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Silver Bay Basketball: Talking Numbers with Larry Otterblad

Though Silver Bay has not had a high school boys basketball team in a couple years, Lar­ry Otterblad is hope­ful for the future. “We have some numbers coming in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade,” he report­ed. “It’s starting to pick up in our area. Our 7th grade girls are going to be really good.”

Larry would know how to spot a good team in the making. He knows a lot about basketball and the history of the sport in Silver Bay. In fact, he’s been a big piece of that history. His friend Rick Frer­icks told me, “When you think of Silver Bay Basketball, it’s Larry Otterblad. He’s been there for a long time. And he goes about it quietly.”

Rick, who has coached in Silver Bay for sev­enteen years, has known Larry for a long time. He was coached by Lar­ry, was an assistant coach with Larry, and was head coach with Larry as his assistant coach. Rick played on the 1980 team; one of the seven years Silver Bay has made it to the semifinals.

“We had a really good team that year!” Rick said. They averaged over 72 points per game, making them the high­est scoring team ever. “And that was without a three-point line,” he pointed out.

The starters that year included Rick and his cousin, Doug Frericks, as well as Don Moz­zetti, Pete Moore, and Scott Blood. They had been 19-3 that season and lost to Chisholm. “That year was real­ly fun,” Larry, said. “That team had a good chance to make it to the state.”

The semi-final round against Chisholm was to be held at the Duluth arena but was moved, due to a car show, to Virginia’s mid­dle school. “There’s so many intangibles along the way,” Larry said. “We wanted to be on a big court. We had a fast team. We went up there and played in the small little gym, where they had prac­ticed all year. We lost in a close game. To me, knowing the team and what you can do, it’s frustrating to have that happen.”

Larry has known many teams and run into many intangibles, having coached bas­ketball and football for forty years and coached baseball for eight. When he grad­uated from college in 1972, he secured a job as a teacher for phys­ical education, health, and driver’s education. He also coached the ninth-grade basketball team.

“I was really lucky to get the job up here,” he laughed. It turns out, Larry feels like he may have wrecked the homecoming football game in 1968 for the Mariners. At that time, he played for Two Harbors, where he was born and raised. The score was 6-6 and Lar­ry kicked for the extra point. The crossbars were decorated for the occasion and when the ball hit the cross­bar they were knocked down. The ball flopped over the goal post and the Agates won the game.

A year earlier, both the Silver Bay and Two Harbors basketball teams had made it to the semi-finals. “The unique thing about ’67 was that the two teams that were in the final four were Silver Bay versus East and Two Harbors versus Duluth Cen­tral,” Larry recounted. Silver Bay had been 19-2 that season and was led by Coach Gordy Klein. The starters that year were Greg Mjelde, Chuck Horton, Pat Lorntson, Kenny Basement, and Denny Moore with Mike Holmquist as the sixth starter.

It is rumored that bets may have been going down at the plant as the two local teams headed into the tournament. However, neither team was able to advance.

Silver Bay would make it to the semi-fi­nals the following year, as well, with Denny Moore, Perry Auger, Tom Lorntson, Chuck Horton, and Mike Holmquist as starters. Bill Arntson served as head coach that year.

For Larry, the love of sports came early. It was in his genes. His parents were married on a very cold night in 1945 and didn’t have any plans af­ter they had said their vows. His dad, Kermit Otterblad, drove them to a Minnesota Go­phers basketball game to watch former Two Harbors basketball player Ed “Punky” Kernan on the court. His mother was still in her wedding dress!

“My dad liked sports. He wasn’t the best at it, but he gave me ev­ery opportunity there was. He took me to every practice in 4th grade. All the way through Bemidji Col­lege, he came to every game.” When there wasn’t a coach for the baseball team one year, his dad, along with Phillip Larson, filled the role. “We really had a good summer. That’s helpful when people step up to the plate,” Larry said. “Every­body goes into helping you along in life, to help you do what you want to do. For some reason, I always want­ed to be a coach.”

When he started coach­ing, he had the oppor­tunity to attend a clinic in Minneapolis. The clinic was led by John Wooden, aka the “Wiz­ard of Westwood.” Coach Wooden won ten National Collegiate Athletic Association National Champion­ships over a twelve-year period, including seven in a row.

“This guy was the best,” said Larry. “He was so down to earth after winning a mil­lion championships at UCLA.” Coach Wood­en imparted a lot of wis­dom during the clinic. He told the attendees that if you have a good group of athletes, you should “let the horses run.” In other words, don’t chop the game up. Let them play. The other piece of advice that stuck with Larry is Wooden’s KISS the­ory. KISS stands for Keep It Simple Stu­pid. (I now have this scrawled on a post-it note on my desk.)

Both pieces of this ad­vice came into play in 1977 and helped to bring the Mariners to the state tournament. It was the very first year Larry had become the team’s head coach and the first and only time that the team made it to state. They were 20-7 that season, they had lost early in the year to the larger schools in Duluth. “When we finally played schools our size, we beat them all!” Larry said.

The city rallied with excitement to send the boys down to the St. Paul Civic Center for the state tournament. “The support we got from the town and community…North Shore Mining bought all our kids blazers to go down there and look good,” Larry said. He remembers the sendoff where fans and family were lined up outside the gym doors. Guys from the plant were standing by the stoplights with their hard hats on and they were waving at the bus as it drove out of town.

