-1963-

This season was almost a carbon copy of the preceding one. Lack of height and inexperience were partial explanations for the failure of the club to climb higher in the scoring column.

The mediocre team performance was in strong contrast to the play of Craig Muyres, who broke all previous scoring records by pouring in 538 points from his guard position. His 195 field goals and an average of 24.5 points per game also established new school records. He also led the conference in scoring and was elected to the all-MIAC team for the second consecutive year.

Captain Mel Kohorst led his teammates in rebounding for the third time and helped to strengthen St. John’s defensive game. However, despite these brilliant individual performances, St. John’s ended up 7-15 overall and 4-12 in the conference, good for seventh place. Augsburg won the title.

– 1963-1964-

St. John’s started this basketball season with several members of the team who either played in or attended the Camellia Bowl football game against Prairie View College in Sacramento-particularly Craig Muyres and Hardy Reyerson, who starred in that game. Although the Johnnies won the Red River Classic Holiday basketball tournament held in Moorhead, they finished with a 10-13 rating overall and 4-12 in the conference, to rank just one notch above the cellar-dwelling Tommies. The title again went to Augsburg.

Stand-outs for the season were Joe Mucha, John Christopherson, and Tom Durenberger, son of George Durenberger. At the end of the season, Ed Hasbrouck resigned to go into the insurance business, first in Albany, Minn., and then in Austin, Texas.

– 1964-1965-

Ed Hasbrouck’s successor was Jim Smith, a product of that basketball capital of the Midwest, Marquette University. Smith had starred as a prep at St. Edward’s High School in his native Elgin, Ill., and was a member of the strong basketball squad at Marquette from 1952 to 1956, playing under Coach Tex Winters for one year and Jack Nagle for three years. He stayed on as a graduate student assistant coach to Nagle for one year and then for one season as full-time assistant under Coach Eddie Hickey (a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame). His experience included playing and coaching in both the NCAA and the NIT play-offs.

Smith didn’t turn things around for St. John’s in his first year. The team ended up with a 9-15 rating overall, and 6-10 in the conference, to tie for sixth place. However, he developed an exciting fast break and a strong defense which were enjoyed by the fans. The loss of Bob Ryan, former Prep, through injuries when the Jays had a record of 4-1, led to a losing streak of 11 games before they could make a comeback.

By that time three freshmen were starters and ready to get the Johnnies moving upward in the following season.

Joe Mucha, forward, with an average of 15.9 points per game, Bob Ryan, guard, with 13.1, and Roger Hipwell, with 8.4 points, were high scorers for the season. Augsburg won the title for the third time in a row.

– 1965-1966 –

The Johnnies really began to roll this season. With Joe Mucha raising his average points per game from 15.9 to 23.3, Tom Melancon, former Cretin star, developing fast and coming up with 12.4, and freshman Paul Bernabei, a graduate of St. Bede’s Academy in Illinois, giving a foretaste of his future performance with 11.4, the team established an 11-13 rating overall and 10-6 for third place in the conference, their highest ranking since Hiller’s second year, 1948-49.

Others who contributed to this resurgence were Bob Ryan and Greg Motl, guards, and Bud Foster and Bob Thibedeau, forwards. Joe Mucha’s highest average per game for the season (23.3), his highest number of points in a single game (34 against Augsburg). His grabbing of the greatest number of rebounds in a single game (also against Augsburg) insured his election to the all-conference first team.

He was also chosen to the first All-American Catholic Team. Bernabei received honorable mention.

This year St. John’s played several large colleges outside its region as in previous years-Western Illinois, Ball State, and Loyola of Chicago- and suffered defeats which made the overall standing seem less impressive. Smith chalked all this up to experience, which paid off in future years.


Despite the loss of Most Valuable Player Joe Mucha, the Johnnies continued to improve. They posted a 14-10 record overall, and 11-5 in the conference, to finish in second place. They finished the season with a real story-book victory over St. Thomas in the final game (84- 76), ending a Tommie 30-game winning streak. This was the highest ranking ever reached by the Johnnies up to that time. The record of 14-10 is the more remarkable when it is remembered that the team played the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (95-102), Detroit University (74-95), and Otterbein (53-68). Smith in three years had moved his team from seventh place to third and now to second place. But there was still room at the top.

