It was 20 years ago when the Class A girls basketball state championship game was played at the Met Center, which since has been torn down to make room for the Mall of America.
It was 1988: Tracy-Milroy vs. Storden-Jeffers in the finals.
The two teams met in December with S-J winning quite handily.
“They beat us pretty bad,” Tracy-Milroy coach Shorty Engel said.
In the finals, the Panthers got revenge, winning 47-35.
“We played much better defense,” Engel said. “Gary Gillis (S-J coach) will tell you they didn’t shoot that well that night.
“I’m sure it was man-to-man. That was our strong defense. We played zone at times, with our (full-court) presses and that. We moved out of the zone into man-to-man. I guess you have to call it person to person.”
Led by All-State senior guard Mary Jo Miller, Tracy-Milroy knocked off three unbeaten teams en route to the state title.
The earlier wins came over Esko and New London-Spicer.
Playing Esko in the tournament opener at Williams Arena, Tracy-Milroy trailed by five points in the fourth quarter.
But the combined scoring of Elaine Eischens and Miller put the Panthers up about 40 seconds later.
“I remember that,” said Engel, who works at Tracy Area High School in the ESL program.
Yes, Mary Jo went on to win Miss Basketball in 1988, but the Panthers were far from a one-person team.
Reflecting back, Engel reeled off the names of the starters: Miller, Mona Schreier, Elaine Eischens, Gaylene VanGelderen and Rachel Williams.
Miller averaged 30 points a game as a senior. She finished an outstanding prep career with 2,655 points.
Back then, opponents double-teamed Miller in an attempt to slow her down. Obviously, that strategy didn’t work.
In the semifinal victory over NLS, Schreier tallied 17 points.
“Everybody tried doubling up on Mary Jo,” Engel said. “They had to do that to slow her down. Mona was a pretty good player.”
It was Miller’s athleticism and quickness that made it difficult for teams to press Tracy-Milroy.
“She was such a great ball-handler and passer,” Engel said.
Mary Jo went on to play point guard at Kansas State (Division I), scoring more than 1,000 points in her collegiate career. She made quite a splash in college hoops, being named Newcomer of the Year as the top freshman in the Big Eight Conference.
It’s the goal — as a coach or player — to win a state championship.
Despite having a tough row to hoe, Tracy-Milroy did nearly the impossible by winning over three previously-unbeaten teams 20 years ago.
Two decades ago, there wasn’t another championship to win. The Pacesetter state tournament was started later. AAU basketball was about to take off. The state tournament meant everything.
“That was it, the ultimate championship,” Mary Jo said. “I don’t know if it’s the same feeling as the kids have now. I know that there’s no feeling like it.”
Tracy-Milroy’s coaching staff — consisting of Shorty Engel, Terry Culhane, Paul Soupir, Dale Hatch and Tom Rignell — believed it could be done. They instilled confidence in the Panthers, who responded positively.
“We felt we could win it,” Engel said. “I think we thought we should have won the year before.”
After working with Bob Mikkelsen from 1979-86, Engel assumed the head coaching job during the 1986-87 season.
In the ’87 state tournament, the Panthers lost to Wheaton and rebounded to win the consolation championship.
“I think it made us more hungry (for 1988),” Engel said. “I remember talking to Mary Jo. There’s always next year. They keep saying that.”
Fulda coach Loren Carlson told Engel something which he hasn’t forgotten.
“She’s all over the place, diving in the bleachers (for loose balls),” Carlson said.
“I looked at him and said, I don’t know how you stop her. She just goes. She was such an exceptional athlete,” Engel said.
“They talk about great athletes now. I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody now that’s better than she was. She was a great competitor, she had the skills and she had the desire to do the best she could.”
Although Hmielewski graduated, Tracy-Milroy returned to the 1989 state tournament, finishing fourth. It beat Win-E-Mac, then lost to Storden-Jeffers and Christ Household of Faith in the third-place game.
For several years, girls basketball teams based in Tracy were among the best programs assembled in the state.
Miller played a key role in the Panthers’ winning tradition. Her uniform (No. 21) is retired, hanging in the Tracy gymnasium.
Tonight, Hmielewski returns to the state tournament as a coach of the Marshall Tigers.
“It’s got to be a thrill,” Engel said. “I’m sure she has the same desire as a coach that she had as a player. I’m sure she wants to win as badly as in the state tournaments she played in.”
As the national anthem is played tonight in Williams Arena, you can’t blame Hmielewski if she has flashbacks as a player 20 years ago.
Minneota’s Dale Kockelman has been selected Section 3A assistant coach of the year.
The award is is voted on by coaches in the section and is sponsored by the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches’ Association.
Sophomore guard Kirsten Haukom of St. Scholastic has been named to the All-Defensive Team in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC).
Haukom, a 2006 Marshall graduate, was also named all-conference honorable mention.
She had games of 23 points (Martin Luther), 22 (Finlandia), 21 (Milwaukee School of Engineering) and 20 (Wisconsin-Superior).