State tourney magic back in Ely, with new heroes, memories

by Tom Coombe. Echo Editor
For a few magical weeks in 1987, Ely was undoubtedly a football town.
Only weeks after some Minnesota Magic, as the Twins captivated the entire state with their improbable, Metrodome-fueled run to the World Series title, Ely’s football team traveled to the ’Dome for its first and still only appearance in a state championship football game.
In the week leading to the contest and really for at least a couple of weeks before, Ely football created a buzz in town, even sending deer hunting to the backburner as guys like Jon Kastelic, Bob LaTourell, Lance Ronn, Bill Muhvich and a host of others led the Wolves to 13 consecutive wins.
Coach Larry Mischke’s motto - Can’t Be Scared - was attached to placards and homemade signs and someone even created a “Wanted” poster with Mischke’s photo.
Right after Thanksgiving, the Wolves, and seemingly all of Ely, made their way to Minneapolis for the big game.
The Ely faithful were decked in red and white and joined by hundreds of former Elyites, many who lived in the Twin Cities or nearby, for what amounted to an impromptu class reunion in the ‘Dome bleachers, its concourses and nearby establishments.
On that Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Ely throng and a statewide television audience looked on as the Wolves put up a fight for a half, trailing 21-20, only to fall 43-20 to a mammoth-sized team from Granite Falls in the Class B title tilt.
It was the only blemish in an otherwise perfect season for the Wolves, but it’s talked about still to this day by those who were there.
The game, the trip to the ’Dome and the entire community buzz around Ely football, was talked of as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With the benefit of a half-century or more on this earth, and memories of that magical month, similar vibes returned recently with the rise of Ely’s volleyball team.
As early as the first of October, it was clear to see that it was going to be a special season for this group of Timberwolves.
A run of sweeps and weekend tournament championships fueled talk of an unbeaten regular season and momentum built on the court and in the bleachers, where people who had never seen a volleyball game before showed up suddenly to see what all of the fuss about.
Like the regular group of parents and students who had been coming to the games, they were impressed, and Ely cruised through October without a loss, and two early-round playoff games all but filled the Memorial Gymnasium. Word has it that the higher-ups in Section 7A, which coordinates postseason action, were blown away by the gate receipts amassed for the tilts on Ely’s gym floor.
Many of those fans carried on to Hibbing and Hermantown, where it seemed to be only a formality that the Wolves would make history - first by reaching the 7A final and then by capturing the 7A title.
That mission accomplished, the focus turned to state and the comparisons to 1987 and the town’s football frenzy ramped up even more.
There was a raucous pep rally in the gym, and a sendoff fit for a champion, with the Wolves’ chartered bus led out of town, and past cheering fans, by police cars and fire trucks..
In St. Paul, the Wolves put on a show, scaring heavily-favored Mayer Lutheran in the opening round and even taking a set from the defending champs before falling in four.
On Friday came the consolation round and another first: a state tournament victory as coach Megan Wognum’s Wolves surged late in the third and dominated the fourth to take down Pine River-Backus.
All that was missing was some state tournament hardware and that’s what Ely went for on Saturday morning against Badger-Greenbush-Middle River. The Wolves ultimately came up short, fading after they were a point away from forcing a decisive fifth set..
In the end the Ely contingent, one of the largest among the small schools there and certainly buoyed by those who used to call Ely home, stood and cheered and snapped photos of the group that made it happen.
Like the football team 35 years earlier, they captured the attention and hearts of a community. Hundreds came to St. Paul to watch and countless others tuned in from deer shacks, their homes or even many states away to follow their every state tournament move.
Names like Coughlin, Kallberg, Visser, Penke, Rechichi, Eilrich and Thomas have been etched in Ely’s sports history, much like those who carried the Wolves to the ’Dome a generation ago.
The season has ended, but history and memories have been made. These Wolves made Ely Magic.