1957 basketball team gives Hettinger first state championship

When people think about being champions of anything they must first understand that they have to be dedicated to the endeavor of which they plan to excel.

(TOP ROW) L to R: Don Fix, Duane Hallen, Harlan Johnson, John Butterfield, Paul Wagner, Skip Walby, Coach Holly. (BOTTOM ROW) L to R: Gary Melling, Norman Wilson, Jerry Almen, Wes Ketterling, Bill Stevens, Lynn Gravning, Richard Hallen. (Photo from 1957 edition of the Adams County Record)

Member of 1957 team

When people think about being champions of anything they must first understand that they have to be dedicated to the endeavor of which they plan to excel. The 1957 basketball team began a journey unprecedented up to that time, and for many years later. Previous to that magic year, Hettinger was very successful in the athletic world. The athletes that came before that time laid the ground work for a tremendous success story. Because of this, a young bunch of boys, each probably at different ages, became obsessed with the game of basketball.

Mimicking their hard court heroes, each and every one pursued their passion in different environments. There the country kids who had only a basket on a granary wall or makeshift barrel ring and a volleyball that substituted for a basketball. The best courts were in hay lofts of the old hip roofed barns, if you were lucky enough to have part of the floor empty for a court.

(L to R) Assistant coach Charles Torstenson, head coach Duane Holly, and assistant coach Robert Stuart. (Photo from 1957 edition of the Adams County Record)

The town boys didn’t have it any better as there were not cement slabs around town or portable baskets for anyone. Organized school sports weren’t started until they reached junior high, and the high school was locked up like a tomb except during school hours.

One major structure that influence the future of this motivated group was Bergy’s Barn that is now the property of the Fitch family. In the hayloft is where the country and city boys had many games and developed their skills.

In the fall of 1954, Duane Holly, a Korean War veteran and graduate of Valley City State University with two years of coaching success at Walhalla, N.D. came on the scene. This was, as it turned out to be, having the right coach for the right job. Coach Holly was a militaristic disciplinarian with an insatiable desire for perfection along with winning, and win we did. He had an uncanny way of getting the best out of every member of his teams. He coached football, basketball and track.

It wasn’t just one year or class that was responsible for this success story. The 1954-1955 version of the Shooting Stars had a regular season record of eight wins and nine losses. We did win our Christmas tournament. This team, with a senior, junior, two sophomores, and one freshman starting went into postseason play and pulled of what in records was called a Cinderella story. We won the district tournament and won the consolation championship in the regional tournament.

In 1955-1956 we won 21 games and lost two. In winning our second Christmas tournament, we beat a great Beach team in the first round, and Ft. Yates—who went on to win the state tournament—in the final. The lone season loss came at Beach when the Bucs shot an amazing 61 percent from the field.

We won the district title, and we were defeated in the semi-finals of the regional tournament by Ashley in overtime. The next day we beat Beach for third place an started a win streak that mounted to 53 during the 1958 season.

A group of loyal fans appreciated the efforts of the Shooting Stars so much that they started a fund drive with the help of KNDC. The purpose was to send the team to the state tournament with the idea that if we were exposed to the hype of a big event like that, we wouldn’t be intimidated if we would make it to state in 1957.

The drive brought in funds rapidly and we were on our way to Grand Forks. We were left with a burning desire to be part of the state tournament after being in the atmosphere that surrounds a major event like that.

The 1956-1957 season was the year that every living soul that had an interest in sports in the Hettinger area was waiting for. Eight letterman returned to lend strength to a potentially great team.

They were 6-foot-3 senior Paul Wagner, 5-foot-9 senior Wes Ketterling, 5-foot-9 senior Jerry Almen, 5-foot-95-foot-9 junior Jim Walby, 5-foot-9 junior Bill Stevens,  6-foot-5 junior John Butterfield, 6-foot sophomore Joe Hilts, and 5-foot-6 sophomore Rich Hallan.

Promising newcomers from the B-squad were 6-foot junior Duane Hallen, 5-foot-10 senior Mike Tanous, and 5-foot-11 junior Ron Holt. Two transfer students that were to be very important to the success of the Shooting Stars were 6-foot-4 senior Harlan Johnson from Bucyrus, and 6-foot junior Norman Wilson from Haynes.

Injuries and illness were sometimes more of a handicap to the team than the opponents. The Asiatic flu was very prevalent in the area and forced some of the players to take nights off.

Sprained ankles caused players to play under 100 percent. We had to play much of our season without our outstanding guard, Wes Ketterling, who had a serious knee injury and didn’t get back to top form. Bill Stevens took over the reins, and Harlan Johnson moved into a starting position, and like every other difficult situation, when someone was injured, sick or not playing well, someone always stepped up.

We won game after game, most of which were by large margins so the reserves got a lot of playing time. With so many players with game experience we had great depth.

We played two of the tougher teams in the area—St. Mary’s of New England and Lemmon. We won both games by one point. With that wakeup call we went on to breeze through the district, regional, and state tournaments. We defeated Harvey, Underwood, and Ft. Yates to win the 1957 State Class B Tournament to culminate an undefeated season with 28 victories.

One of the most memorable events of the state tournament weekend was the welcome home caravan that Sunday. More than 200 cars gave a boisterous reception to the champs. The motorcade with Les Bird—our county sheriff—leading the way, met the team three miles from Hettinger and escorted them through town and to the gym with music blaring and sirens howling.

A whole host of people received the champs at the gym. Many individuals gave speeches including coach Holly, Superintendent John J. Roberts, Mayor Carlton Austad, Junior Chamber of Commerce President Stan Severs, and team captains Paul Wagner and Wes Ketterling.

After the rally members of the team lined up outside the auditorium and shook hands with every person in attendance. Everyone left the reception with a sense of relief and pride.

Hettinger had its first state championship team.