Tom Melancon, forward, replaced Joe Mucha as high-point man, with 20.0 points per game overall and 20.8 in the conference. Paul Bernabei, guard, 6-1 sophomore from Dalzell, Ill., came on strong with a 13.2 and 14.1 points per game average, in addition to his alert floor play. Close behind him was Bud Foster, 6-5 forward. Jim Holmes, 6-4, who also held the high-jump record at SJU with 6 feet, 8Yzinches, was top rebounder for the Johnnies, snaring 20 caroms in the Duluth game. Others who lent strong support to this best performance in history were Bob Ryan, Joe Weber, and Greg Motl.

Tom Melancon was unanimous choice for all-conference. The title this year went to St. Thomas.


St. John’s dropped a notch in conference standings this year, but was a contender right up to the end, finishing the season with a 94-82 victory over traditional rival St. Thomas. The Johnnie standing in the conference was 10-6 and a tie for second place with Macalester and St. Mary’s. Overall, the record was 15-10. But again non-conference opponents included such big-name teams as DePaul, Detroit, and Loyola.

Bernabei, Melancon, Foster, and Weber averaged in double figures. Bernabei had the highest number of field goals per game (12 against St. Mary’s), and the highest number of points in a game (31 against the same opponent). He was accordingly a shoo-in for a position on the all-conference team.

The championship was taken by Gustavus with an 11-5 record.

– 1968-1969 –

Smith didn’t let up in his crusade for the championship. The team had made steady improvement from third place in the conference in 1965-66 to second place and a tie for second in the next two seasons. The only way to go now was up. He took the championship with a 12-4 record in the conference and 20-9 overall (again including some big-name teams).

St. John’s defeated Winona State in the District 13 NAIA playoffs, the final game of the best-of-three being a breathtaking 66-61 overtime win.

The team then went on to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City and lost a last-second heart-breaker to Henderson, of Arkansas, 78-76. This game was vividly described ten years later by Gary Larson, sports editor for the St. Cloud Daily Times: St. John’s had held the lead most of the way against Henderson and led by six points with three minutes to play. But Henderson sank seven free-throws in the final two minutes and pulled even at 76-76, with 27 seconds remaining. Following a time-out, St. John’s guard Paul Bernabei dribbled off 15 seconds before tossing a pass to Tim Muller, 6-7 center. Muller drove for the basket but had the ball tipped away from him. Henderson called time out with three seconds left.

“They had to go almost the length of the floor, so I tried to impress on our kids that the one thing we didn’t want was for them to get the ball behind us,” said Smith. Then it happened.

Six-foot-eight Henderson center, Ted Davis, threw the pass-in like Joe Namath would throw a football and hit Warren Harshaw in perfect stride ten feet from the basket. . .behind the Johnnie defense. Harshaw, who was in the game for only that single play, took a pair of steps and lifted in a lay-up at the buzzer to give Henderson the victory.

“We were shocked,” said Smith. “I think it took a couple of hours before we realized what had happened.”

 Muller led St. John’s in that game with 21 points, while Bernabei had 11. They were joined in the starting line-up by forwards Joe Weber and Jim Holmes, while Tom Grudnowski was the other guard. The top reserves on that team were Jerome Barney and Mike Dady (St. Cloud Daily Times, March 13, 1978, p. 21).

The 1968-69 season had been a genuine team effort which Smith compares with that of the 1978 regional champions. Two of the members, Paul Bernabei and Jim Holmes, were named to the all-conference team, and Bernabei received the first annual Joe Hutton Award as the most valuable player in the MIAC.

– 1969-1970-

After the tremendous effort of the 1968-69 season, and the loss through graduation of Bernabei, Holmes, and Melancon and the transfer of Jerome Barney to another school, the Jays paused to re-group. However, they managed a record of 11-12 overall and 7-9 for fifth place in the conference. St. Thomas took the title. Two stand-outs for the season were Tim Muller, who led the team in scoring and made all conference, and Tom Grudnowski, guard and all-round floor man.

