HIBBING — When Gary Addington arrived in Hibbing in 1975, he wasn’t familiar with the school, let alone the team he was about to take over.
Addington had just been hired to coach the Hibbing High School boys basketball team, taking over for Milan Knezovich, so Bluejacket athletic director Mario Retica escorted Addington around town and introduced him to his players.
From those first introductions on, the marriage between coach and players was a match made in heaven.
The Bluejackets would make state-tournament appearances during the 1975 and 1976 seasons, breaking a dry spell of 18 years (1957) at the showcase event.
Based on those introductions, and one of those stops was to the home of Kevin McHale, Addington found out he had some talent, but he still didn’t know much about the team.
“I met John (Retica) and a few of the other players and it was good,” Addington said. “I hadn’t seen any of them, but it was going to be a step up from Wanamingo, going from a small school to a big school. It was a good opportunity for me.”
The difference between Addington and Knezovich was like night-and-day.
“We were putting in a whole-new system,” Addington said. “We were going to do things differently than they had done before. We started with the fundamentals as far as defense and offense, those types of things.”
Addington made a strong first impression with his team.
“First of all, he was a young coach, but the minute you met Gary and were around him, he was something special,” Chris Liesmaki said. “He was a great teacher and motivator. He was a great mentor for all of us.
“Every time I hear his name, or talk to him, I get a good feeling inside. I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a special person.”
Dave Cicmil, who was a junior on that team, liked the change.
“It was like a new type of basketball we were learning to play,” Cicmil said. “He related to the players. At the time, he was only 26 years old. That wasn’t even a 10-year difference between most of us and him. He was like an older brother.
“He understood us. We had fun. We challenged each other to be good, and it was a good group of guys. It was a different-style-of coaching, and a different style of basketball.”
Bill Manney, who was a senior on that team, remembers a shake-up when practice started.
“It was a lot of discipline,” Manney said. “There were times when we would run the offense, and we couldn’t shoot until we passed it around the perimeter at least seven times.
“We added in some wrinkles, and we had all kinds of plays for everything. He had a plan for the end of the year. That plan paid off with a trip to the state tournament.”
The practices took on a different flavor.
“He went back to the fundamentals,” said Skip Bronniche, who was a sophomore on that team. “We did running drills and rebounding drills. We had different stations. That’s how practices were run.
“We had a rebounding machine that we had never used before. It was a mechanical device. You would put the ball on an overhang, then you would crank it up depending on how tall a player was. That was different than what we were used to.”
Off the court, Addington wanted his players to take responsibility for their own actions.
“We had curfews,” Manney said. “He wanted people to be leaders and for everybody to give it their all. He got the best out of everybody.
“He found ways to work with people to get the best out of them.”
Manney remembers Addington and McHale staying after practice, playing one-on-one.
“They would play for milk shakes,” Manney said. “He would make McHale work and work and work. He forced him to improve. He saw the potential in him.”
Hibbing would win some close games early in that 1975 season, including two wins over Virginia.
Addington was expecting the Blue Devils to beat Duluth Denfeld in the section tournament, but the Hunters pulled the upset. The Bluejackets dismantled Denfeld in their first game, setting up a semifinal match with Duluth East.
Hibbing trailed late, but a last-second shot by Pete Chamernick from the right corner, while being fouled, hit nothing but net, putting the Bluejackets into the finals against Bemidji.
It was a shot heard all over Bluejacket Country.
“That was an incredible shot by Pete,” said Monte Mitchell, who was a senior on that team. “I threw a pass that was intercepted in the closing seconds, then I took the ball out-of-bounds at the far end of the court.”
Mitchell’s inbounds pass went to Retica. He cut up the middle. Retica gave him the ball, and the rest is history.
“I was thinking that I might have to take that last shot, but I saw Pete ahead of me,” Mitchell said. “I threw him the ball, he shot it. That that ball went way up in the air. He swished it and put us ahead.
“It was an incredible shot, and he reminds me about it every time I see him.”
Manney will never forget that shot.
“The one player that doesn’t get enough credit is Pete,” Manney said. “He came off the bench in a nail-biter. He turns around and swishes it to win the game. It was only the semifinals, but he put us in the state tournament.
“I remember walking off the court and putting my arms around him. He had a bloody nose because he got mobbed at the buzzer. Without Pete making that shot, there’s no state that year.”
Hibbing would go on to beat Bemidji in the finals.
The Bluejackets took on Little Falls in the state quarterfinals.
The Flyers would beat Hibbing, sending the Bluejackets to the consolation semifinals.
“We were nervous when we took the floor against Little Falls,” Mitchell said. “We stuck with them after getting behind early. John, he almost single handedly brought us back into that game, but it was a heartbreaking loss.”
As the Bluejackets were getting set to take on North in consolation semifinals, Dan Forer remembers coming down the tunnel just prior to the game.
“There was a chair there with this huge guy sitting on it,” Forer said. “We were running down the tunnel, and he was the only one there. We stopped dead in our shoes. It was Andre the Giant.”
Hibbing crushed North in the consolation semifinal contest, then the Bluejackets lost to Bloomington Jefferson in the fifth-place game.
