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Voyageur's Best Sports of 2005

Nate Higgins

Former teamates CLASH
High School basketball coaches Kris Rinta and Nate Higgins
by John Grones  |  February 15, 2005

When it comes to basketball, the two coaches that met up in the Target Center on Saturday, February 5, have a lot in common. Kris Rinta, coach of the McGregor Mercuries and Nate Higgins, coach of the Montgomery Londsdale Redbirds were once teammates. Teammates on two of the all-time best McGregor teams. Then, they were involved with back-to-back undefeated Polar League teams. Now, they struggle to provide identities to their respective programs.

On Saturday the two coaches met for the very first time. Kris is in his first season as the Mercuries coach, after assisting the McGregor program the previous two years.

Nate is in his 4th year coaching Montgomery Lonsdale, a team that has just 15 wins in the last four years. According to Nate, it has been an eye-opener for a coach that has had quite a bit of success prior to this experience. “Montgomery Lonsdale struggles in athletics at all levels and sports,” he said. “When I first got the job, I looked at the talent and thought I could turn things around. After the first practice, I had to throw all my plans out and strart over. My expectations were too high.”

This year the team has one win and nearly got their second against the McGregor Mercuries. The game played Saturday, February 5 was closely contested with McGregor coming out on top 66-62. Jake Root and Anthony Pierce led the Mercuries with 31 and 16 points respectively. Tom Flicek, Zach Baldwin and John Ruhland all scored in double figures for the Redbirds. Despite the loss, Nate was proud to see the performances of the McGregor players he has coached at summer camps in the past.

Nate and Kris decided to play the game in the Target Center after visiting at the Minnesota Coaches Association conference held in November. Nate had planned on doing this for the past two years. “About 80 percent of my players have never been in the building,” he commented, “I didn’t want to play against just any old team. I was looking for a relationship with an opposing coach.”

Kris wanted to do the same and they took advantage of a Timberwolves High School Basketball promotional package. They had to sell 150 tickets to fans and that earned them tickets to a future Timberwolves game.

Following the game, the two coaches found time to sit down and reminisce about a couple of special seasons they were involved with a couple of decades ago. They, along with their coaches John Hadrich and Steven Cummings, shared a few memories.

The first special season was in 1989-90, when the McGregor Mercuries went undefeated at 11-0 in the Polar League and finished with an overall record of 16-4. Kris and Nate were role players on that team that included excellent players such as Jon Miller, Robb Reed, Paul Bajda, Joe Larson, Joe Kohlgraf, Jon Passer, and Mike DeMenge.

According to head coach John Hadrich, he is not aware of another team that has achieved back-to-back undefeated Polar League seasons. He also recalls how difficult it was finding playing time for so many talented players. “There were players that would have played more on other teams or more on a McGregor team other years...Ward Berndt, Steve Berg, and Jeff Hemmila,” he recalled. “All these players...the balanced scoring...and the practices were great. We had so many players and even matchups.”

Key victories that season included a come-from-behind win over Esko 58-53. The team was down nine points going into the fourth quarter when the Mercuries outscored Esko 22-8. Mike DeMenge scored 12 points in the quarter and Kris Rinta knocked down three free throws in the final period for the victory.

The team also had two wins over a tough Barnum Bombers team, including a three-point overtime victory on the road (64-61). Jon Miller went 4-4 from the free throw line and Mike DeMenge scored a field goal in overtime to give the Mercs the three-point advantage.

“I remember those games,” said Kris, who also recalled his role on the team. “My job that year was the same as it was all of my career, play defense, be a floor leader and get the ball to the big guns.”

The 1990-91 season would be yet another one to remember for the Mercuries. In addition to Nate and Kris, Jon Miller, Joe Larson, Joe Kohlgraf, Paul Bajda, and Jon Passer all returned from the previous season. There was one addition to the team, David Graff returned from Alaska. He left when he was in elementary school. David joined the team and the Mercuries posted another 11-0 Polar League title. The team went on to compile a 22-2 record overall, losing only to the eventual state champion Chisholm Bluestreaks team twice during the year. The Mercuries averaged a whopping 73 points per game with a high of 112 versus Hill City.

There were only four close games during the regular season: a two-point win at Aitkin, a four-point win at Moose Lake and two five-point wins, one at Barnum and one at Cromwell.

The state champion Chisholm Bluestreaks team turned out to be the roadblock for this very solid team. They defeated McGregor 89-33 in the regular season and 84-54 in the District Championship game. Joel McDonald, the state’s all-time leading scorer, posted games of 40 and 44 points versus McGregor.

Nate recalls that the team was so much taller than they were. “The biggest thing for us mentally was their size. Everyone knew about Joel McDonald who was 6-4 and then they had 6-0, 6-4, 6-5 and 6-7 to go with him. This posed a challenge,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I remember shooting threes from 27 feet. We wished they would have played us man.”

Kris agrees. “Joel was a classy player. He had an aura of confidence. He was smooth, could handle the ball, and was an all-around ball player.”

Never-the-less, the McGregor team considered themselves one of the top teams not to make it to state. “Looking back at how they did against teams in our region and at state, nobody came close to defeating them,” Kris recalled. “We could have played with any team in the state tournament, except them. We call it the McGregor jinx. It seems like every time we had a good team, there was a McDonald playing for Chisholm...1976, 1982, 1991...”

It was 14 years ago, but many of the current players don’t know anything about this special team. Nate and Kris certainly left their mark on McGregor basketball. In addition to leading the team with a 13.2 scoring average in 1990-91, Nate set a school record with 62 three-pointers at 41 percent accuracy. His passion for the game and interest in McGregor bring him back from time to time and he leads basketball clinics.

Kris, on the other hand, still lives in McGregor and is the current coach. He was the team’s catalyst back in the day on a very talented and unselfish team. Kris had 27 assists as a junior and 96 his senior season. His coaches praised his ability to share the basketball. “Kris had an uncanny ability to keep everyone involved,” said Steve Cummings, McGregor’s assistant coach from 1981-95. “When he wasn’t on the floor, the offense didn’t flow as well. He was a very good floor general, a great set-up guy.”

Kris has carried this leadership into a coaching position and he is dreaming about a team with the kind of depth they had in the early 90’s. As for Nate, he’s not sure what his next move will be. For now, he’s thinking about getting back into college coaching. “This summer, I would like to attend the University of Minnesota and get an athletic administration license,” he concluded. “I just appreciated the opportunity I had to play basketball in high school. I wouldn’t have gone to college if it wasn’t for athletics.”

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.