– 1970-1971 –

Ten lettermen, including Muller and Grudnowski, and the entire first string from 1969-70 reported for practice-Kevin Coleman, 6-8, at center, Mike Dady, 6-6, paired with Muller at forward, and Tom Grudnowski, 6-0, paired with Bill Moeller, 6-1, at guard. Close competitors for places in the line-up were Vic Moore, 6-5, and Gary Marlow, 5-10, guards.

Smith followed his practice of opening games with big-time teams. This year the Johnnies gave Loyola a good contest, losing 56-68 in the last few minutes, but they couldn’t stay with Marquette, which rolled to a 87-58 victory.

The days came on strong against local opposition and had built a 5-1 record by the middle of January. However, after mixing with some of the MIAC leaders, the SJU standing in the conference was cut to 6-4 by mid-February, as compared with 9-1 for St. Thomas, and 6-3 and 7-4, respectively, for Augsburg and Duluth. By the end of the season St. John’s standing was 10-6 in the MIAC and 13-12 overall. St. Thomas won the title with a record of 15-1. Kevin Coleman was chosen all-conference center.


With most of the regulars back, St. John’s was one of the four teams in the scrap for second place. St. Thomas, conference champion in the previous three years and undefeated in the early part of this season, had locked up first place, but Augsburg, Macalester, Duluth, and St. John’s were battling for the runner-up position, which would entitle the fortunate one to a spot in the NAIA play-offs. However, Macalester staged a couple of upsets and pulled into second place. St. John’s, with a 10-6 record, ended up in a tie for third place with Duluth. The overall record was 12-13, a lopsided figure which is deceiving because the opposition included such giants as Marquette, Loyola, and the highly ranked Stephen F. Austin College of Texas.

The team’s disappointment in failing to make the play-offs was somewhat softened by their upset victory in the final game. With seven seniors-Kevin Coleman, Terry Maloney (6-6), Gary Marlow, Dave Plafcan, Dave Homan, Vic Moore, and Tom Grudnowski playing their last game, and with their parents and girl friends looking on, the Johnnies rose up and clobbered league-leading St. Thomas 87-79. Kevin Coleman was again chosen all-conference, while Tom Grudnowski made honorable mention.

– 1972-1973-

This season Jim Smith was faced with a two-fold handicap-the loss of eight veterans and a schedule which he dubbed the toughest in the state, with the exception of the University of Minnesota. Three of these toughies-Loyola, Marquette, and Detroit-served as openers to condition the team for the grueling MIAC season. A fourth big-name team, Creighton, was scheduled for early in February.

Only two players who had seen action in 1971-72reported for practice- 5-9 junior guard Sharon Storr, from Nassau, Bahama Islands, who out-jumped 7-4 Tom Rosier at the opening tip-off at the Tommie game in the Palaestra, and Bob Bauer, 6-4, forward. New prospects who looked promising in early season work-outs were Mike Schneider, 6-4 center, Scott Furey, 6-6 forward, Bill Sullivan, 5-9, and Steve Ward, 6-1, guards. In looking over the squad, Smith expressed two concerns: inexperience and lack of a big man to defense the opposition’s big man.

These shortcomings showed up in the early part of the season during which, according to Bob Held in the St. Cloud Daily Times for January 2, 1973, the Johnnies “stumbled through six defeats while gaining a pair of triumphs.” The team developed steadily, however, as the season progressed, and finished in third place in the conference with 8 losses and 8 wins (11 to 16 overall). The momentum the team

had gathered by the end of the season, however, carried them to resounding victories in the last three games over St. Cloud State, 78-76, Gustavus, 90-71, and Concordia, 82-74.

Sharon Storr was named all-conference guard and most valuable player on the SJU squad. Smith was pleased with the development the team had shown: “They had real togetherness and, with almost everyone back for next year, I’m looking forward to an enjoyable season” (St. Cloud Daily Times, March 19, 1973).

