‘64 Vikings thrived on the basics/Paul Peterson

Within the next week or so, Baraga High School will honor the 1964 BHS boys basketball team.

The Vikings of fifty years (is it really that long ago?) ago were perhaps the ultimate overachievers of that era, which was right in the middle of what was then a golden era of basketball in the Copper Country.

No less than eight state championships were won by local teams between 1949-1972. The basketball played was of high quality, seldom seen since.

When the season began, coach Carl “Cookie” Johnson’s Vikings were predicted to finish fourth or so in the old Copper Country Conference.

Strong Houghton and Hancock teams were the favorites that season, with a good Ontonagon squad also in the mix.

It wasn’t that Baraga didn’t have talent. Senior guard Larry Kangas was a sharpshooter from outside, and fellow seniors Bryan Alatalo, John Mansfeldt and Pat Kamarainen were returning starters. Junior Pete LeClaire filled out a solid starting unit.

Size was a problem, the rugged Mansfeldt the tallest player at 6-foot-1.

But they had a secret weapon in Johnson, who always stressed the basics and closely studied his opponents.

“Cookie would watch the other team for two or three minutes,” Kangas recalled a few years ago. “Then he would take a timeout and tell us how to defend them.”

The 14-3 Vikings sailed through the regular season and took the CCC crown behind Kangas and his teammates, who often set screens to give their ace open looks at the basket.

The Class D district at old Sherman Gym that winter was considered one of the toughest in the state. A 16-3 Mass squad was the defending district champion; a 13-5 Trout Creek team featuring 6-foot-5 Bob Gale was also there; and a 12-6 J.A. Doelle team brought a front line of 6-5, 6-3 and 6-2.

At 8-10, Chassell was a darkhorse, but had a tall, junior front line. The Panthers would go 15-3 a year later.

Baraga beat back stiff challenges from Doelle and Chassell to get to the finals. A narrow 36-35 win over Mass sent them to the regionals in Marquette.

After eking out a one-point win over Ewen, the Vikes met heavily favored and No. 1-rated Negaunee St. Paul for the U.P. championship.

A 51-47 victory was accomplished when they held St. Paul star Dominic Jacobetti to 20 points, 10 under his average. Kangas led the winners with 16.

Kamarainen was lost with a season-ending injury in that game, but Baraga continued to advance with a 71-62 win over Pickford. A 56-47 victory over Suttons Bay put them in the state finals against defending champ Britton-Macon and its 6-9 all-state center Phil Benedict.

Britton-Macon also had a 6-6 player and two others at 6-5.

That overwhelming size finally caught up to the Vikings despite a 39-36 halftime lead.

Despite 34 points by Kangas, the downstate team took a 79-57 win. When Kangas fouled out late in the game, he received a standing ovation from the Jenison Fieldhouse crowd.

Some of the members of that squad have passed on, including Alatalo in 1981. Johnson, a U.P. Sports Hall of Fame inductee with more than 300 wins, died a few years later.

My memory of them is clear, however. They were the last team I ever played against in high school … and you tend to remember something like that.