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Basketball book features Lake County coaches and players

Melody Swenson will be at the Two Harbors Public Library on April 8 from 6:30-8 p.m. signing her book, Champions of Minnesota's Arrowhead. The book chronicles the trips of local boys' basketball teams to the state tournament and includes teams from Two Harbors and Silver Bay. Photo courtesy of Melody Swenson1 / 3
The 1924 boys' basketball team from Two Harbors won the state tournament that year. Photo courtesy of Two Harbors High School2 / 3
The 1977 Silver Bay boys' basketball team is the only basketball squad in Silver Bay's history to make it to the state tournament. The "Iron Five" are Tom Frericks, Mike Frericks, Kasey Frank, Jeff Flanagan and Dave Trost. Photo courtesy of Larry Otterblad3 / 3

Melody Swenson's interest in basketball runs deep. She remembers closely following the state tournaments when she was young. Nine-year-old Swenson even sent a fan letter to a player from Duluth Central in 1970.

"We'd watch them all on TV. You could actually see people that you read about in the newspaper," Swenson said.

She played basketball for a bit in high school and managed a team, but Swenson said her real passion was for watching the game--an enthusiasm she inherited.

"I had a mother who was a basketball addict," Swenson said.

Today, Swenson works for St. Louis County in a decidedly non-athletic role, but she's maintained a connection to sports. In 2008, she published her first book: "Champions of Carlton County, State Tournament Teams." It chronicles the trips of various Carlton County teams to the state tournament. In her newest book, she's turned her attention to basketball in the Arrowhead Region. While it's a large area to cover, Swenson found she couldn't focus on just one county.

"When I started doing this project...I initially was going to look at St. Louis County. Then, I realized how connected the whole region was, especially Two Harbors," she said.

Her book features many names area folks will recognize, including Silver Bay resident Larry Otterblad. He graduated two years too early to be on the Two Harbors team that made it to the state tournament, but in his later years as a coach at Silver Bay he took a team to St. Paul. The 1977 squad remains the only boys' basketball team from Silver Bay to make it to the state tournament.

"The town supported the school. When we left town, the people had lined the streets from the school to the plant (now Northshore Mining). The kids got a little teary-eyed, it was exciting," Otterblad said.

While 1977 was a great year for the basketball team, it was a turbulent year for Silver Bay. Reserve Mining was in the midst of a lawsuit regarding the dumping of manufacturing waste into Lake Superior and jobs at the town's largest employer were uncertain. Swenson and Otterblad agreed that the boys' state tournament run was a much-needed distraction for the small town at the time.

"It was a real morale booster for the community," Swenson said.

Two Harbors had its own state tournament runs, too. In fact, the boys' team won the state tournament in 1924, just six years after World War I ended. Swenson said that when the team returned to town after winning the state championship, the mood mirrored the euphoria of when the troops returned after Armistice Day.

"When the team came home, they had a parade and procession (for them)," Swenson said.

The biggest difference was that the excitement and happiness were pure, lacking the bittersweetness that accompanied the end of WWI, she added.

Two Harborite Eugene Norlander is another familiar face featured in the book. He was an assistant coach for the Two Harbors boys' basketball team during his years as a teacher--and is also a state champion. He played for Denfeld when its team won the 1947 title. Though the games were more than six decades ago, Norlander can still remember details of the matches and he has kept some mementos ---- the net from the final game and a key to the City of Duluth, which was presented to the team after their victorious return.

Otterblad made basketball a lifetime passion, too. All of his kids played and he coached for 35 years in Silver Bay. What has stuck with him most, he said, are the lessons learned while playing the game.

"Win or lose, you've got to keep the game fun. You've got to keep things in perspective... (it helps prepare you) to handle the ups and downs in life," Otterblad said.

Read about Norlander, Otterblad and many other local basketball stars in Swenson's book, "Champions of Minnesota's Arrowhead-Basketball State Tournament Teams," available at her book signings and by contacting her directly at or (218) 750-1446.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141