A lot of strategies had been suggested to Lar­ry on how to beat Mar­shall U, their opponent in the first round. Mar­shall U had a 53-game winning streak, had won two state tourna­ments consecutively, and they were known for their speed. “Oth­er coaches and every­body were saying you have to slow the game down,” Larry said. “They won their games because they were so fast. They’ll press you and run you right out of the gym.”

But the Mariners were also a fast team. That year was also the year that the track team, of which some of the bas­ketball players were a part of, had won the state tournament. Larry didn’t want to change things up. “That’s all we knew,” he said. “We had track kids. We were fast and that’s our style of play.”

He followed the Wiz­ard of Westwood’s lead and “let the horses run.” As a result, Larry reported that Marshall U went after them, and they went after Mar­shall U. Keeping it simple, and not swap­ping up their style, really paid off. The television announcers told their audience that it looked like Silver Bay was running Marshall off the court. The arena was filled with 12,000 fans that day and many were yelling, “Let’s go Bay!”

They won by three points that day. “It had to be one of the biggest upsets in state tournament history,” said Rick. He remem­bered that Silver Bay didn’t play any subs the whole game. The sixth player hurt him­self warming up before the game began.

“Nobody thought we’d be there,” Larry said. “It was really a lot of fun. Once in a lifetime and I was happy to be there.”

The starters on the team that year were Dave Trost, Tom Frericks, Mike Frericks, Casey Frank, Jeff Flanagan, and Tom Hanson. “It was nice to have a close group, a smart group, and they wanted to win,” Larry said of the team. “They had hearst. You can be a good player, but you got to have heart to get that far.”

Though the state bound team was his favor­ite, he didn’t feel that was the best team he’d ever seen in action. He called the 1974 varsity boys basketball team “the best team of all time.” The team, under head coach Bob Carey, made it to the semi-fi­nals with starters Bill Whittaker, Randy Koehler, Jim Mettling, Clyde Pickering, Dave Hanson, and the 6th starter Jeff Byrnes.

That year, the Mariners were undefeated until the very last game of the regular season. It’s a game that Rick, who was only eleven at the time, remembers clear­ly. His dad had taken him to the gym before the B game started. By the time the varsi­ty game began, it was standing room only. “Fans were lined up against the walls along the baseline. There were well over 1,500 people there that night. Never have I seen the gym so full,” he said.

They lost that game by only a couple points to Superior, who would go on to win the Wis­consin State Champi­onship that year. They would lose by only a couple points, as well, in the semi-final game against Chisholm, who would advance to win the Class A Minnesota State Championship.

In the year 2000, Silver Bay once again found itself in the semi-fi­nals. Rick Frericks was head coach that year, with Larry as assis­tant coach. Larry’s two sons, Jamie and Mark, were on that team and started along with Paul Hipple, Sam Harmer, Bob Nelson, and the 6th starter was Joel Hare. They were 20-7 that year.

The last time SilverBay had made it to the semi-finals was in 2015. The team was 20-9 and the starters were Jason Blood, Michael Fischer, Sean Bergman, Matthew Barker, Hunter Mon­son, and Jerry Con­gious served as the 6th starter. Terry Blood led the helm as head coach.

I asked Larry if he thought that teams that get that far have more dedication than oth­ers. “No. Luck!” he said and then started to laugh. He said they were all hard work­ers, that’s why they made it, but a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt. “You have to have the bounce of the ball at the right time,” he said. “[We] came so close many times, but you have to have a lit­tle luck on your side.”

I’m sure many feel lucky that they’ve had guidance from Lar­ry as a player, as a coach, or as a friend. “He’s one of the nic­est guys,” Rick said. “Always willing to help out. Very selfless. He’s a wonderful per­son.” He also shared with me that he is all about the kids, which tracked with Larry’s answer when I had asked what he liked most about coaching.

“I like working with young men and wom­en,” he said. “You’re out there to have fun. The kids want to have fun. I think that’s what coaching is all about. You want to win, but you do have to have fun, play the game hard and play it in the right way.”

Larry’s son, Jamie Otterblad, currently coaches for the Silver Bay girls basketball team. All four of Lar­ry’s kids (two boys and two girls) were starters and 1000-point scorers, and all of their kids are playing bas­ketball.

Though sometimes he has to ask which decade someone may have played for him when he runs into them, he remembers them all. “There’s been so many, but it’s been fun!” Larry said. “Great kids. Great memories.”

These days, two of the Silver Bay high school boys basketball players are playing in Two Harbors. The 7th grade girls are starting on the varsity team in Silver Bay in order to have enough players. “They’re learning the hard way, but they’re learning,” Larry said. “They are having fun and learning. They know what they’re up against.”

He remembers that when he started coaching in Silver Bay there were around fifty football players and twenty basketball players on the rosters. “We had good numbers back when I started,” he said. “We need to get our numbers back in order.”

And interest has been drummed up in Silver Bay. The K-3 program, headed by Kelly Ollila, is filling the gym twice a week. “There are kids hanging around. I hope they stick with it, they all have fun, and the parents are sup­portive,” Larry said.

You’ll find Larry at ev­ery game in Silver Bay that he’s able to get to. Sometimes he streams games if his wife is around to do the tech­nical assistance for him. When I talked with him, he was head­ed to Florida the next day. On the agenda? He’s going to watch the Twins. “I’m kind of addicted to sports,” he said, but we both agreed quickly that there are much worse things to be addicted to.

I asked Larry what he’d tell a kid interested in playing basketball. “Never let anything stop you,” he respond­ed. “Get out with your friends and have fun!”

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