When Craig Jensen and the rest of the 1969 Rochester John Marshall state champion boys basketball team walked into the JM gymnasium that March day 50 years ago, a throng of fans were waiting there, clamoring to celebrate them.
Amid that assemblage of craziness, Jensen couldn’t help but notice a group of older men, all of them near 70, standing side-by-side. They’d soon be introduced as the last group of Rochester public school young men to have won a state boys basketball championship. They got theirs in 1917, some 52 years before a get-along JM team led by Jensen, Tom Senst, Dave Hollander, Mark Hanson and Kraig Wold got theirs.
Jensen didn’t put much thought into what those 1917 champs were thinking or emoting at the time. But on Saturday and Sunday, that changed.
It happened as many of the 1969 Rockets players, surviving coaches from that year, their ‘69 cheerleaders and anyone else connected to that team gathered in Rochester to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their championship. The reunion had Jensen, who’d come all the way from Colorado, harkening back to the sight of those 1917 champs.
He did so with a brand-new understanding.
“They were all there 50 years ago, standing side-by-side in the gym to celebrate with us,” Jensen said. “I didn’t know at the time what that felt like for them. But now, we are them. Now I know.”
• Senst had no reason to believe that he’d be a part of any of this. That was the case until October of his sophomore year at JM.
That’s when then Rockets B-squad boys basketball coach at the time, Wayne Knipschield, changed everything for the 6-foot-4, raw-boned Senst.
“I never even played basketball until my sophomore year,” Senst said. “But one day in October, I was walking down the hallway at JM, headed to my car, ready to do my paper route, and Knipschield came up to me and said, ‘Son, I want you to come out for basketball.’ He was about a foot shorter than me, but he tugged at my shirt and told me to look him in the eye. He said that he wanted me to tell my mom that I was going to quit my paper route and come out for basketball.”
The rest is, well, history. Senst would go from a guy who only looked the part, to an actual player. From a guy who’d barely touched a basketball to the Rockets’ state championship team’s relentless starting center his senior year.
“Wayne Knipschield took me and molded me,” said Senst, who averaged a crucial 14 points and 14 rebounds per game on that state-title team.
“They needed a tall kid like me. He got me stronger and taught me how to shoot.”
Then the 68-year-old Senst paused, considering what it all meant. He was in the middle of this celebration of a state championship, former teammates all around him, laughing, embracing and rehashing all that went into this state title won 50 years ago.
Senst’s eyes were now moist with tears. That state-championship run and all of the bonds, memories and confidence that came from it — at this moment, it meant more to this 68-year-old retired man than it ever had.
“I wouldn’t be here (celebrating) if it weren’t for Wayne Knipschield,” Senst said. “He’s the reason I’m here.”
• Judging by the fortunes of JM’s B-squad Senst’s sophomore year, a team that included a bunch of guys who’d later be state champs, nobody was predicting future greatness for this JM group.
In fact, quite the opposite.
“We were terrible (as sophomores),” Jensen recalled. “I think we won like three games all season.”
But they did have something. They had Knipschield. And after one of those many losses, Knipschield performed some mental magic on these guys.
He gave a speech that Jensen would never forget. And on a future state championship team that Jensen insists was not overly talented, save for Hanson who’d later play at Stanford, that speech forever resonated.
“Knipschield told us as sophomores that you might not have a lot of talent, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference,” Jensen recalled. “He said that you can do that in the way you work and the way you think. That stuck with me, that you can make a difference with your hustle. I think that made a big difference for all of us.”
• It wasn’t Knipschield who ultimately coached JM to that state crown and a 23-1 record in 1968-69. That was Al Wold, another man who Senst said had deep respect from his players.
Wold wasn’t a big talker or speech giver, but he gave everything he had to his team. Senst couldn’t imagine a coach better at preparing his teams for games.
“He was the right man for the job,” Senst said. “He was a man of few words, but he was very patient, and he scouted the other teams so well that every game we came in knowing exactly who we were guarding, what they did and how they did it.”
Things didn’t look so good for the Rockets in the 1969 Region One semifinals. At halftime, JM trailed Spring Valley by 17 points. But Al Wold knew what to do. He slapped a full-court zone press on Spring Valley the second half that was dizzying. After forcing one Spring Valley turnover after another, and running the court as only this Rockets edition could, JM scored 70 points in the second half and walked away a 96-66 winner.
That was followed by a win over Austin in the region finals, then state tournament wins over Wells, Bemidji and then finally Duluth Central in the finals.
• Senst was asked Saturday if he had a feeling when the 1968-69 season started, that it was going to be a championship kind of year.
He had a quick answer.
“No, I didn’t think it was going to be great,” Senst said.
It wasn’t long, though, before he changed his mind.
“We had a great group of guys and the chemistry felt right,” Senst said. “Every game, we got a little bit better.”
In the end, all of that added up to a state championship. And 50 years later came a reunion to celebrate a season and a title that has just as much meaning today as it ever did.
“I wouldn’t have missed this celebration for anything,” Jensen said. “We were a whole team. That’s what made it so special and what makes it so special now. It was just that commitment, by all of us.”