During this year, Jim Smith added the duties of Athletic Director to those of coaching and teaching, when George Durenberger reached retirement age and ended his long period of service to St. John’s. Smith held the position of Athletic Director and chairman of the Physical Education Department until he was succeeded by John Gagliardi in 1976. During this time he also coached cross-country and track.

– 1973-1974-

The 1973-74 season is memorable for two things: the first basketball season with home games played outside of the old 1902 battle scarred Rat Hall, and victory over traditional rival St. Cloud State in the first game played in the spacious new Warner Palaestra. St. John’s, as usual, had its practice games against Loyola, Marquette, and Detroit, giving the last named a real scare before it pulled out an 81-77 victory in the last three minutes. These games were followed by the inaugural game with St. Cloud State on December 9, won by the Johnnies 67-53. Smith attributed the victory to the tight Johnny defense and the sharp passing of Sharon Storr to Mike Schneider, Steve Ward, and Scott Furey, who often completed the sequence with lay-ups.

After participating in the Granite City Classic at St. Cloud State, in which the Johnnies won the consolation title and Sharon Storr was named all-tournament player, the Johnnies turned their attention to the conference. They won the first game against UMD, and engaged in some very close and exciting contests during the remainder of the season, until the league-leading Tommies used their height (7-3, 6-6, 6-4, against the Johnnies’ 6-6, 6-4) to defeat them 79-69 in the final game before a jam-packed crowd in the Palaestra.

The Johnnies ended up with a 10-16 record and 7-9 in the conference, for a sixth place tie with St. Mary’s. Sharon Storr made all conference with 8 losses and 8 wins (11 to 16 overall). The momentum the team had gathered by the end of the season, however, carried them to resounding victories in the last three games over St. Cloud State, 78-76, Gustavus, 90-71, and Concordia, 82-74.

Sharon Storr was named all-conference guard and most valuable player on the SJU squad. Smith was pleased with the development the team had shown: “They had real togetherness and, with almost everyone back for next year, I’m looking forward to an enjoyable season” (St. Cloud Daily Times, March 19, 1973).

During this year, Jim Smith added the duties of Athletic Director to those of coaching and teaching, when George Durenberger reached retirement age and ended his long period of service to St. John’s. Smith held the position of Athletic Director and chairman of the Physical Education Department until he was succeeded by John Gagliardi in 1976. During this time he also coached cross-country and track.

– 1973-1974-

The 1973-74 season is memorable for two things: the first basketball season with home games played outside of the old 1902 battlescarred Rat Hall, and victory over traditional rival St. Cloud State in the first game played in the spacious new Warner Palaestra. St. John’s, as usual, had its practice games against Loyola, Marquette, and Detroit, giving the last named a real scare before it pulled out an 81-77 victory in the last three minutes. These games were followed by the inaugural game with St. Cloud State on December 9, won by the Johnnies 67-53. Smith attributed the victory to the tight Johnny defense and the sharp passing of Sharon Storr to Mike Schneider, Steve Ward, and Scott Furey, who often completed the sequence with lay-ups.

After participating in the Granite City Classic at St. Cloud State, in which the Johnnies won the consolation title and Sharon Storr was named all-tournament player, the Johnnies turned their attention to the conference. They won the first game against UMD, and engaged in some very close and exciting contests during the remainder of the season, until the league-leading Tommies used their height (7-3, 6-6, 6-4, against the Johnnies’ 6-6, 6-4) to defeat them 79-69 in the final game before a jam-packed crowd in the Palaestra.

The Johnnies ended up with a 10-16 record and 7-9 in the conference, for a sixth place tie with St. Mary’s. Sharon Storr made all conference.


Practice for the 1974-75 season opened without three of the leading scorers of the preceding season-Sharon Storr, Scott Furey, and Mike Schneider. However, Schneider returned as assistant coach while completing some graduation requirements, and there was a strong nucleus of veterans, including Steve Ward, 6-1, who was top scorer and had shot a torrid 53 percent in the preceding season-Terry Booth (6-2), Tom Witt (6-4), Jerry Berg (6-3), and Dave Super (6-0)-all of whom had seen a good deal of action in 1973-74. Other promising candidates were Mark Kosiek (6-0), Mike Koshmrl (5-11), Gary Putz (5-10), Tom Witucki (6-6), Mark Lenss (6-6), Ted Nowak (6-5), Jim Hoesley (6-1), Ken Bednar (6-9), Jim O’Connell (6-1), and Dave Theisen (6-2).

