It’s been 50 years, but players, coaches, and fans still talk about the Miracle of ’67. In 1967, the Milbank High School boys basketball team captured its first State Class A title. Fast forward to 2017 – the 1967 team will again be honored. This time, during the 2017 State Class A boys basketball tournament in Sioux Falls Thursday, March 16.
“It is such a fond memory even after all this time,” says Mark Comstock, one of the five seniors on the team. “We still have a claim to fame because we had to play those big teams that are AA schools now. It was such a great time!”
The team has been called a miracle, a Cinderella story, and compared to the Hoosiers. Call it what you like, but the MHS team of 1967 was unique. There were no heroes, just five senior starters who played every game of the tournament – Mark Comstock, Dave Graf, Doug Dohrer, John Schleicher, and Rich Olson. They were cool under pressure and doggedly determined until the final buzzer.
The ’67 team perfected a remarkable game. It consisted of calm, disciplined, and precise teamwork with an offense designed to set up the high percentage shot followed by a hustling defense. “We passed the ball around and took a lot of time off the clock,” recalls Dave Graf. “Coach Wolsky made a patient and poised game plan – that is for sure.”
The Bulldogs were not picked to take the tournament. Despite a 17-2 regular season record, its first Northeast Conference title since 1958, and its first Section One championship in 14 years, Sioux Falls O’Gorman (with a 19-1 record) and the Rapid City Cobblers (coming off a 15-game win streak) were the favorites. “We were not picked to win by a long shot,” says Comstock. “We surprised everyone.”
Key statistics tell the story, though. The team committed just seven turnovers in the entire tournament. One came in the second game against Yankton and four occurred in the first quarter of the championship game. The Bulldogs rarely committed fouls with just 20 in all three games. “Nobody ever fouled out all season,” Comstock says.
Only one other player saw action during the tournament – sophomore Rick Dohrer – and he only played a few minutes in the second game against Yankton. MHS Athletic Director and assistant coach Roy Jensen was quoted as saying, “We would have liked to have played all of the team members in the state tournament, but you can’t fool around with a two-point lead.”
Other members of the team were: sophomore Marlin Forman, and juniors Bradley Helm, Nick Stocking, Jack Wilson, Bob Perdaems, and Jim Crowl. Student managers were Mark Wilson and Neil Bagaus. Dave Wolsky, Aberdeen Central and Augustana College alumnus, was the head coach.
Coach Wolsky surprised us when he announced the Sunday before the state tournament that he had declined his contract offer for the next school year. “I think he knew he was going to resign and wanted to get it off his chest,” Comstock says. “It didn’t make any difference to us – five seniors were going to go out with him as a team.”
In the opening game of the tournament, Milbank completed their first surprise by downing Aberdeen Central 53-45. Milbank trailed 9-6 at the end of the first quarter but inched their way back to a 22-19 advantage at halftime. The Bulldogs remained ahead at 34-27 heading into the final stanza, but Aberdeen made a comeback and pulled to within two points with just under two minutes remaining. Doug Dohrer hit a field goal and two important free throws in the next 24 seconds to extend the lead to 47-41. Back-to-back free throws by Graf and Dohrer, followed by an Olson field goal, gave Milbank a 10-point cushion.
Dohrer, a forward and the leading scorer all season, poured in 20 points. Schleicher, a forward, added 13, and Comstock, a guard, had 10. Graf, a guard, followed with 6 points and Olson, at center, had 4.
In semi-final action, Milbank downed Yankton 50-46. The Bulldogs again trailed 11-7 after the first quarter. In what seemed to be a pattern, Milbank came back to take the lead 26-24 at the midway mark. A tight contest ensued with the Bulldogs holding a 36-34 lead heading into the final quarter. Olson snared two rebounds in the closing moments and Comstock hit four straight free throws down the stretch to seal the win. He led the team with 13 points. Graf and Dohrer added 12 each and Schleicher added 11. Olson rounded out the scoring with 2 points.
Suddenly, the Milbank Bulldogs found themselves in a fight for the state title. They faced a strong favorite, Rapid City, with a standout player, Marty Waukazoo. Waukazoo scored 57 points in the first two games of the tournament.
Once again, Milbank fell behind in the first quarter at 11-6. They staged a comeback and took the lead 24-22 at the half. Waukazoo got in foul trouble early in the game and was taken out. He was held to just 12 points in the championship tilt.
Milbank held a slight edge at 36-32 heading into the final quarter. The Cobblers pulled to within two points two times in the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs prevailed. Dohrer hit two shots from the charity stripe and a field goal to move the Bulldogs ahead 43-37. With just seconds left on the clock, he hit two more free throws to seal the deal in front of 8,256 fans.
Schleicher scored 18 points in the final game. Dohrer added 15. Olson and Graf chipped in 7 points each and Comstock had 3.
Dohrer led the team with 47 points in the tournament and was named to the second All-Tournament team. Schleicher tallied 42 points and 27 rebounds in the three games and earned a first team All-Tournament team honor.
The other Bulldog starters each earned honorable mention All-Tournament honors. Comstock finished the tournament with 26 points; Graf, 25 points, and Olson 13 points.
Five enthusiastic cheerleaders supported the Bulldogs that season. They were: Rene’ Modin, Nancy Emanuel, Barb Dravland, Patty Szymanski, and Carla Madsen. Dravland recalls the year before, in 1966, the team got beat in the Section finals, falling short of the state tournament. “Rich Olson promised me we would make it to State in 1967, and he was right. We were picked to win last, but we had a song that said, ‘impossible things are happening every day’. The team kept that in their heads.”
Businessmen in Milbank supported the cheerleaders by purchasing new uniforms just for the state tournament. “Our mothers also got our skirts shortened so we wouldn’t look and feel out of place,” Dravland remembers.
They also had a stuffed bulldog used as the team mascot. “We named him Tuffy and took him to the games to remind us how tough we were. It was a miracle and complete chaos when we won – but wow, was it cool! The announcers even called it the Miracle of ’67!,” says Dravland.
The fever continued as the team headed home with their championship trophy in hand. Different accounts suggest from 1,000 to 4,000 fans came out to greet the team. “People were waiting for us at the eight- mile corner,” says Comstock. “Some even started following us home from Clear Lake.”
As the team bus was escorted into town by police, fire engines, and fans, they made their way down Main Street Milbank. Doug Dohrer often tells the story that the bus could only inch along slowly because of the crowd waiting in the streets. When the team finally departed the bus and made their way to a flatbed parked along the street, they were greeted with unending cheers. The homecoming event was also broadcast live on KWAT Radio of Watertown.
Coach Wolsky and each of the five seniors addressed the crowd. Also sharing their support, were Mayor Milton Fischer, school board president Dr. E. A. Johnson, and Chamber of Commerce representative Max Gonzenbach. Mayor Fischer said “more people greeted the team than were present for Milbank’s 75th Anniversary.”
The six state tournament players celebrating their 30 year class reunion: (l. to r.) Mark Comstock, John Schleicher, Dave Graf, Doug Dohrer, Rich Olson, and Rick Dohrer.
1967 Team: (l. to r.) Bradley Helm, Nick Stocking, Marlin Forman, Doug Dohrer, Dave Graf, John Schleicher, James Crowl, Rich Olson, Robert Perdaems, Jack Wilson, and Mark Comstock. Not pictured is Rick Dohrer. Front: Mark Wilson and Coach Dave Wolsky.
The five senior starters: (l. to r.) John Schleicher, Dave Graf, Mark Comstock, Rich Olson, and Doug Dohrer.