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In 1970, New England St. Mary's finally broke through
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In 1970, New England St. Mary's finally broke through

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 It's been 50 years since Les Schroeder sank a free throw against Belcourt. It was a free throw that won a basketball game, 54-53. And it was a win that made a dream a reality for a bunch of high school kids from New England St. Mary's.

 When St. Mary's won that 1970 state Class B tournament in Minot, an ambition Saints basketball players had harbored for almost a decade was finally realized.

 However, another state tournament loss appeared to be a distinct possibility as the game entered the fourth quarter. The Saints, down 41-29 late in the third quarter, trailed 42-34 entering the final period.

 "In the third quarter we started to press them and in the fourth quarter we started to get something off the press. We got some turnovers and that got our momentum going," Schroeder recalled.

 With the momentum swing came a flood of confidence.

 "We felt like we were ahead, even though we were still trying to catch up," Schroeder said. "And they were playing like they were behind."

 Championship ambitions at St. Mary's weren't pie in the sky hopes. Coming close had become almost an annual rite for the Saints. St. Mary's teams had played in the state Class B tournament five times in the previous eight seasons, but had finished no higher than second place. The 1962 team lost to Mott in the state finals.

  In the five years prior to the championship season, St. Mary's qualified for four state tournaments, reaching the semifinals in 1965 and 1968. They missed only in 1969 when they lost in the District 32 semifinals to Scranton. Hebron advanced from Region 8 in 1969 and reached the championship game before falling to Fargo Oak Grove.

 Schroeder said the Saints were a confident group, the backlog of prior shortfalls notwithstanding. They'd won 12 straight games and entered the tournament with a 21-3 record.

 "The media wasn't as strong back then as it is now. .. Being in a small town like that, we felt confident that if we just played each game we could go all the way," Schroeder said. "I don't really remember anybody that was favored to win it that year."

  Joining St. Mary's in the eight-team field were Belcourt, Beulah, Columbus, Munich, Northwood, Oakes and undefeated Jud. 

 Shooting 56 percent, St. Mary's defeated Beulah 66-51 in the first round. They joined Oakes, Belcourt and Columbus in the semifinal round.

 A 9-3 burst in the last three minutes of the third quarter launched St. Mary's to a 74-61 victory over Oakes. Schroeder bombed in 35 points, a career high, against Oakes. He swished 12 of 19 shots from the field and 11 of 12 at the free-throw line.

 "We got steals off the press, and I got the ball a lot," Schroeder said in retrospect. "(Oakes) played man-to-man and I was able to drive quite a bit. ... I knew I'd scored quite a bit, but I didn't think it was that much."

  So it was on to the championship game where the Saints put a 14-game winning streak on the line against Belcourt, which advanced with 19 straight wins and a a 23-3 record. The Braves were coached by Paul Kranz, who later went on to coach at Bismarck High School.

 St. Mary's scored first. Belcourt responded, immediately taking the lead. With the exception of four ties, the Saints played catch-up until seven seconds remained. 

 The Saints rallied from four-point deficits to forge ties at 49 and 53, the latter on a Schroeder basket with 31 seconds remaining.

 Belcourt came up empty in its final possession, and Schroeder was fouled away from the ball with :07 on the clock.

 "Back then you didn't get a bonus until the fifth foul. Before (the fifth foul) you shot one free throw. I believe that was only their fourth foul of the half."

 Schroeder converted the single attempt, giving the Saints the edge they needed for their first, and only, state basketball championship.

 Even with Belcourt ahead by 12 points late in the third quarter, Schroeder said there was no sense of panic on the St. Mary's bench.

 "It was fun playing, I do remember that. ... We always felt we were in the game," he said. "Coach (Dave) Wolsky was so positive."

  He may not have panicked, but Schroeder admitted to being frustrated. He started the game with just one field goal in his first 10 attempts.

 "I do remember being frustrated, but mostly with myself because I wasn't shooting very well. They had two tall guards on the top of the zone, and they used a chaser for awhile. They were quick ... so I wasn't as strong off the dribble," Schroeder said.

 Schroeder, a 5-foot-9 senior that year, scored 11 points in the championship game and a team-high 64 for the tournament. Larry Gardner, a 6-2 junior forward, led the Saints with 16 points against Belcourt and 34 in the tournament. 

 Ben Roller, a 5-10 junior guard, scored 10 points in the championship game and 18 in the tournament.

 Other tournament scorers were Dick Ryan, a 6-3 senior forward, with 44 points; Gerard Baker, a 6-5 sophomore, with 14 points; Dan Koppinger, a 6-2 senior, with 13 points, and sophomore Tom Fasching with two points.

 Other team members were seniors Ken Dobitz, Rick Schmitz and Peter Odermann and sophomores Al Koppinger and Dale Heick.

Schroeder said he (Assumption College, Dickinson State), Dan Koppinger (North Dakota State) and Al Koppinger (NDSU) went on to college athletics. 

 Baker, Roller and Gardner formed the nucleus of the Saints team that Wolsky took to the 1971 Class B championship game before losing 70-69.

 Roller (Bismarck), Dobitz (Bowman) and Odermann (Medora) still reside in North Dakota. Schroeder and Al Koppinger reside in Spearfish, S.D.

Wolsky and Dan Koppinger live in California, and the others are scattered. Ryan (Montana), Gardner (Colorado), Heick (Missouri) and Schmitz (Minnesota) all live out of state.

 Schroeder said he wasn't sure of Baker's current residence. Fasching is deceased.

 Wolsky was a well-established coach when he arrived at New England in the summer of 1969. A native of Aberdeen, S.D., and a graduate of Augustana College, he'd coached at Belle Fourche and Milbank in South Dakota, taking the Milbank team to the 1967 state title. After returning to South Dakota, Wolsky coached Watertown to state runner-up finishes in 1978 and 1980.

  St. Mary's had a run of strong athletic teams while Schroeder and his brothers, Melvin (Class of 1960), Curt (1962), Jim (1964), Henry (1968) were attending the school.

 In wrestling, the Saints took Class B state team championships in 1969 and 1970. The 1968 football team was undefeated in the Badlands Conference.

 Later, St. Mary's had a strong run of girls basketball teams in the 1980s, sending teams to the state Class B tournament in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. St. Mary's finished second behind Finley-Sharon in 1985 and won the 1986 state title.

  St. Mary's graduated its final class in 1992, almost 40 years after the high school was opened.

 There were about 200 students in the top three grades during Schroeder's years at the school. 

 "It was a boarding school. We'd get a few South Dakota kids from around the Buffalo-Lemmon area, and we had a few Native American kids come from the reservations," Schroeder said. "Mostly, they were from the New England area."

 Schroeder returned to St. Mary's in 1974 to coach girls basketball for two seasons after his graduation from college. He moved to the Black Hills to coach Newell, and has remained in South Dakota, ending up in Spearfish where he coached basketball and baseball and taught math through the 2018-2019 school year.

 St. Mary's 1970 champions were to be honored during this week's state Class B tournament at the Bismarck Event Center. That tournament, like so many other events, fell victim to the coronavirus outbreak.

  The long-ago champions are hoping to be folded into next year's Class B festivities along with 1971 champion Wyndmere.

 "Larry Gardner is heading this, and he kind of got the impression they would honor the 1970 team next year at the state Class B," Schroeder said.

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