The expectations were high for the Mankato Loyola boys basketball team to start the 2002-03 season.
Having been to the last two state tournaments, losing in the quarterfinal round, the Crusaders had a team that was capable of winning a state championship that March.
“I just remember how talented those kids were and how well they played together,” former coach Dan Ireland said. “It was a special year, with a lot of good kids. I guess it was our turn.”
The Crusaders went 32-0 that season and won the Class A championship. Ten years later, several players and coaches from that team will be honored at halftime of Saturday’s boys game against United South Central.
Other players on that team were Trey Altenhofen, Bret Brielmaier, Dan Gierut, Truc Ho, Trung Ho, David Ireland, Bryan Kuderer, Matt Lynch, Jon Michaletz, Jon Miller, Lee Miller, Adam Nelson, Derek Price, Jay Steffl, Ryan Sullivan and Tyler Westman.
Brielmaier likely won’t be able to attend, while Ireland wasn’t sure if Truc Ho and Gierut would be in town Saturday.
Westman, the leading scorer in the tournament with 75 points in three games, said that despite expectations, the Crusaders weren’t burdened by pressure.
There was only one close game that season, a one-point victory over Maple River in the championship game of a holiday tournament.
“We just played and had fun,” Westman said. “We had played together for so long that the pressure didn’t really affect us.
“The first game of the state tournament, that was probably the most pressure we felt because that’s where we kept getting stuck. When we won that one, it was like getting a big weight off our shoulders.”
The Crusaders defeated New Life Academy 76-66 in the quarterfinals and Hancock 74-49 in the semifinals, setting up a championship game against Ellsworth (25-1).
The game was tied at 27 at halftime, then Ellsworth took a three-point lead early in the second half. Loyola switched to a zone and went on a 16-1 run that ended up in a 65-55 victory and an undefeated season.
“You play with those guys from junior high until you’re a senior, and it’s pretty cool to think about winning the championship,” Westman said. “It was nice to share those memories. It was a pretty special season for everybody.”
Ireland said he stays in contact with several players from that team, and it will be nice to see those who can make it Saturday night. The team was inducted into the Loyola Hall of Fame last fall, and this is another deserving reward for that championship season.
“The kids really rose to the occasion that year,” Ireland said.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.