In 1997, the cool, spring air off Lake Bemidji blended with the smell of freshly cut grass and the faint hum of a streetlamp up above.
For the Bemidji High School boys golf team, this was home.
“There’s no team in the state of Minnesota that outworked those guys,” then-head coach Eric Niskanen said. “I had to tell them to go home from the golf course. They’d be out there putting, working on their short game until after the street light came on above the putting green. It was simply amazing.”
Much like during that season, the team made a perfect run through our Banner Bracket and, thanks to readers’ votes, has been crowned as the greatest state championship team ever assembled at BHS.
“They were focused, and they were gentlemen,” Niskanen said of his players. “They presented themselves well for Bemidji. It was just a great group of young men. I can’t say enough about them.”
Much like it did all season on the course 23 years ago, the squad steamrolled through our 16-team bracket. It collected over 96% of votes in its first-round pairing, then over 61% in the second round. In the semifinals, boys golf prevailed with a 57% majority, and the masses came out for a whopping 67% showing in the championship round over the top-seeded 1973 baseball team.
But more than that, the team built a legacy that shouldn’t soon be forgotten in the Bemidji High School halls.
A dominant chapter of history
The season was defined by Dairy Queen, fire trucks and a hotel complaint.
Bemidji won the Class AA state tournament with a team score of 625 (314-311), seven strokes ahead of second-place Mankato West. Individually, Tom Downs (78-76-154), Joe Motzko (79-77-156), Erik Espe (77-79-156) and Tom Jenkins (80-79-159) topped the leaderboard for BHS, while Scott Simpkins (84-97-163) and Kevin Krigbaum (84-80-164) also represented the Lumberjacks on the links.
“Kevin Krigbaum was the last person to secure a spot on that team. It was right to the end,” Niskanen said. “He said making the team was way harder than winning the state tournament.”
That depth was on full display throughout the season. The only time Bemidji lost all season was when the B team beat out the A team at their home invitational.
“I took a lot of heat from that from the other coaches, not knowing my players,” Niskanen laughed.
Niskanen quite literally paid the price for his team’s dominance, however. He promised to treat his players to Dairy Queen whenever they won a tournament.
“Well, yeah. Every single tournament, we won,” he said. “They realized a 20-spot every tournament wasn’t sitting real (well with me). They started ordering ice cream cones instead of blizzards.”
The motivation worked, though, and soon enough the team landed its 17th region title. And on June 11, 1997, they won the latest of a state-record seven state championships. Their 25 state appearances are also a state record to this day.
“It gives me a lot of pride,” Niskanen said. “I grew up through the system, hanging out at the golf course. … The team that won the state in ‘97, they were out there. That was a big part of their life.”
Niskanen, a member of the 1975 championship team, is still the only Lumberjack to win a state title as a player and as a coach. Both times, a fire truck paraded the team through town in celebration.
“They didn’t let them hang off the back like we did in ‘75,” Niskanen said. “But that was pretty cool.”
Niskanen praised his 1997 players not only for their accomplishments on the course, but also their character off of it. He told the Pioneer at the time that the lone complaint he received during the state tournament was from the hotel manager, who wanted the team to stop practicing their putting in the hallways.
“We were very consistent the whole year,” Niskanen said. “We were good. A lot of fantastic young men, and I’m still friends with every one of them. It’s really neat.”
Niskanen, who reached the summit in 1997 in just his third season as head coach, continued to lead the team through the 2010 season. Bemidji was the state runner-up in 1998, but the program hasn’t won a section championship since 2001.
Still, the cool air off the lake, the smell of the grass and the faint hum of the streetlamp all remind Paul Bunyan country of a team that lives on in Lumberjack lore.
“I was really happy and proud for them. They earned it,” Niskanen said. “All I did was drive them to the tournaments. Those guys deserved it, without a doubt. It was really good to see those young men achieve what they had worked so hard for.”
Class AA State Bemidji Individual Results
T11-Tom Downs (78-76) 154; T17-Erik Espe (77-79) 156; T17-Joe Motzko (79-77) 156; T24-Tom Jenkins (80-79) 159; Scott Simpkins (84-97) 163; Kevin Krigbaum (84-80) 164.
Class AA State Team Results
1-Bemidji 625; 2-Mankato West 632; 3-Wayzata 636; 4-Anoka 641; 5-Chisago Lakes 644; 6-Rochester John Marshall 652; 7-Hastings 657; 8-Park Center 682.