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Luck of the draw in play in ’66/Paul Peterson

January 26, 2011
By Paul Peterson - For the Gazette

Just a few weeks ago, Mining Gazette sports editor Brandon Veale wrote a column describing his good fortune in getting to cover two last-second basketball games in the space of just a few days.

Reading the column, I couldn't help but think that the luck of the draw can sometimes be fickle when it comes to covering special events.

It must be understood that any sportswriter would rather cover a closely contested game.

There is little joy in trying to put down in words a 70-30 basketball game, a 54-0 football game or a 17-1 hockey game. I can say that ... because I have witnessed games ... with those exact scores.

I can't even begin to comprehend how a writer would describe a 78-3 hoops contest, which took place recently in the western end of the Upper Peninsula.

When I was just beginning my writing career in the winter of 1966, I landed a plum assignment just by the luck of the draw.

Mining Gazette sportswriter Dick Loranger called me to see if I would be interested in some high school games for the newspaper.

I was attending Suomi College - and covering Lions men's basketball games - at the time, and was more than happy for the extra dollars the job would provide.

Loranger, a fine writer himself, told me I would be covering a couple of teams, but mostly L'Anse High basketball.

"They (Hornets) will be a run-and-gun team," he told me. "They'll be fun to watch."

In those days, L'Anse played in a balanced Copper Country Conference. They were considered a contender that winter, just behind good Houghton and Hancock teams.

As luck would have it, the Hornets turned into the sports story of the year.

Led by 6-foot-6 center Gerry Gerard, guards Roland Swartz and Deane Kent, and high-jumping forward Bob Fredrikson, LHS got on a roll midway through the season.

Earlier defeats to Houghton and Hancock cost them a shot at the CCC crown, but the Purple Gang began to mow down opponents with a pressing, fast-breaking game plan.

The old LHS gym, nicknamed the "Hornets Nest," was an unfriendly place that featured overhangs under the basket. The crowds at the time there were as vociferous as any I've ever heard.

And L'Anse had a coach in Bill "Sugar" Popp, who wore his heart on sleeve and took no prisoners. I've often said that Popp was an earlier version of Dick Vitale with his colorful antics.

The Hornets breezed to the state Class C title that season, destroying Stevensville by an 89-73 score at Jenison Fieldhouse.

The Purple Hornets, with Gerard, Fredrikson and Kent back, were even more menacing the following season. They began games by racing off to leads like 40-7 and 36-5 after one quarter, which is hard to believe in these days of defense-minded, low-scoring games.

LHS extended their win streak to 39 games before losing to a strong Wakefield team in the regional finals before some 5,000 fans at Hedgcock Fieldhouse.

If I thought my whole career was going to be a blueprint of the first year, I was sadly mistaken.

I didn't get the opportunity to cover another local state championship team until the 1982 Houghton High hockey squad went all the way.

Now, after more than 5,000 games and 45 years later, I realize just what the luck of the draw means ...



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