After the usual warm-up games with Loyola and Marquette, St. John’s lost to St. Cloud State 67-72, before turning attention to the St. John’s Invitational scheduled for December 13-14. The Johnnies rolled over previously unbeaten Southwest State 79-64, while Bemidji was finishing off Luther College 72-63. St. John’s then met Bemidji in the finals and, supported by the sharpshooting of Steve Ward (30 points) and Terry Booth (15), slipped by the Beavers 67-61 to win its own invitational. Booth and Ward were elected to the all-tournament squad, and Ward was chosen the tourney’s most valuable player.

After a short rest for the holidays, the Johnnies rushed into another tournament, the Granite City Classic at St. Cloud State. The treatment received in this engagement was less gentle. University of Wisconsin- La Crosse did everything right and rolled over St. John’s 81-62. This game to a large extent set the pattern for the rest of the season. The Johnnies lost two more games in the Granite City Classic (to St. Thomas and St. Olaf), then managed to win 6 games during the rest of the season, ending up with an 8-19 overall record and 6-12 in the conference, good for fifth place, seven games behind co-champions Augsburg and Gustavus.

One encouraging feature of the season was the development of men like Jerry Berg, Terry Booth, Tom Witt, and Dave Super, as also the emergence of new talent in the persons of Mark Lenss, Mark Kosiek, and Tom Witucki. These men were to be heard from in the future. Steve Ward, who starred with three 31-point games during the season, was high point man for the Johnnies (averaging 17.5 points per game), and was chosen all-MIAC.

During the 1974-75 school year the St. John’s basketball team was chosen to travel to Poland by the Enculturation Athletic Committee and the Polish Students’ Organization. The players raised money to finance the trip through various money-raising projects and left in June, 1975, for a 16-day trip through Poland, during which they played ten basketball games, breaking even with a 5-5 record.

– 1975-1976 –

Over fifty players, including 11 lettermen and 30 freshmen, reported for practice in the fall of 1975. Smith told reporters that there was no one outstanding player on the squad, but that there would be keen competition for the five starting positions. By the end of the season it was necessary to revise that statement. It is true that he had a balanced crew of starters, but by the end of the season St. John’s had in Frank Wachlarowicz one of the most outstanding players in its basketball history.

Under the boards were seniors Tom Witt (6-4) and Tom Witucki (6-2), who were being pushed by juniors Terry Booth (6-1) and Dave Philp (6-3). At the forward positions Smith was planning to rely on sophomores Mark Lenss (6-6) and Ted Nowak (6-4), with support from the strong freshman squad. As guards Smith could choose from seniors Dave Super (6-1) and Dave Theisen (6-2), juniors Jim Hoesley (6-1), Mark Kosiek (6-0), Jim O’Connell (6-1), and sophomores Gary Putz (5-11), Mike Koshmrl (5-11), and George Chovancek (6-1).

Most gratifying was the speedy adjustment to college competition by freshman all-state center Frank Wachlarowicz from Little Falls. He was the answer to Smith’s prayer for a big man, the kind of player St. John’s had lacked for years. Not only did he make the team in his freshman year, but he was also the key man on both offense and defense. As Smith told a reporter toward the end of the season: “Wach’s most obvious contribution is his offensive play. Frank is shooting nearly 65 percent from the field. His defensive rebounding is an important key to our fast break. He always adds two or three tip-ins a game. He has also contributed with solid defensive play inside. At 6-5, he’s generally playing against bigger men, but he has contained them very well.” One evidence of his contribution was that the Johnnies, who finished fifth in the conference in 1974-75, ranked second in 1975- 76.

But Smith had said that the Johnnies were not a one-man team. Wachlarowicz fitted into the team as a cog in a well-oiled machine, not as a prima donna striving for personal prominence.

