John Nefstead and Terry Porter were two of the players instrumental in garnering the Tigers' state basketball tournament title in 1963. Recently, they shared some of their personal memories of that unequaled experience and what led up to their victory.
Both Nefstead and Porter remember that the team worked exceptionally well together. Nefstead says the guys were "tremendous teammatesvery unselfish." And Porter claims their different personalities fit together well. There were never arguments among the players about who was shooting, etc., Porter says.
"Whenever Nefstead would get upset, he'd have a big frown on his face. When Whitey (Loren Johnson) would get upset he'd just shake his head in consternation. When I would get upset, I would do a bit of yelling. I guess I was the only one that did any yelling. And then Red (Dennis Schroeder), he was just so balanced. He never got too high or too low. And Sandy was about the same way. We never had any problems among the five of us. We loved each other, and we'd do anything to reach our goal," he said.
These guys also had many summers of experience playing together, as well - especially Whitey, Nefstead and Porter. They had learned how to complement each other which, in Porter's estimation added up.
"When you go out to Legion Field and play against guys three, four years older than you, you're gonna learn," he said. "When you get your butt kicked so many times, you learn how to improve and what you're doing wrong. Those things really helped out in the long run. And Mattke was definitely part of that as far as making sure everyone got along. We never had any problem with substitutes and not getting enough playing time. Of course, it helps when you're winning. You're not gonna have too many guys complaining. Mattke made sure everyone knew that he was the boss, and you were gonna do it his way. And that's another reason we had the success we did."
"I think looking back on it," Porter adds, "how our team was so successful - every person on our team seemed to have a different strength. And all those five different strengths fit together for a strong team. Nefstead was a terrific rebounder, and he was a great scorer on the inside. Whitey was our guard that did the dribbling and set up our offense. And both those guys virtually were second to none in the state. Most of my responsibility was scoring from the guard position. And then we had Red Schroeder who was really our best athlete as far as running and jumping, and he was excellent at really all different categories: he scored when he had to, he rebounded when he had to, and he got out in the fast break better than any of us. And then Sandy MacDonald did such a great job as far as rebounding and blocking off on the big guys. And what I remember about especially the front line is that virtually every game that we played, the front line of other teams was bigger than our front line. I mean, Nefstead was only 6'- 6'1" and he generally played against a guy who was 6'3"-6'4", every game. And almost all the time, he dominated his man. Red was so much quicker, so much more agile, so much more athletic than most of the guys he played against. And Sandy, of course, everyone he played against was 2-3 inches taller. But just looking back on it, it really inspired us to play hard - especially Whitey and me - to see that front line go against guys that were bigger than them and yet still dominate. It just encouraged us and gave us a lot of motivation to do our best."
It wasn't all positive reinforcement that prepared the players for their ultimate opponent that year. Both Porter and Nefstead cite the comeuppance they received in their third game of the season.
As Porter explains, "The first two games of the season we walked through our opponents, and we were starting to think we were really hot stuff." They were about 10 points behind after the first quarter and then 18-20 points by the end of second quarter. Nefstead remembers that Coach Mattke "was not happy!" At that point, Porter says, Coach Mattke warned, "You guys got about two minutes to prove yourselves at the start of the third quarter, otherwise you're getting jerked." Apparently they didn't do what they should have because all five starters were benched, and the team ended up losing by 32 points.
None of the starters would ever forget the humiliation of that game. As Porter puts it, "We sure learned a lesson. If you don't come to play and put out 100 percent you're gonna get your butt walloped. Obviously, we didn't have that great of size to be overconfident, and we hadn't proven anything to be overconfident. But that's human nature. Every once in a while you get too cocky and you gotta get knocked down."
The Tigers had a winning preliminary game against Rochester in midseason at Williams Arena which certainly helped familiarize them with playing in a larger venue. In addition, close games with Ivanhoe in the districts and with Hutchinson and Granite Falls in regions gave them invaluable experience playing under pressure. In such close games, playing defense and getting rebounds was essential.
Getting up to the Twin Cities a couple of days in advance of the tournament also paid off. They left two days early because of a pending snowstorm, arriving on Tuesday. A chalk talk Tuesday night was followed by an actual practice on Wednesday at Centennial High School in Circle Pines, a Minneapolis suburb. Coach Mattke had connections to someone at the school who provided the keys and an opportunity for the Tigers to have that critical pregame-day practice.
During their first tournament game against Austin, the team was ahead by about 13 at halftime and ended up going into overtime. Porter remembers telling himself that "this is what we've been thinking about our whole lives, and we're not gonna let it go!"
They did win in that overtime, but Porter figures that as they went into that overtime he had something in the back of his mind saying, "'You gotta do something to win the game,' cuz we came too far to lose the first game." Had they lost the first game, people might have assumed the guys were over-rated.
"In that first game with Austin we were playing not to lose." Porter said. "We were kinda tight, but it was so important to win." In the second game "we really got relaxed and that's when we beat Anoka by 26 or almost 30 points. And then the final game was just back and forth. It was just a great experience playing against Cloquet with those two guys (Mike Forrest and Dave Meissner) that were by far the best two guys we played against the whole season, although, we ran into some great 'big' guys. There was Linder from Hutchinson a forward - a big guy. There was a Haugland from Granite Falls that was a good frontline man. But Meissner and Forrest were by far better than anyone we had played against...fantastic athletes."
The thrill of running out onto that floor in Williams Arena is something Nefstead and Porter will never forget. As Nefstead points out, there were 18,550 fans at that final game. Nowadays, with the basketball teams competing in several different classes, fans number at most around 2,000 per game. The sheer volume of a crowd that size cheering is certainly like nothing else for a player. Porter recalls, "You got on the floor and there wasn't any noise - it takes that long for the noise to really get down to that level. So, you're running around dribbling and wondering 'Where is all the noise?' and then 'boom!' It's a great, great sound - just incredible!"
Both Porter and Nefstead also cite the importance of the community support they received throughout the season, as well as the tournament itself, which inspired the Tigers to play their best. Nefstead said even in regular season, "Fans needed to be at the gym by 6:30 to get a seat for the varsity game." Lines would form around the block many nights. And many of those same fans followed the team up to Williams Arena. Those who couldn't afford to stay in hotels over the course of the three-day tournament were driving back and forth, while students were paying about $2.50 per day to ride up and back to each game. In those days, poorer road conditions meant the trip took close to four hours. Thursday's game was at 2, Friday's was at 7 and Saturday's was at 9. Six or seven busloads of students made the roundtrip each of those days. The fans' commitment meant a lot to the guys.
As Porter recalls, "You're sitting there watching the previous game and you see the Marshall throng come in off six-seven buses. It really motivates ya!"
(Continued next week)