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Coaches reminisce at Bemidji's all-school reunion

Ralph Lovering remembers scoring his only goal as a member of the Bemidji Lumberjacks boys hockey team.

"We were in Hallock when I did it. We weren't supposed to win that game but we did by a goal."

Lovering was reminiscing with Jim Smalley about that 1964-65 season Saturday morning at the BHS gymnasium lobby. The occasion was a two-hour come-if-you-want gathering of former Lumberjacks coaches and the student/athletes who played for them.

When the event ended close to 100 old friends and mentors had swapped stories.

"I was the first captain of the boys hockey program and Jim was the first hockey coach," Lovering said.

Smalley explained how the program actually began during the 1963-64 campaign as a club team rather than a varsity high school squad.

"I remember the first practice on Lake Bemidji," Smalley said. "I had the players skate about 40 yards forward and then they were supposed to skate those 40 yards backward.

"By the time they finished skating forward, only one was still standing."

Eventually a team was put together and Mike Naylor had the honor of scoring the program's first goal.

"Mike received a plaque for scoring that goal," said Rick Coe who was the coach when the girls program began in 1996-97.

"When Rochelle Clark scored the first goal for the girls program Mike gave Rochelle a plaque. That gesture tells you the camaraderie among the sports and what it meant to be a Lumberjack athlete."

"This was a very nice gathering," said Mark Varriano who was an assistant coach for the football team. "I met many people I didn't know because they graduated long before I got here. It's nice to meet new people and also to, once again, touch bases with the coaches I worked with."

Among the athletes who stopped by was 1986 grad Al Brooks who played football during Varriano's tenure as an assistant coach.

"Al always had big "google" glasses and during a football game they would always get muddy," Varriano said. "We remembered the one time we were under the stadium at halftime and (head coach) Ray Kavanagh grabbed Al's glasses and wiped them off with a dirty towel. That only made things worse.

"Ray was serious but Butch Froiland (another assistant coach) was laughing so hard he had to leave the room," Varriano said.

Froiland also attended Saturday's reunion. The wrestling program was represented by Ken Schmoker (the head coach from 1957-75) and his assistants Doug St. Onge and Howie Schultz. Jim Wahl, Jack Luoma and Phil Buhn were there to swap old basketball stories and Larry Perkins had a few tales to share with his former golfers.

Current coaches Don Papreck (gymnastics) and Troy Hendricks (football) also were among those who listened as their predecessors held center stage.

"Seeing coaches I haven't seen in a long time and talking with my former athletes has been great," Schmoker said.

Bob Saeger, a 1965 grad who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., spent much of Saturday morning chatting with John Dow. The two had been teammates on state-tournament teams in football, basketball and baseball.

"We never lost a football game from 1962 through 1964," Saeger said. "We also went to state in basketball in 1963, 1964 and 1965 and finished fifth, fourth and third. In baseball we made state in 1962 and 1965. John and I were on many successful teams together."

Dow credits all of Bemidji's coaches for his athletic success.

"Every coach had so much respect for the athletes and the athletes had so much respect for the coaches, even those you didn't have," Dow said. "Coaches like Red Wilson, Bun Fortier, Jack Luoma, John Graupman, Ken Schmoker, Howie Schultz, Horace May and all of the others earned your respect. And in turn they respected the athletes.

"It was such an honor to be part of Bemidji athletics. You couldn't go wrong when you had those role models," Dow added. "I'm not sure it's that way now."

The two hours ended too soon for many of Saturday's alumni but everyone agreed that five years from now the athletic reunion should be repeated.

"This was a great time," Dow, who was among the last to leave, said. "It was great seeing everybody."

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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