St. John’s won its first three games against the U. of Minnesota- Morris, St. Cloud State, and St. Olaf, and then won its own invitational by taking Jamestown 84-79 and Bemidji State 82-65. It lost the next three to schools outside this region-Eastern Montana, Gonzaga University, and Boise State, and then launched into the conference race, winning four straight games. Mixing in a few losses to perennial stalwarts like Gustavus (two games), St. Thomas (one game), and Augsburg (one game), the Jays hammered out victories against all other conference rivals, to end up with a 12-6 record in the conference and third place (17-10 overall).

Wachlarowicz led the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game and was chosen all-conference in this his freshman year.

– 1976-1977 –

At the beginning of this season Smith was given a chance to see his crew in action against a remarkably strong alumni team on November 20, and they gave a good account of themselves. Although matched against 1971 star alumnus Tim Muller, 6-7 center, freshman Frank Wachlarowicz poured in 27 points to lead the varsity to a convincing 97-73 victory. The scoring was well distributed, with co-captain Jim O’Connell, forward Mark Lenss, and guard Tom Witucki each accounting for 11 points, while Gary Putz and Paul Wotta added 10 and 8, respectively.

St. John’s confined its practice games to only one toughie this year-Loyola of Chicago-losing 53-69. They failed to bounce back from this encounter, losing their second game to Minnesota-Morris 66-79 and their third to St. Cloud State, 80-90.

The Johnnies then lost their chance to claim a victory in the St. John’s Invitational when little (5-9) Otis Carter of Jamestown College, North Dakota, swiped the ball from Mark Kosiek with the score tied 70-all and 46 seconds remaining, and, in the words of Dave Anderson of the St. Cloud Daily Times, “converted the theft into two points.” Wachlarowicz evened the score at 81-81, but Carter again got his hands on the ball and dropped an 18-footer just as the buzzer sounded. Jamestown went on to win the tournament, while St. John’s won the consolation crown by defeating Winona State.

Two weeks later the St. John’s crew was eliminated from the Granite City Classic by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a top team in NCAA Division II which went on to win the tournament. The Jays salvaged something out of a spotty early season by winning the consolation game against College of Great Falls by the convincing score of 94-74. In this game Wachlarowicz paced the Johnnie squad with 29 points and 20 rebounds. His output for the entire tournament was 91 points and 43 rebounds. He was deservedly proclaimed the tournament’s most valuable player.

The victory over College of Great Falls started the Jays on a five game winning streak which received an impetus from the return to the line-up of Dave Neisen, 6-1, who poured in 34 points in the 87-79 victory over Hamline. They stretched this skein to six straight MIAC victories by taking the formidable Tommies 75-65, in a game which, according to the St. Cloud Daily Times, left the colorful Tommie coach fuming (too many fouls called on the Tommies, too few on the Johnnies by referees intimidated by the Rats).

An uprising by St. Mary’s and a loosely played game snapped the SJU winning streak (63-78), and although the Jays scored easy wins over Macalester, 73-57, St. Olaf, 95-88, and a cliff-hanger over Hamline, 47-45, they fell apart at the end of the season. They lost heartbreakers to Augsburg, 72-80, in an overtime to St. Thomas, 79-82, and a double overtime to Macalester, 70-72, to end up with 14-12 overall and 10-6 and third place in the MIAC.

This record entitled the Johnnies to meet Minnesota-Morris (20-5), a team which had proved too rugged earlier in the season in the NAIA play-offs. Morris was just as rugged at the end, as the final score of 62-50 showed.

Although failing to win the MIAC title and losing to Minnesota- Morris in the first game of the play-offs, the Johnnies had played firstclass basketball and gained a great deal in experience. There was little doubt that they would be heard from in the following season.

