Packers & Tigers: Red, black & blue
As the Austin and Albert Lea boys’ basketball teams prepare to square off Tuesday, the Herald looks back at the rivalry over the past decade
For 363 days a year, Albert Lea’s and Austin’s boys’ basketball teams keep to themselves. Separated by 22 miles of black Interstate 90 road, the teams practice jump shots, defensive sets and buzzer-beating 3’s in anticipation of the other two, when the Tigers and Packers meet for cross-county bragging rights.
“There’s definitely some mystique,” said Matt Addington, who coached Albert Lea from 2001-05. “Even when the teams haven’t been great, there’s intrigue and history that goes way beyond the past decade.
“It’s one of the great rivalries in high school sports in a lot of ways.”
Over the past 10 years, Albert Lea and Austin have met 19 times — 18 in the regular season and once in the Section 1AAA Tournament. While the Tigers won that lone postseason matchup in 2004, the Packers have won 12 regular season games and currently have the Tigers seeing red. Austin is on an 11-game winning streak heading into the 20th matchup since the 2001-02 season ended, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Albert Lea High School.
While the current Packers team, which is contending for a Big Nine Conference championship, put a punctuation mark on its recent dominance with a 39-point rout of Albert Lea in Austin on Dec. 13, 2011, the rivalry saw much more parity during the first half of the 2000s.
Two dramatic moments — played out just 13 months apart — during the 2003-04 and 04-05 seasons defined the rivalry, while marking the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Six seconds in December
During the 2003-04 season, Albert Lea and Austin’s boys’ basketball programs were headed in different directions. When they met for the first time that year, the Packers were a lowly 2-8 while the Tigers were 7-4 and about to start a long winning streak that would thrust them into the state rankings.
It was the senior season of two stars — Albert Lea’s Ben Woodside and Austin’s John Duren, who were four- and three-year starters, respectively, during their storied careers.
Heading into the game on Jan. 16, 2004, the Tigers had won four straight against the Packers, but Austin coach Kris Fadness preached the same message he had each time they faced its biggest foe — when it comes to Albert Lea and Austin, records no longer matter.
“Obviously the rivalry meant a great deal to us and the proximity of the two towns means a lot,” said Fadness, who’s coached at Austin for 15 seasons. “There’s no secret, we just got extra jacked up to compete against Albert Lea.”
What wasn’t a secret was Fadness and his teams’ disciplined style of play, which allowed Austin to be competitive against the Tigers. From 2002-06 Albert Lea had an edge in talent but lost three games and had few comfortable wins.
The teams’ first matchup in 2004 was no different. The Tigers trailed the Packers 41-33 early in the fourth quarter and 51-46 with 1:31 remaining after Duren put back a missed layup, forcing Addington to call a timeout.
“I remember it being a game that all along we could not get our motor running,” Addington said. “I said ‘Hey, if you ever got it in you it’s right now, and we’ve got to get it done.’”
Woodside pulled the four other players on the court into another huddle after they broke from the timeout. From that moment, Addington said, the game was out of his hands and into his star senior’s.
“That was a real snap shot of his whole career,” Addington said of Woodside, who later went on to become the leading scorer in North Dakota State University history and an all-star while playing professionally in Europe. “You don’t have many 17-year-old kids who are willing to lead a team the way he did and lead an entire program. I’ve never again seen it in my career.”
Woodside scored a layup out of the timeout, stole the ensuing inbounds pass and immediately scored a reverse layup while being fouled. He missed the free throw and chance to tie the game, but after Duren grabbed the rebound, Woodside stole the ball from the senior forward and scored another layup — his sixth straight point in a matter of seconds — and lifted the Tigers to a 52-51 lead.
“He was like a bully on the playground,” Addington said. “He said ‘Give me this ball, we’re taking the game and we’re finishing it.’”
Woodside finished with a game-high 24 points but scored 11 in the final two minutes. He had scored 32 and 31 points in Albert Lea’s two wins over the Packers the year before.
“He’s a man playing with boys,” Fadness told the Austin Daily Herald following the game. “He totally dominated. He made all the plays.”
The Tigers went on to win 59-51 after outscoring the Packers 26-11 in the fourth quarter. Alex Kaiser led Austin with 14 points and Duren scored 12.
“I just took it upon myself,” Woodside said from his home in Tbilisi, Ga., where he currently plays pro ball. “It was an unbelievable game, let alone we were playing Austin.”
‘The greatest moment of my career’
A lot happened during the year following Woodside’s heroics in the come-from-behind win over the Packers.
The Tigers went on to win two more games over its rival that season, including a 60-51 victory in Albert Lea — its 11th straight win that season — on Feb. 24 when Woodside scored 22 points despite battling a severe case of the flu that required intravenous fluids earlier that day, and a 71-63 win on March 10 in the section tournament.
