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BASKETBALL: Bemidji High, Bemidji State faced off in ‘city championship’ series 100 years ago today

On March 16, 1922, Bemidjians packed inside the town’s new armory for a battle of two fresh rivals: Bemidji High School and Bemidji State Teachers College. A century later, travel back to “a fine evening’s entertainment” that brought the community together for two historic nights.

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Bemidji High School and Bemidji State Teachers College once faced off in a "City Championship" series, which tipped off 100 years ago today. The high school boys swept the series and claimed the prized silver cup to match.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — In a long bygone era, local basketball fans had a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The hottest ticket in town was so rare, in fact, that it hasn’t returned in the 100 years since.

On March 16, 1922, Bemidjians packed inside the town’s new armory for a battle of two fresh rivals: Bemidji High School and Bemidji State Teachers College.

In what would be an unthinkable matchup nowadays, the city’s two schools clashed in a best-of-three “City Championship” series. To the victor went the spoils, which included supremacy of the town and a silver cup presented by George T. Baker & Co., a local jeweler and apparent hoops booster.

Perhaps even more preposterous: the high school kids swept the college squad two games to zero.

The pair of contests -- played on March 16 and March 22, 1922 -- marked the only time the schools have ever played each other. The series even predates their iconic “Lumberjack” and “Beaver” nicknames.

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A century later, travel back to “a fine evening’s entertainment” that brought the community together for two historic nights.

The Game 1 comeback

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The Bemidji High School boys basketball trophy case is full of awards from over a century of play.
Pioneer file photo

Well before opening tipoff, an air of excitement surrounded the series, which the Bemidji Daily Pioneer assured “should prove unusually interesting.” (The same daily paper sold off newstands for 55 cents a week -- or an annual subscription would set you back $6.)

The college team was in its inaugural year under head coach F. P. Wirth, and facing high school foes wasn’t an uncommon practice for BSTC through 1927. The more established Bemidji High, in the last year of J. W. Smith’s tenure, wasn’t afraid of the challenge.

“An interesting game of basketball with two local teams participating is promised (to) fans who attend the game tomorrow night,” the Pioneer read. “… A cup is being offered by the Geo. T. Baker Co. for the winner of the series, and this alone is creating considerable interest and rivalry among the players of the opposing teams.”

The downtown armory, located on Third Street near the waterfront, hosted the historic games. And all in attendance for the 8 p.m. Game 1 tipoff got their money’s worth.

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The Third Street dock and waterfront, with Paul and Babe and the armory in the background, was a popular gathering spot in Bemidji's early days. This photo was taken after the "City Championship" series, as Paul and Babe didn't arrive downtown until 1937.
Beltrami County Historical Society photo
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An aerial view of the Lake Bemidji waterfront shows the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues between the Third Street dock and the armory.
Courtesy / Jim Aakhus

Bemidji State, as one might expect against younger opponents, raced out to a blistering start and led 16-8 by halftime. But momentum shifted drastically in the second half.

“(The teachers) started the scoring early in the game and maintained a comfortable lead during the remainder of that period,” the Pioneer recapped. “The high school boys proved too fast for the teachers in the second period and won that half by a score of 20 to 3.”

Though not identified with their first names, “Davis” and “Neumann” led the high school with 12 points apiece, with Neumann putting up 10 during the second-half rally. “This pair of forwards proved very effective in getting through the teachers’ line,” the Pioneer said.

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Bemidji High had a 1-0 series lead, which gave them the upper hand toward the coveted silver cup. And less than a week later, as the town reconvened for Game 2, they were ready to claim it for good.

Claiming the cup in Game 2

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The Bemidji State men's basketball program first began on Dec. 15, 1921, then as Bemidji State Teachers College. A century ago, this 1920s squad helped the program to some of its earliest wins.
BSU photo

Prior to Game 2, the college boys were still optimistic. The Pioneer documented that “the teachers are confident that they can win the second and third (games) of the series.”

But BSTC couldn’t back up its claim, tumbling into a 20-7 hole by halftime of the rematch.

“Time and again the teachers missed easy throws while the high school boys connected regularly with the basket from all angles,” the Pioneer read.

The second half was a different story, as the teachers supplanted the preps by a 15-8 margin, but that was with plenty of high school reserves on the floor since the game was practically out of reach.

As the clock ticked and ticked, all the way down to zero, there was no doubt about it: The kids were kings.

“The high school boys played in top-notch style throughout, while the teachers were apparently far below their usual standard, especially in the first period,” the Pioneer said.

Davis again scored 12 points to lead BHS, while Neumann had eight. Wilbur Horns had 10 in Game 2, leading the college with 6.0 points per game during the series.

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Aftermath of the clash

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After Bemidji's first high school was destroyed by fire in 1921, a new school was built on 15th Street -- then the north edge of town -- on property that had been part of the first county fairgrounds. It opened in September 1922.
Beltrami County Historical Society photo

The George T. Baker & Co. silver cup rested in the store’s display window leading up to the series, but the high school quint claimed ownership for good with the 2-0 series win.

Bemidji’s new high school -- which first welcomed students in September 1922 after a January 1921 fire destroyed the original building -- likely housed the prize. Decades later, BHS constructed a new school and moved in during January 2001, and current activities director Troy Hendricks said the cup was likely lost during the shuffle of the move.

The cup’s current location is unknown, meaning it may very well be lost to history.

The series, however, will long be remembered.

“(It) was interesting from start to finish,” the Pioneer said, “and the boys put up plenty of scrap throughout.”

Bemidji High School 28, Bemidji State 19 (Game 1)

BHS 8 20 -- 28

BSTC 16 3 -- 19

BEMIDJI HIGH SCHOOL -- Davis 12, Neumann 12, Boe 2, Henry 2.

BEMIDJI STATE -- Riggs 7, Romens 6, Simons 4, Horns 2.

Bemidji High School 28, Bemidji State 22 (Game 2)

BHS 20 8 -- 28

BSTC 7 15 -- 22

BEMIDJI HIGH SCHOOL -- Davis 12, Neumann 8, Boe 4, Smith 2, Cline 2.

BEMIDJI STATE -- Horns 10, Romens 4, Simons 4, Bergland 2, Elliott 2.

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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