– 1977-1978 –

Despite the widely proclaimed power of Augsburg, St. Thomas, and St. Mary’s, Jim Smith told reporters at the beginning of the season that although some teams in the league were much improved over the previous year, “I like our chances.” He was probably looking over his squad as he said that-two-time All-MIAC and two-time Most Valuable Player Frank Wachlarowicz (6-5); Mark Lenss, 6-7 senior forward who had developed rapidly the previous year; forwards Dan Smith 6-5, Ted Nowak, 6-5, and Paul Wotta, 6-5; great floor-man, Pat McKenzie, 5-10; guard Gary Putz; and reliable reserves Mike Koshmrl and George Chovancek. Other as yet unproven but promising prospects were John Patterson, 6-3, Scott Erickson, 6-6, Dave Philp, 6-2, and Pablo Montanez, 5-10 sophomore from Puerto Rico. There were also several freshmen who were left to the care of Mark Kosiek, highscoring forward from the preceding season who replaced Denny Lorsung as assistant to Coach Smith.

Smith’s confidence in the squad seemed verified when the team rolled over St. Olaf 101-87, with four players scoring in double figures. They received a setback in a  hard-fought game with pesky Minnesota- Morris (64-67), but returned to form by beating St. Cloud State 91-84 in the championship game of the St. John’s Invitational, in which some of the so-called inexperienced players began to show their stuff, especially Pat McKenzie, Pablo Montanez, Gary Putz, and Paul Wotta. St. Cloud took revenge for that defeat by trouncing St. John’s 87-81 a few days later, but the Johnnies snapped back, defeating Duluth 96-88, and went on to the tough Granite City Classic at St. Cloud State where they defeated University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse 97-90 in overtime, to reach the semi-finals, where they lost a squeaker to Augustana of Illinois (77-78), and to Indiana-Purdue 80-86 in the contest for third place.

The Johnnies then settled down to the grueling MIAC schedule, during which they won every game except two fiercely fought contests with Augsburg and one with St. Thomas (65-57) to end up with a 15-3 season in the conference and 22-7 overall. This was good enough for first place in the conference.

In the play-offs, the Johnnies rolled over second-place Gustavus 92-66, while Moorhead State flattened St. Mary’s, which had tied for second in the MIAC, by 82-71. Two days later the Johnnies methodically decapitated Moorhead State by a score of 98-85 and earned their second trip to the National NAIA Tournament in Kansas City.

For its first game in the NAIA tournament St. John’s drew Central Washington (21-7), a school which had made twelve appearances at Kansas City, with 1978 being its fifth straight trip. The Johnnies, though an unknown quantity as compared with Central Washington, were unawed. Under the brilliant floor leadership and ball handling of little (5-10) Pat McKenzie, who seldom tried to shoot (“because if I do it’d be blocked”) and the point production and rebounding of Wachlarowicz, Nowak, and Wotta, the Johnnies won their first game, 83-63.

Their second encounter, against third-seeded Drury of Missouri, was not decided until the final minutes. The score was 39-38 in favor of St. John’s at the half, and they were leading 70-69 with 4:31 left in the game. Then Drury pulled ahead, but Wachlarowicz tied it with two free-throws. Then he drew his fifth foul, and the Johnnie attack was blunted. The final score: 79-86. Drury went on to the semi-finals.

The crowd gave Wachlarowicz a standing ovation when he left the game, the first player in the tournament to receive such acclaim.

The Johnnies also won other distinctions. The coach and the team were named the most sportsmanlike participants in the tournament.

Wachlarowicz was named to the All-American NAIA squad. Other honors were heaped upon Smith and the team after they returned home. Smith was chosen all-MIAC and all-NAIA District 13 Coach of the Year, and Wachlarowicz was awarded the Joe Hutton Award as the most valuable MIAC player-the second St. John’s player to receive this award since it was granted for the first time to Paul Bernabei in 1969. Wachlarowicz was also chosen for the third time on the all- MIAC team, along with Ted Nowak, Mark Lenss, and Pat McKenzie.

The final record of 23-8 represented the greatest number of wins during any season by the Johnnies.

Dave Anderson, sportswriter for the St. Cloud Daily Times, who with his colleague Kevin Simpson covered the exciting sports events at St. John’s, as well as off-campus engagements such as the NAIA Nationals, summed up the basketball season in one line: “The Johnnies have reached a new plateau, moving from good to great” (St. Cloud Daily Times, March 9, 1978).