Temperatures were minus 20 degrees and even lower on Feb. 21, 1965, when the Fergus Falls Otter boys basketball team bus departed for Bemidji. Awaiting the Otters were the perennial powerhouse Lumberjacks who seldom lost at home.
Bemidji coach Bun Fortier had coached his teams to 11 state tournaments in the era when there was a one-class system in Minnesota high school basketball.
The game 56 years ago was a matchup of two good teams, recalled by former Otters who were seniors in 1965.
“I remember that it was a very physical game that we didn’t handle very well in the first quarter,” said former Otter Charlie Christopherson. “Our coach Ken Naffziger called a timeout because our shots weren’t falling and we were trying too hard against their zone defense.”
After the timeout the Otters needed a spark.
“Greg Kalvik, who we referred to as Kal, entered the game and hit two quick jump shots,” Christopherson said. “That woke the rest of us up and the game changed.”
The Otters began playing a tough man-to-man defense, going from nine points down at the first quarter break to taking a 30-27 lead at halftime.
“We played hard and very deliberate,” said former Otter Dan Larson. “Charlie and Bruce Josephs rebounded well and became our leading scorers, in double digits.”
Fergus Falls assistant coach Chuck Howard told the players they needed to stop being pushed around by the Lumberjacks. Two of the Bemidji players were coach Fortier’s twin sons, Richard and Robert, rugged basketball and football players.
Josephs, referred to as Joe by his Otter teammates, took Howard’s words to heart. He scored more, dominated the paint near the basket and hauled in 18 rebounds.
Larson takes pride that he and his Otter teammates shut down Bemidji’s high-scoring player, John Dow. Fergus Falls limited Dow to just five points.
“We overplayed the passing lanes to Dow all game long,” Larson said. “Baskets were very hard to come by and I don’t remember either team getting a fast-break basket.”
The score after three quarters was Fergus Falls 38 and Bemidji 37. Then came a defensive final quarter with each team scoring only seven points, resulting in a 45-44 Otter victory.
“The locker room after the game was as excited as one could be,” Larson said. “There was no napping on the way back home. It was a great win over a great team and with a legendary coach and legendary basketball program in Bemidji.”
Otter head coach Naffziger told the news media after the game that his players “had their best defensive effort of the entire season.”
Former Otter David Olson believes that Bemidji’s prowess on the football field carried over to the basketball court.
“Bemidji had beaten us quite handily in football that fall and many of the Lumberjack football players also participated in basketball,” he said. “Included were the Fortier twins, John Dow, Howard Hoganson and Bob Saeger.”
Many parents of Fergus Falls players made the trip to Bemidji in the cold weather, transporting the cheerleaders. One of the Otter cheerleaders was Carol Anderson who Dan Larson later married. Another cheerleader, Kathy Olson, later married former Otter player Curt Thompson.
Christopherson, in light of the cold weather and needing to start his car after the team bus arrived back in Fergus Falls, made sure his jumper cables were in his vehicle before departing for Bemidji.
“When we got back to the school, after the three-hour bus ride home, the entire team stayed to make sure that everyone’s car started,” he said. “We made sure nobody who needed a ride was left behind. Parents and girlfriends just had to wait.”
Also relishing the Otter victory was senior Bobby Warn who also had seen playing time in Bemidji.
“We all took pride that we had a very special team,” said Christopherson.
Tom Hintgen is a longtime Daily Journal columnist. His column appears in the Weekend Edition.