Celebrating 150 Years: 1920s - Back-to-back basketball championships

by Brian Cole

The Moorhead Spud basketball team went to eight consecutive state tournaments between 1924 and 1931, and became the first team in Minnesota history to capture back-to-back championships when they won the tournament in 1928 and 1929. 

The first Minnesota state basketball tournament was held on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in April of 1913. Twelve high school teams received written invitations in the mail to participate. The schools for the first state tournament were chosen based on reputation rather than through district and regional qualifying play.  The format of the tournament would continue to evolve for the next twelve years: twelve teams appeared in 1917, fourteen teams qualified in 1918, twenty teams played in the 1919 tourney, and between 1920 and 1925 sixteen teams qualified. The eight-team state tournament, which would last until 1970, began in 1925. 

Between 1913 and 1922 the state basketball tournament was held in Northfield; from 1923 to 1927 the state games were held at the Kenwood Armory in Minneapolis and in 1928 the state tournament moved to Williams Arena (then known as the University Field House). 

Moorhead’s first trip to the state tournament was in 1924. The Moorhead quint was coached by Elgar Thune, who was in his first year of coaching the Spuds. His predecessor, Hobart Litherland, was the father of Bob Litherland who was the original owner of the historic downtown Moorhead Dairy Queen. Thune and his crew defeated Willmar in the first round of the state tourney 22-14. In the quarterfinals the Spuds defeated Tyler 25-18 before losing in the semifinals to Minneapolis South. The Spuds defeated St. Cloud Tech for the 3rd place trophy. Thune and the Spuds returned to state in 1925 but were beaten in the first round by Buffalo.

Glenn Hanna, who would go on to be inducted into both the Minnesota and North Dakota coaches hall of fame, became the Spuds head coach in 1926. His Spud team made their third straight appearance at the state tournament. The Spuds faced Gaylord in the quarterfinals and were defeated by a score of 18-14. The Hanna-led Spuds returned in 1927 and once again lost in the first round, this time to Faribault. It would be the last time the Spuds would lose an opening round game during the Hanna era at the state tournament.  

There were high hopes for the Spuds at the beginning of the 1928 season. The Spuds returned several key players from their 1927 squad: Earl Moran, Cliff Halmrast and “Hub” Nelson. The Spuds won both the district and region tournament and they outscored their opponents by a combined score of 188 - 58. The team left Moorhead for the state tournament via train on Tuesday, March 20. The Spuds quarterfinal game, which was played in under one hour,  took place at 4:00 p.m. In what would be their closest game of the tournament, the Spuds scored a close 13-12 victory over Virginia. The following night the Spuds set a scoring record when they racked up 37 points in their 37-17 semifinal victory over New Prague. Cliff Halmrast, who would go on to coach the Spuds in the 1940s and serve on the Moorhead school board in the 1950s and 1960s, led the Spuds in scoring with 22 points. 

Over 7,000 fans were in attendance for the championship game between our Spuds and Minneapolis Edison. The Spud trailed 8-1 at the end of the first quarter but rallied in the second to pull within one point and only trailed 12-11 at the half. Moorhead pushed ahead in the third quarter to take a lead of 20-15 before finally winning by a score of 29-16. Both Moran and Halmrast were named to the all-tournament team. 

The following year the Spuds returned to the state tournament to defend their championship title thanks in part to the returning play of Earl Moran and newcomers Carroll Malvey and Pat Hilde. The Glenn Hanna led team faced Ely in their opening quarterfinal game. Despite being the smaller of the two teams Moorhead led 15-10 at the half. It was a back and forth affair for much of the second half and it wasn’t until Malvey’s jumper put Moorhead ahead for good as they won 25 to 22. The Spuds faced St. Cloud Tech in their semifinal tilt. Earlier in the year the Spuds had defeated Tech 44-20 so it was no surprise to anyone that Moorhead cruised into the championship game by defeating Tech 31-18.

Many regard the Spuds 1929 championship game with Red Wing as one of the top state tournament games up to that point. The Red Wing Wingers were regarded as the pre-tournament favorite thanks to having the tournament's tallest player: 6 ft. 2 in. center, Wilburn Olson. The championship game was a low scoring affair as Moorhead led 4-1 at the first quarter stanza and then 10-5 at the half. The Spuds went ahead 14-5 in the third quarter but Red Wing rallied and tied the game 14-14 when a Winger intercepted a Spud pass to send the game into overtime. In overtime the Spud’s Malvey hit two key field goals in a row to give Moorhead a 20-16 victory and their second State Championship in a row. Over 10,000 witnessed the game. Malvey, Hilde and Moran were named to the all-tournament team. 

Following the 1928 state championship season, Moorhead Superintendent S.G. Reinertsen wrote an editorial in the Moorhead Daily News. In it he said, “Moorhead is proud of the Minnesota Champions and the victorious team is thankful for the support they received. The last word written relative to this success should be one of thanks for the support given by the citizens of Moorhead.”

Moorhead would return to the state tournament in 1930, where they won 2nd, and 1931, where they won 3rd. Moran and Malvey were named to the all-tournament team following the 1930 contest. 

Information for this article was taken from: the Moorhead Daily News, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota State High School League Archives, the Minneapolis Journal, “The History of Minnesota State High School Basketball Tournaments” by Edward Simpkins, the University of Minnesota Archives, the 1928 Moorhead High School Cho-Kio, and the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Special thanks to the children of Carroll Malvey, Earl Moran and Cliff Halmrast for the donation of several items from this era including scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, the ball bag, championship medals, all state awards, programs and a game ball.