An amazing Alsen run
ALSEN, N.D. - The hallways of the one-story, cement-block school here are dark, dusty and musty. More than two decades have passed since students roamed the hallways between classes.
In the gymnasium, the backboards, the score clock, the two rows of bleachers that lined both sidelines are gone. The space is now rented by a beekeeper for equipment storage.
Small and declining enrollments resulted in Alsen closing its school in 1980. Yet this school still holds the record for the biggest winning streak in North Dakota high school basketball.
It was 50 years ago, at the start of the 1956-57 season, that the Alsen Broncos began a run that would include two straight 34-0 seasons, back-to-back Class C state championships and a winning streak that would reach 79 before it was halted.
In March, the 50-year anniversary will be recognized during the Class B boys state tournament in Bismarck.
"It was pretty exciting to be a part of it at the time, something unusual," said Gil Herbel, a starter on the two state championship teams and now a state legislator from Grafton. "Now, you savor the opportunities we had to be a part of those teams.
"It's amazing when you talk to people. There are very few places I go to in the state, when people find out who I am and where I'm from, where they don't ask if I was on those teams."
Small, but fast
The school's enrollment reflected its record-setting basketball team. It was small.
There was never as many as 40 students in high school during its three-season run of wins. And that basketball success came with a roster that didn't have anybody taller than 6 feet; most of the players were shorter than that.
Speed and skill overcame lack of stature. It was a team that played ahead of its time with its running style and pressing, in-your-face, man-to-man defense.
Alsen outscored opponents by a 70-40 average margin during its first title season. In the second title run, the Broncos scored an average of 79 points while allowing 47 a game.
"We played fast," said Don "Skip" Spenst, a starter on the two championship teams. "We had to compensate for what we gave up in height. We were all pretty good athletes. That was a main ingredient.
"We went for everything (on defense), double-teaming, stealing the ball, intercepting passes. We were the only team I remember then that played pressing, man-to-man defense. Every other team would sit back in zones.
"We never had a play (on offense), not that I can remember. We'd come off screens and rolls. And we loved to run and gun. We didn't mess around."
Spenst, Gil Herbel, Dennis Schmiess, Paul Glock and Ken Towers were regulars on the 34-0 team in '56-57. They were veterans coming off a 23-2 season in 1955-56. They opened the 1956-57 season with a 64-44 win against Clyde and the streak was on.
After Glock and Towers graduated in the spring of 1957, Ray Herbel, Mark Kreklau and Alvin Klein got starting time on the team that repeated as undefeated state champion.
It was a group that grew up on the basketball court together.
"There wasn't anything else for us to do," Gil Herbel said. "We didn't have snowmobiles. Nobody had cars. There were no video games. Most of us didn't have TVs in our homes. I was a junior in high school when we got our first TV.
"You played ball. It was the thing to do. We'd play morning, afternoon and night. And we all loved it."
Two defining games
Details of most of the games in the streak are vague to the Broncos. But two wins - and two baskets - stand out.
The first was against Oriska in the quarterfinals of the 1956-57 season, in a Monday game in Jamestown. Two Gordon Baumgartner free throws gave Oriska a 55-54 lead with six seconds left in overtime.
The ensuing inbounds pass went to Gil Herbel, who dribbled to midcourt and threw up a desperation shot that was short of the rim. But Klein caught the ball with his back to the basket and threw an awkward shot up over his head - and made the winning basket, his only field goal of the game, as time expired.
"I just threw it in," Klein says. "Sometimes you have to have some luck."
Alsen beat Fort Totten 62-50 behind Towers' 19 points in the semifinals, then beat Taylor 65-56 in the title game as Glock scored 30 points, Towers 16 and Spenst 11.
In the 1957-58 state tournament, Alsen opened with a 65-51 win against Fullerton, with Gil Herbel getting 19 points and Spenst 16. Alsen won a shootout in the semifinals, 87-74 over Tower City behind 29 points from Spenst and 25 from Gil Herbel.
But in the final against Fort Totten, Alsen led only twice. The first was at 2-0. The last was at the final 50-49 score. Spenst scored the tying and winning points when the right-hander hit a left-handed hook shot with 1:04 left. Spenst had 13 of his team-high 18 points in the second half to spark a comeback.
"No question, those were the defining moments in the streak," Gil Herbel said. "If Alvin wasn't in the right place at the right time for that rebound basket, we wouldn't have had the streak. Nobody would be talking about us.
"And winning state a second straight time really is a significant thing. Skip was a money player, one of the best pure shooters of our time."
Alsen won its first 11 games to start the 1958-59 season. But the streak was halted Jan. 20, 1959. Langdon topped the Broncos 64-47 in a foul-plagued game in the first round of the Cavalier County tournament. Duane Verke's 19 points set the pace for Langdon.
"I think we all felt some pressure," Ray Herbel said. "Everybody expected us to win. And when you win that many games in a row, everybody is gunning for you. Nobody wanted to be on the team that finally got beat. It was sad, disappointing."
But, he added, "You do feel a little relief."
Leaving their marks
Basketball didn't end when the streak concluded.
Of the 19 players who were on the Alsen teams in those three seasons, seven went on to earn letters in college basketball. Five became high school coaches, with Towers leading Grand Forks Red River to the 1969 North Dakota Class A state championship.
"You always wonder how in the world we ever put it together like that," Ray Herbel said of the streak. "But, as you keep winning, the confidence grows. We never went into a game where we thought we would lose."
Most of the players no longer live in Alsen. Munich, located nine miles northwest of Alsen, is now where most of the town's handful of students attend school. The Alsen school is still used on occasion for community events, but the trophies no longer are there.
At an all-school reunion in 2005, the players decided a change was in order. The trophies now are on display in Italian Moon, one of the Grand Forks restaurants owned by Towers.
"The school is starting to deteriorate a little," Klein said. "There's no other place to store them here. We decided that would be a good place for them. And Kenny said he'd be glad to take them."
At the Moon, in a place of prominence above the buffet table, the state championship trophies sit with a picture of the '56-57 team placed between them. There's also a plaque listing the 19 players, as well as coaches Sam Kreklau and Bob Morehouse, who were with the team in the streak.
The winning streak "becomes more meaningful to us as the years go by," Towers said. "Right now, I'd be surprised if that record is ever broken.
"Basketball was what we did for recreation. . . . Seven days a week, 12 months a year."
And nobody in the state has been successful for such an extended run as the Broncos were.
DeVillers can be reached at (800) 477-6572, ext. 128, (701) 780-1128 or by e-mail at email@example.com.