Woodside and Duren later graduated, but each team returned key players the next season. The Packers returned senior Alex Kaiser, and Albert Lea returned seniors Ryan Moore and Mike Behrends and junior Parker Skophammer, a core that later led the Tigers to its first state tournament berth in 69 years.
On Jan. 7, 2005, the Packers won at Albert Lea 56-52, ending the Tigers’ five-game winning streak against Austin.
Five weeks later, it went for the sweep.
The Packers hadn’t swept the Tigers in a season series since the 2001-02 season, and until Feb. 15, they hadn’t had a chance. With a win earlier in the year, Austin now faced an Albert Lea team that, after winning 8 of 10 games earlier in the season, had lost 5 of 6, including three straight. To add to the drama, the matchup was played in the near century-old Ove Berven Gym, a dim-lit space where the bleachers were elevated eight feet off the court.
“Those games in the old gym brings out the best of one team for sure, if not both,” Addington said. “It makes for great theatre for sure.”
The Packers had won just four games all season at that point — two in the Big Nine — but led 26-24 entering halftime. In another display of Fadness’ deliberate style of keeping the game score low, Austin built a 43-42 lead entering the fourth.
After a back-and-forth final quarter — no team ever led by more than five points — the Tigers found itself up by two in the final minute and methodically used its fouls to give as the Packers brought the ball up the floor.
With seconds remaining, Austin used a timeout to set up a side inbounds play for the tie or win. Addington knew the Packers would look for one of its studs to take the final shot, so the coach, who was directing his final game against Austin, accounted only for them.
“Coming out of the timeout I said ‘All we have to do is don’t give up a 3,’ and everybody in the gym thought they were going to Kaiser,” Addington said. “I remember there being one other big guy I was concerned about.”
Albert Lea’s coach was right. In the opposite huddle, Fadness was drawing up “America’s Play,” an inbounds play that ran double screens for option No. 1 Kaiser and No. 2 John Stevens. When neither player was open for a shot, Kaiser caught the ball near midcourt and was double teamed as he drew closer to the 3-point arc.
Without a good look at the basket, and with time about to expire, Kaiser found the Packers’ only open player — Andy Sundal — a 5-foot-6-inch senior who was the team’s fourth option, according to Fadness.
“Albert Lea did a nice job defending it,” Fadness said. “Kaiser threw it to Sundal, and Andy will tell you he’s not the greatest 3-point shooter in the world.
“On that night, he made the shot.”
Sundal’s high-arching shot found nothing but net, and the Packers’ raucous student section, which had stood the final two minutes of the game, stormed the court and carried Sundal atop their shoulders.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my basketball career, and one of the best moments of my life,” Sundal told the Daily Herald following the game. “I can’t even describe it; it feels so amazing.”
Addington said Albert Lea’s defense played to perfection, denying Austin’s shooters good looks and forcing it to catch the ball far away from the basket. He said to double team Kaiser was part of the plan but, for whatever reason, time stopped when Sundal caught the ball.
“Right as he was catching it I had this gut-wrenching feeling that this is going to happen. It paused right there,” Addington said. “Right as it left his hand the stars aligned and it never hit the rim.”
Addington said at that point in the season for the Tigers, who fell to 4-11 in the Big Nine after beginning the season with championship aspirations, everything that could go wrong did.
The team opened the following day’s practice with a time of solemn self-reflection, as its players sat quietly on the gym floor, along with their coach, mulling over what had gone wrong over the previous two months. Addington said he didn’t sleep the night following the heartbreaking loss and came to practice with a long list of things he had learned in the last 24 hours.
No. 1 on the list, he said, was that he loved his team more than anything.
“It was a night of introspection, for sure,” Addington said. “We really didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t play as well as we were capable, but we could not point a finger to this or that. The ball just wouldn’t bounce our way, and that was a microcosm for a year when we could not get over the hump.”
Meanwhile, the Packers’ dramatic win caused introspection for Fadness, too. After Sundal hit the game-winner and students rushed the court, Austin’s coach did a victory lap around the gym and celebrated instead of shaking Addington’s hand.
Fadness regretted it soon after.
“I acted like an idiot,” he said. “It’s something I’m not proud of. They had beat us six or seven times in a row before that game, and I just let my emotions get the best of me.”
That loss may have acted as a wake-up call to the Tigers, who salvaged its season by winning five of its next six games, including three straight in the section tournament, en route the Class AAA State Tournament. Albert Lea lost 42-39 in the opening round to top-ranked and eventual state champion Shakopee.
On Wednesday, March 10, 2004, the Tigers’ enthusiastic fan base, dubbed “Addington’s Army,” filled Albert Lea High School’s gym and packed all four sides of the court, as the home team, seeded third, met No. 6 Austin for a third and final time that season in the opening round of the Section 1AAA Tournament.
