Sixty minutes after the final buzzer sounded at Target Center Saturday afternoon, Chris Pack’s phone had received 70 text messages.
The calls, texts, Facebook messages and the rest of the outpouring of support on social media was just starting for the Hayfield head coach. Pack and the Vikings were the talk of the town after beating Hancock 61-60 to win the program's first state championship, but he still really hadn’t come to grips with the reality of the moment.
The Vikings had done it. Finally.
Pack choked back tears when he saw the 23 former players in the stands celebrating with the rest of the Vikings faithful after Hayfield edged Hancock in the Class A state championship game.
"It would’ve probably been 200 if we could have had more tickets,” Pack said. “I felt bad not being able to get everyone in there, but I think it says a lot. I feel so good for everybody who’s ever played in this program. This goes out to all of them."
The Hayfield boys’ basketball alumni built the program. Pack has poured his heart and soul into it for more than two decades. Ethan Slaathaug, Isaac Matti, Easton Fritcher and the current batch of Vikings took it to the next level.
Hayfield was just 5-23 in 2017-18, but this team scaled the steep mountain. It went to work and endured some devastating losses in the postseason in recent years.
All of that led to Saturday’s moment.
“Definitely a surreal feeling,” Fritcher said. "It’s crazy how far this team has come in three short years and finally being able to win it all is amazing.”
In the two days leading up to the state title game, Pack and his trusted pair of assistants, John Kruger and Tanner Kramer, went to work crafting a game plan for their matchup against Hancock. The coaches wanted the 6-foot Fritcher to stay between Owls big man Matt Thompson and the basket at all times. They tabbed star defender Kobe Foster and told him that he wasn’t allowed to leave Hancock’s lights-out shooter Kody Berget. They were planning to sag off Hancock guard Adam Shaw and if he made open shots, they’d live with it.
Hayfield executed the plan flawlessly. Berget got loose for one 3-pointer. Pack let Foster know about it, but Foster bounced back and shut Berget down for the rest of the game. Fritcher was frustrated when Thompson started the game red hot (12 first-half points on 5-for-6 shooting), but it wasn’t because Fritcher was playing bad defense. Thompson just made some incredible shots.
But when it was gut-check time in the second half, Thompson wasn't a factor, thanks to Fritcher, who completely took him out of the game. The Owls' star didn’t score a single point in the last 12 minutes of the game.
“I kept telling them, ‘We’re doing everything that we want to do. Stick to it, it’ll work,’” Pack said. “And they did."
Slaathaug capped off his incredible career with 20 points, four steals, three rebounds and three assists in the championship game. Slaathaug had a huge hug with Pack right when the final buzzer sounded and yelled, "We did it! We finally did it!”
“That moment meant the world,” Slaathaug said. “The past couple of years have been tough. Losing in the section semifinals on a buzzer-beater was so hard and then last year coming up short and losing the section championship hurt a lot. it motivated us a lot.”
Pack added: “He’s a special player. Just an unbelievable season and career for him. What an amazing state tournament. And it’s not just Class A either. He’d be doing this for Waseca or Caledonia, too.”
Foster’s defense was on full display, but when Hancock left him wide open, he was ready to fire, draining four 3-pointers.
“Kobe is like 5-foot-8 and 100 pounds or whatever,” Pack said. "He’s so small in stature but he plays so big. Oh, those shots were amazing. He had no field goals in the state tournament before today. Kobe knows he can make shots but he’s not going to force it.”
Matti and Slaathaug are tremendous players, but Hayfield’s season really turned around when the star duo realized that they couldn’t win alone. Hayfield’s offense went from good to great when Matti and Slaathaug started to trust that Foster, Fritcher and Ethan Pack were going to knock down open shots. Ethan Pack’s development was enormous. The sophomore teamed up with Matti and Slaathaug to form a trio of fire-breathing shooters. They each made more than 50 3-pointers this season. Hayfield broke the school record for most 3-pointers in a single season.
The practices got fiery and competitive. Slaathaug and Fritcher are best friends, but when they’re on opposite teams in practice, the trash talk flowed., and it made them better.
The culture surrounding the Vikings was tremendous all year long. Pack only played five or six guys most games. Four of the starters (Slaathaug, Foster, Ethan Pack and Matti) played all 36 minutes in the state title game. Fritcher, the other starter, played all but 56 seconds. Joey Tempel, Lucas Hansen, Isaiah Tempel and Erik Bungum are four seniors that didn’t see the floor much, if at all, this season.
“I didn’t hear any beef from any of them,” Pack said. "They brought it every single day in practice to make the team better. I wish I could’ve played them more. I know they’d gladly trade this for the minutes. That’s what special teams have with that sort of chemistry on and off the floor. There are parents out there who probably wished their kid was playing more. They never made a big deal out of it. It never became an issue. That just means the world.”
Some stories are just almost too good to be true. Pack was still in awe. He had just won a state title with his son in the starting lineup. That’s better than most Hallmark movie storylines.
“Incredible,” Pack said. “It didn’t come without me getting on him a few times, including today. But it makes it all worth it. It’s very special to do it with him."
The town of Hayfield welcomed the Vikings back on Sunday afternoon with a bang. The fire trucks were blazing. The car horns were blaring.
This group of Vikings will go down as legends from here on out. Whenever Slaathaug comes back to Hayfield, he might deserve a statue. When Fritcher gets done playing baseball at a high level, people around his hometown will still remember his defense on Thompson in the state title game and his game-sealing free throw with five seconds left. Matti’s ice water in his veins will be his calling card, and he’s only a sophomore, so he has two more years to rack up plenty of moments. They won’t forget Ethan Pack knocking down some big 3-pointers this season and some even bigger free throws late in the second half. Kobe Foster earned legendary status for those four huge 3-pointers.
And Chris Pack might not need to buy a drink in Hayfield ever again.