HIBBING — In 1953, the Hibbing High School boys basketball team was described as a well-seasoned team.
The Bluejackets were senior-dominated, and the competition internally for playing spots was intense.
Because of that depth, Hibbing would avenge a loss to Virginia in 1952, and the Bluejackets advanced to the state tournament, not only in that season, but in 1954 as well.
The 1953 team consisted of Mike Marion, Paul Heine, Al Rice, Del Kepler, John Edmond, Mike Bjellos, Bill Radovich, Bob Manney, Ted Spanner, John Bechetti, Matt Chamernick and Terry Carlson.
According to Radovich, having so many talented players was a blessing because it kept everybody on their toes.
“There was a lot of competition for starting positions,” Radovich said. “Everybody was a good ball player. There wasn’t a big dropoff of talent from the starting five to the end of the bench.
“It helped. Practices were competitive. Coach could put a different player in every time, and someone contributed to the success of the team.”
The table was set in 1952 because Hibbing thought it was going to state that year.
It didn’t turn out that way.
“We thought we’d win the district,” Edmond said. “We had beaten Coleraine twice, then in the finals of the district, we were overconfident, and Greenway took us to the cleaners.”
Hibbing’s coach was Mario Retica.
“I enjoyed playing for him,” Bjellos said. “He was a good coach, one of the best basketball coaches in the state. We respected him. When you do that, you play hard for them. We didn’t have a big team that year. We didn’t win with 80 points, but our defense was tough.
“We were a good defensive team, and that’s what took us to the state tournament.”
According to Radovich, Retica was old school.
“He was a disciplinarian,” Radovich said. “He required you to be disciplined on and off the court. He was old-time in the way he coached, but he got us to work together.”
The starting five consisted of Marion, Rice, Heine, Kepler and Bjellos.
Kepler was a late addition, according to Heine.
“Mario came to me and asked if the team would accept him after coming off the hockey team,” Heine said. “We said, ‘Sure.’ He made our team better.”
Early in the 1952-53 season, Hibbing went on the road to face Virginia, which advanced to state the previous season.
That game set the stage for the Bluejackets’ trip to state.
“We got beat, and we were in the locker room crying,” said Heine, who was the captain of that team. “Mario came into the locker room and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We found out what we needed to know.’”
During the regular season, the two games Hibbing played against Chisholm were held at the Hibbing Memorial Arena.
The games drew a lot of fans from both cities.
The Bluejackets got the best of the Bluestreaks in those two games, but when they met in the playoffs, Chisholm made Hibbing earn that win.
“We beat them soundly during the season, but in the finals of the district, they just about knocked us off,” Bjellos said. “We beat them by two or three points.”
Radovich said the arena was packed.
“That was exciting for everyone, not only the team, but the city itself,” Radovich said. “They got behind the team, and that’s what made us successful.”
With that teamwork, the Bluejackets were well on their way to a section title.
“We went rolling right along,” Edmond said. “Mario was a heck of a coach. He was a fast mover, breaking the ball out right away. Halfway through the season, Mike (Bjellos) told somebody we have something going, but we never paid attention to it.”
Basketball was life for all of those players. They tried to play basketball every waking hour of the day.
If they weren’t on the high-school court, they found another spot to shoot some baskets.
“We played our ball games on Friday, then on the weekend, we were still shooting baskets,” Bjellos said. “We’d go to Dick Garmaker’s house and shoot. He had a basket right by his house, and we played Four Horses and stuff like that.
“Dick was at the university that year, but he was my idol during my high-school days. We knew him, so we’d go down and shoot baskets by his house. We’d be shooting all of the time. Even at 10 p.m., we’d still be shooting baskets. We stuck together. We were close.”
Edmond remembers that, too.
“We’d play ball with Dick at his house,” Edmond said. “Mike and I were shooting down there one day, and he came out. He would play against Mike (Marion) and I, and he’d pick on Mike all of the time. Mike told him, ‘I’m going to make All-State.’ Dick said, “I’ll be All-American.’ They both did it.”
Heine said they would bike down to Garmaker’s house to shoot those baskets.
“He was there once in a while,” Heine said. “He introduced the jump shot to us. We had never shot that until we started playing with him. He was a great jump shooter.”
In the playoffs, the Bluejackets made it through districts unscathed, but there was a scare in one of the games.
“We were playing Chisholm, and I had four fouls,” Edmond said. “Our lead was only two with about five seconds left. That’s when Jerry Portegue throws the ball to the left forward, and there was no forward there.
“That’s how we won that game.”
The score was 54-53.
Having advanced to regions, Hibbing’s first opponent was Morgan Park, but there was a familiar foe waiting in the wings.
“Our big game was with Virginia,” Bjellos said. “We went over there, but we lost to them in a close game. That first game may have been the best thing that happened to us that year. That loss helped a lot.
“We weren’t the best yet, and that’s what it was.”
In the semifinals, the Bluejackets would beat Morgan Park 54-45, setting up that rematch with the Blue Devils.
It wasn’t a surprise when the two teams met in the section finals.
In the finals, Hibbing beat Virginia 46-39.
“That was a team we had to beat,” Radovich said. “It was only a couple of points that we beat them by. It was such a close game that it could have gone either way. We were fortunate enough to be on the winning end of that one.”
The championship game was played at the Hibbing Memorial Arena.
“During those years, basketball was big. It was everything,” Bjellos said. “In the finals, there were 7,300 people in the arena. That was the last time they allowed that many people in the arena. They were hanging from the rafters.”
That’s where Retica’s coaching came into play.
That made all of the difference in the world in the second meeting between the two teams.
Virginia had Stromberg and Sims, who were all-state the year before.
Retica’s plan was simple. He was going to play Marion in front of Sims and Heine behind him. They did the same to Stromberg.
The plan worked to perfection.
“We double-teamed two of their players,” Heine said. “We would double one of them, and put 1 ½ guys on the other one, then we’d switch it around. We didn’t even guard Pierce. He only scored 10 points.
“We went in there confidently because of our coaching. Mario set that up beautifully.”
Even so, it took a couple of free throws at the end of the game to pull out the win.
“I had the best game of my life,” Edmond said. “I got a rebound, and I was fouled. At the free throw line, Del said, ‘Make both of them and we got it.’”
Heine said, “We promised our coaches that we were going to state, and we did.”
At state, before Hibbing’s first game, they received a surprise guest in its locker room — Garmaker
“He came into the locker room and gave us a pep talk,” Bjellos said. “When you get a guy like Garmaker coming in — he was an All-American — it was a big thing.”
At state, Hibbing played and beat Medalia 64-45 in the quarterfinals, then the Bluejackets downed Granite Falls in the semifinals. 55-47.
Heine remembers that well.
“We played in Williams Arena,” Heine said. “We’d go to eat at different times at the dining room in the Curtis Hotel, with four of the other teams. It felt good walking in there that first day knowing we were one of the four teams left.
“Walking in there after the second game, knowing we were in the finals, everybody was either admiring us or envying us.”
In the finals, Hibbing ran into a strong Hopkins team that came away with a 58-47 victory.
“They had a seasoned team,” Radovich said. “They won state the year before, and they had some people that played in the tourney the year before. That gave them the edge.”
Even so, the Bluejackets hung around until the very end.
“We led that game most of the time,” Radovich said. “When we fell behind, there was a new ruling that year. If you fouled in the last two minutes, the team got to shoot the ball, then they got the ball out-of-bounds, if they made the free throw.
“If you were behind, it was tough to score, or tie the game up. We went behind and had to foul. That rule lasted one year.”