North coach Larry McKenzie read an inspirational quote to his players before the start of practice Tuesday afternoon. The top-seeded Polars take on St. Clair in the opening Class 1A game. (Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune)
The basketball history is so rich at Minneapolis North that there are times before practice starts when coach Larry McKenzie calls his players over, has them sit on the court and just look at the championship banners hanging on the wall.
“We use that as motivation,” senior guard Tyler Johnson said. “Do we want to make a name for ourselves? Can we be remembered as one of the great teams in North history?”
A tall order indeed. Mention the name Minneapolis North to even casual fans and they usually associate it with high school basketball greatness. Khalid El-Amin. Jabbar Washington. Brett McNeal. Redd Overton. Ben Coleman. Kammron Taylor. Names that carry weight on the court.
The Polars, once considered a yearly state tournament shoo-in, have been conspicuously absent for more than a decade. The last time North — a program with five state titles, 19 state tournament appearances and its distinguished alumni — qualified for the state tournament was 2003.
“Who would have thought North would have a 13-year drought?” McKenzie asked.
That lengthy hiatus is over. Ranked No. 1 for most of the season, the Polars cruised through the Section 4 playoffs and earned the top seed in the Class 1A bracket. They play first-time entrant St. Clair in Thursday’s quarterfinals at Williams Arena, their first step on a path the entire north side of Minneapolis hopes will lead to another state championship.
It wasn’t that long ago that this seemed not only difficult but unlikely. Enrollment dropped below 100 students a half-dozen years ago amid calls by the Minneapolis School Board to close the school. Community leaders and North’s large alumni base staved off closure, and the school has slowly rebounded. In early January the school’s enrollment was 295 students.
A big part of the recent growth can be tied to the boys’ basketball team, for decades a source of pride on Minneapolis’ north side.
“I live in this community,” said McKenzie, who coached Minneapolis Henry to four Class 3A state titles from 2000 through 2003. “[When] we go places, I’ve got first-graders, kids 5, 6 years old, saying, ‘Coach, I want to play for North.’ Everywhere you go, you’ve got people pulling for you.”
Most of the Polars are too young to remember the last state championship team, which competed with the state’s biggest schools in Class 4A and featured three Division I recruits in Taylor, James Davis and Kevin Henderson. They’ve all heard about El-Amin, however. And they know the importance of basketball to the school.
“When I came here as a freshman, I started looking into the history,” junior guard Isaac Johnson said. “I knew about Khalid El-Amin because I’m friends with his son [Ismael, a guard for Hopkins], but I also knew they’d fallen off. I wanted to bring them back.”
Expectations are high on the talented, ultra-athletic roster, with five players who average between 11.8 and 14.8 points per game. The Polars aren’t worried about being overconfident, however. Last-second losses in the Section 4 championship games in each of the past two years have made them hungry. McKenzie seasoned them with a difficult nonconference schedule that included Hopkins, the No. 2 seed in the Class 4A tournament. The Polars lost 98-96.
“We’re about winning championships,” McKenzie said. “I’m not a moral victory guy, but that Hopkins game showed me we’re ready.”
The time for hype and history lessons are over. Players know it’s time to prove they have what it takes to take their place among the past North greats.
“Every night, I picture what it would be like if we win,” senior Jamil Jackson Jr. said. “That’s all I think about.”
It’s an important week for Red Lake coach Roger White and his family. In addition to preparing the boys’ team for the state tournament, White’s daughter Grace is one of the top players for the Warriors girls’ team, which is seeded No. 2 in Section 8 and played Fosston in the section semifinals Tuesday. The Whites suffered a tragic loss in November when son Aaron, then a ninth-grader and contributor to the basketball team, died of cancer.
The last time Minneapolis North appeared in the state tournament was 2003, when the school, with an enrollment much larger than the 295 or so students now, won the Class 4A state championship. That year was also the last of Minneapolis Henry’s four straight Class 3A state championship seasons. Minneapolis Henry was coached by Larry McKenzie, who is now coaching North. “If you would have told me then I would be coaching North to the state tournament one day, I might have slapped you,” McKenzie said with a laugh.
Goodhue coach Matt Halvorson played for Rushford-Peterson’s Class 1A state runner-up in 2005 and state championship team in 2006. Browerville/Eagle Valley coach Robert Schueller played for Russell-Tyler-Ruthton (RTR) in 1988 when it finished as Class 1A runner-up. He was an assistant for Fertile-Beltrami’s state tournament teams in 1995 and 1996 and coached RTR to the Class 1A state championship in 2004. What’s more, Schueller made the first three-pointer in state tournament history in 1988.