It’s not how Hibbing wanted the season to end, but after that 18-year dry spell, they could hold their heads high.
“We were proud of the accomplishment that we made it there,” Mitchell said.
One of the players along for the ride that season was Bronniche.
“He called me up toward the end of the season,” Bronniche remembers. “I was dressing for varsity. That was the coolest thing in the world, wearing a varsity uniform. That was big time.
“When we went to state, and the first time I got into a game, Coach (Tom) Anzelc grabbed me by the jersey and said, ‘You shoot the ball. That’s the only way you’ll get your name in the box score in the paper.’”
In 1976, the tone was set right after that consolation-round loss.
“I remember Gary was going around to a number of players who were coming back, and he talked to them about what type of impact we’d have, and what we needed to do,” Liesmaki said. “He was always talking to you about becoming a better basketball player and person.
“It was a unique team. We were coming back with experience and size.”
The expectations were a lot higher than 1975.
“We had a lot of talented athletes coming back from a size standpoint,” Liesmaki said. “We were tall and intimidating. Kevin was an unbelievable player. He’s accomplished everything one can in basketball, and he’s a fantastic person and friend.
“John was a good player. A great shooter. He could dribble the ball well. He was talented. It was a perfect storm.
“It was a bunch of guys with experience at the state level. We were also familiar with Gary and his coaching style. It was a great opportunity for us to grab.”
One person who enjoyed the whole basketball experience was Forer.
“I had the best seat in the house for every game,” Forer said. “In practice, I played against the starters. I know I built up McHale’s confidence because he blocked every shot I took, but it was fun playing against those guys.”
Things got ramped up in practice following one particular loss that season.
“We lost to Superior around Christmas time,” Forer said. “They were more physical than us, so Addington came in and said we were too soft. We had to toughen them up. Our jobs, as backups, were to push those guys and shove them around to toughen them up.
“Even though we didn’t play as much, we were still a part of the team. We were all treated the same.”
Unfortunately, Retica would break his wrist during a game against Cloquet, which sidelined him for most the season.
His replacement, Steve Knezovich, had a bigger role on the team.
“Steve did a good job for us in John’s absence,” Addington said.
The Bluejackets couldn’t take anything for granted, and when they finally won the 7AA title, they breathed a sigh of relief.
“All I remember is never being so relieved,” Addnington said. “When you have expectations to walk through it, that doesn’t always happen. There’s additional pressure, so you need to be prepared for it.
“What you fear as a coach is the kids are going to look past somebody. You never want that to happen. We focused on the game at hand. We were relieved when we wrapped up that section championship.”
At state, Hibbing rallied from behind to beat Little Falls in the quarterfinals to exact some revenge on the Flyers.
Liesmaki made the biggest basket of that game. The left-handed guard went to his opposite hand to nail the deciding points.
“Chris stole the ball and went the length of the floor with his right hand,” Addington said. “He took a right-handed layup. We’ve talked about that a time or two. It was rewarding for Chris. That kid spent hours in the gym working on that right hand.”
For Liesmaki, it seemed like an eternity while he was driving toward the basket.
“Gary always kids me about that, so they’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one,” Liesmaki said. “My dad worked construction, so he would always drop me off at the gym. When you work on something, it pays off.
“Luckily, it worked. Somebody said I took off from the free throw line to get there quicker. It was the end of the game. I was going full speed down the court. It was crazy.”
Cicmil summed it up by saying, “I can remember seeing the most odd-looking layup that I had ever seen in my life. There were some great moments. Chamernick hit that shot. If he hadn’t made it, what would have happened?
“Maybe we wouldn’t have been there in 1975, and maybe 1976 is a whole-different-type-of outcome.”
Hibbing beat Minneapolis North in the semifinals, setting up a championship showdown with Jefferson.
The Bluejackets had a seven-point lead at one point of that game, but the Jaguars fought back and claimed the state title.
“It got away from us,” Addington said. “Looking back on it, they had a more experienced coach. There were probably some things I could have done to counter that, but Jack Evans was a great coach. He did a great job.
“He had more experience than I did in those situations. It didn’t pan out the way we hoped it would.”
To this day, the Bluejackets still believe they let it slip away.
“As you look back, those are tough losses,” Liesmaki said. “You’re that close. For us to be ahead at the half, then lose by a few at the end… That’s when you start thinking, ‘Had we only done this or that, even myself, maybe playing harder on defense, maybe scoring a little more, things may have ended differently.’
“Even so, it was a positive experience. I wish everybody could experience doing something like that. They can’t take it away from you.”
That loss still stings to this day.
“When we came home in 1976, everybody was down,” Cicmil said. “At the beginning of the year, we were on a mission. It was a letdown the way we came back. Second place wasn’t enough.
“We would have loved to have been a state-championship team. Like they say, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’”
Bronniche appreciated the fact that he was able to take part on both of those teams.
“Those two years were absolutely terrific for me,” Bronniche said. “They had enough confidence to bring up and give me a jersey, then in my second year, I was starting with the older guys.
“I was honored to be able to start and play in those games. It was a great experience, something I’ll never forget.”