“Honestly, I don’t know if the gym had ever been that packed,” Woodside said. “I just remember going out for warm ups, and every seat was already filled. I talked to family and friends who said the line to get in went from the commons area into the parking lot.
“That showed how much of a rivalry game it was.”
It was a fitting matchup as intense rivals Duren and Woodside fought to extend their exceptional careers, and Woodside, along with fellow senior starters Stephen Thorn and Ross Habben played their final home game, win or lose, against Austin.
Again, it was the upset-minded Packers which stormed out of the gates. Austin led 18-10 after the first quarter on 14 points from Duren.
“When the game started, they had Woodside guarding Duren,” Fadness said. “I said let’s beat the crap out of Ben and make him run through as many screens as possible. We were getting Duren free on some looks but Addington made the adjustment, and that’s when Ben’s game really took off.”
After being held scoreless in the first quarter, Woodside opened the second with a 3. Thorn and Behrends made key baskets, and Woodside scored a driving layup at the buzzer to pull the Tigers within 34-32 at halftime.
Woodside nailed two more 3’s in the third quarter and hit a halfcourt buzzer-beater to lift Albert Lea to a 14-point lead entering the fourth.
Woodside and Duren each scored 33 points, as the Tigers went on to win 71-63.
“Being the competitor I was, it didn’t take much to get up for a huge game like that,” Woodside said. “Whenever we saw Austin on the schedule, it was a huge game for us and we wanted to win. We were only 20-some miles apart, and we had an attitude going in as a team that we wanted to take it to Austin.”
The Tigers went on to lose to second-seeded Faribault 54-51 three days later in the section semifinals.
Sundal’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in February of 2005 not only secured an elusive season sweep of Albert Lea, it ushered in an era of dominance for Austin.
The Packers lost 67-48 in the next matchup on Jan. 13, 2006, but a four-point win over the Tigers the following month cued an 11-game winning streak that could either be extended to 12 or broken on Tuesday.
Austin beat Albert Lea by an average of 21 points over the past six seasons, which included a one-point win on a buzzer-beating layup on Feb. 5, 2008.
Part of Austin’s recent success — it has won 73 games over the past six years to Albert Lea’s 19 — is attributed to its stability.
Fadness said in 15 years as the Packers coach, the Tigers have had five — five coaches who have had to contend for athletes with its boys’ hockey and wrestling programs, perennial powers in the conference and state.
“They’re fighting a beast over there,” Fadness said. “That’s tough on coaches, and it’s tough to maintain that stability when guys are in and out.”
Despite that, Fadness said the Tigers’ last three coaches — Addington, Chad Feikema and Lucas Kreuscher — did a good job. He credited Addington for getting fans excited about Albert Lea boys’ basketball again.
“Matt did a wonderful job at Albert Lea as head coach,” Fadness said. “He built a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in a town that’s been notorious for hockey and wrestling.
“Having studs at that time helped, but I thought he did a phenomenal job down there, and it didn’t break my heart when he left.”
While the Packers had no trouble beating the Tigers earlier in the season, Fadness said a 12th consecutive victory over Albert Lea won’t come easy.
When it comes to this rivalry, they rarely should.
“I think the old cliché of throwing the records out the window comes into play,” Addington said. “If you’re not mentally prepared for a rivalry game, it’s going to be a fight.”
By the numbers:
19 meetings over the past 10 years between the two teams. Austin won 12 and Albert Lea 7.
11 straight wins for Austin, the longest streak in the rivalry over the past decade.
1 coach has guided Austin since the 2002-03 season. Albert Lea has had three.
A look back
1/10/03 Albert Lea 74, Austin 54
2/18/03 Albert Lea 68, Austin 58
1/16/04 Albert Lea 59, Austin 51
2/24/04 Albert Lea 60, Austin 51
3/10/04 Albert Lea 71, Austin 63
1/07/05 Austin 57, Albert Lea 52
2/15/05 Austin 52, Albert Lea 51
1/13/06 Albert Lea 67, Austin 48
2/23/06 Austin 51, Albert Lea 47
1/12/07 Austin 66, Albert Lea 45
1/21/08 Austin 69, Albert Lea 56
2/05/08 Austin 56, Albert Lea 55
1/03/09 Austin 66, Albert Lea 51
2/10/09 Austin 80, Albert Lea 43
1/19/10 Austin 56, Albert Lea 47
2/26/10 Austin 69, Albert Lea 59
1/18/11 Austin 66, Albert Lea 41
2/25/11 Austin 62, Albert Lea 41
1/13/12 Austin 81, Albert Lea 42
Albert Lea and Austin play for the 20th time over the past 10 seasons at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Albert Lea High School.