2 great seasons of long ago
Published 12:38 am Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The ’81 and ’82 teams were most recent state qualifiers
In 1981 and 1982, the Austin Packer boys’ basketball team went to back-to-back Minnesota State Tournaments and came up just short of a championship.
They haven’t been back since — until now.
Thirty years later, past players were excited to watch the Packers end a long tournament drought with a dramatic 43-41 win over New Prague at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center Friday.
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“This has been a long time coming. … We’re just so happy for them,” said Lee Aase, the starting center on the 1981 state team.
For Lee, the March 16 win had a bonus: Lee’s son, Joe, plays on the team, and his nephew, Tom, flushed a last-second, game-winning dunk to seal the win.
“It’s just really neat,” Lee said of the family connections. “That just doesn’t happen.”
While a trip to state may be new in the last few decades, Steve Justice, a point guard on the 1981 and 1982 teams said Austin has a long history of many trips to state before the 1980s.
“Historically, Austin has been there quite often,” Justice said.
But the most recent was 30 years ago.
Joe Longueville, a guard on the 1981-82 teams, said he still has vivid memories of the drive to the ‘81 state tournament and staying at the hotel.
“I can remember it just like it was yesterday,” he said.
Longueville can also remember one of head coach Howie Strey’s key words of advise before taking on powerhouse Minneapolis North: Be quick, but don’t hurry.
Despite an undefeated season, the 1981 Packers entered the Minnesota State Tournament as underdogs.
That was largely because they opened the tournament against defending champion and No. 1 ranked Minneapolis North, who were also riding a long winning streak.
Though Minneapolis was heavily favored, the Packers pulled off the win.
“That was a huge upset,” Lee said.
The Packers followed that win with another victory against undefeated Chaska before falling to Anoka in the championship.
“I think we were kind of the underdog and surprised a lot of folks,” said Steve Justice, the point guard on that team.
Lee said he can see a lot of similarities between the 1981 team and this year’s Packers, as both teams have a balanced team, which means opposing defenses can’t focus on one player.
‘An unselfish team’
Longueville described the 1981-82 teams as a hardworking group that grew up playing together since elementary school.
“We were a closeknit group; we cared about each other,” he said.
Many of the players would go on to play college basketball, and Longueville opted for college football over hoops after being offered a scholarship.
“We had a lot of talent,” he said.
But the team wasn’t just made up of a few stars. During the ‘81 season, Longueville said, seniors who didn’t start and didn’t necessarily see much game time had a key role in practice, where they would play hard and challenge the starters.
“We really had an unselfish team,” he said.
While the boys returned to state in 1982, it was no cakewalk, according to Justice. He said it’s human nature to think it’s easy to go back the second time, but it’s not.
“Once you’ve done it once, you’re not the underdog anymore,” Justice said.
Longueville noted basketball wasn’t the only strong sport back then, as many other Packer teams went to state and had strong seasons, making the basketball team a target for other schools.
“We had a lot of great athletics in that era,” he said.
After finishing second at state in 1981, Justice said the team had a target on it’s back the next year. The boys lost their opening game at state, but won the consolation round.
Just missing the state title was hard to stomach at first, but Lee said he’s come to cherish the memories of going.
“It was tough then. It was really hard then, but there’s no bad memories,” said Lee, who now works for Mayo Clinic as director of the Center for Social Media.
On the other hand, Longueville still believes the Packers should have brought home a state title in 1981.
“It still makes me mad to this day,” Longueville said. “It still bothers me that we lost that game. I thought we were the better team.”
He urged this year’s team to keep focused on the ultimate goal of a state title.
When the 1981 team returned to Austin, they were greeted with a championship-style welcome. Longueville, who now owns an Anytime Fitness in Eagan, Minn., said thousands of people turned out for a rally welcoming the team home.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was 10 times more than I thought it was going to be.”
The attention continued long after that, as Longueville said the players spoke at elementary schools, and people even asked him for his autograph when he was out to the movies.
“We were just these celebrities coming back,” he said.
A moment to cherish
From his experience at state, Lee urged this year’s team be ready for tough competition.
“All the teams are good. Everybody’s there for a reason,” Lee said. “They’re all going to be hard for a reason.”
The state tournament can go by quickly in the larger arenas, so Lee said the boys should be sure to enjoy every minute of the experience.
“They’ll look back on it with really great memories, but still have to focus on what’s at hand,” he said.
Justice, now a State Farm Insurance agent, said he thought the boys looked a little timid in their Section 1AAA title game win Friday, and said they need to be sure to just play like it’s another game.
“The boys just need to relax and just play basketball like they know how to play,” Justice said.
Though it’s been a long time since the last trip to state, Justice said many people who watched the 1980s teams have followed the boys this season.
“Many generations enjoy what’s going on this season,” he said.
Hard work pays off
For players from the 1980s teams, the boys’ current success can be traced back to long before this season. Justice noted that players and teams really hone their skills playing in the off-season.
“They really came together this summer,” he said.
Justice and Lee both said the teams that excel are the ones that put in the work outside practice and organize pickup games and workouts.
Many players have participated in summer camps and leagues recently which Lee said has been a key part of their improvement.
“That’s where you get better, is in the offseason,” Lee said.
After the boys’ win Friday, Justice said he saw a group of boys playing a pickup game Sunday morning. Justice said this team’s success will have a positive ripple effect for younger players.
Lee, too, said this team’s state berth is far from the end, as Austin’s basketball program has a bright future.
“The future looks really bright for this team, too,” he said.