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Wood City Classic magic lives on

The lore of Cloquet's historic holiday tournament has stood the test of time, and continues to offer a second to none experience for high school hoops fans.

Old Cloquet Middle School 2.jpg
Pictured is the old Cloquet Middle School gym that is now part of the Carlton Lofts building complex. The gym hosted the Wood City Classic tournament for nearly 30 years before the gym at the new middle school took its place. Contributed / Carlton Lofts of Cloquet

CLOQUET — If the walls of the old Cloquet Middle School gym could talk, the stories echoing from nearly 30 years of Wood City Classic tournaments would be filled endlessly with tales of legendary games, players and prolific figures whose prestige extends beyond the hardwood.

Since its inception during the 1974-1975 season by Orin Schueler, then head coach of the Cloquet boys basketball program, the event has been a magnet for hoops fans looking to take in the two-day, four-game marathon of action on the court.

The inaugural tournament, three years removed from the Minnesota State High School League adopting a two-class state tournament, featured four teams scattered across the Northland and up into the Iron Range with Hermantown, Virginia and Hibbing forming the original tournament field.

The strong mix of teams formed a gauntlet for championship hopefuls.

“Back then they had really some of the cream of the crop,” said longtime follower of the tournament Dwight Cadwell, who serves as an on-air radio broadcaster in the Cloquet area for the WKLK and WMOZ stations.

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Standouts shine in early contests

The Bluejackets won the first tournament championship over a strong Virginia club that featured two all-state players in Jim Garrett and Pat Foschi. Foschi, a standout 6-foot-4-inch guard, continued his basketball career at the University of Kentucky on a scholarship before transferring to the University of Minnesota after one season with the Wildcats.

Hibbing was led by future NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, who was an imposing 6-foot-9-inch junior at the time. Paired with future UMD players John Retica and Skip Bronniche, the trio was nearly unstoppable, and led the team to back-to-back Wood City Classic championships. They nearly ended their high school careers as state champions as well, before ultimately falling short in a matchup with Bloomington Jefferson in the Class AA finals.

The 1976 tournament, won for a second-consecutive year by the Bluejackets, is considered by many to be among the best in the history of the event. A formidable Cloquet team featuring the likes of Pete Franz and Jason “Jay” Shogren met Hibbing in the tournament championship in what would end up being a preview of the Region 7 finals.

Cadwell recalls the balcony seats that overlooked the gym floor being jam-packed with eager fans, including the Cloquet student section known as the “East End Rowdies," who waited an hour for tickets in order to catch a glimpse of the historic tournament championship.

“The gymnasium was packed and the crowd was just electric,” Cadwell recalled. “Cloquet had just an amazing team that year, as did all of the teams in the tournament. It was probably one of the premier tournaments in northern Minnesota. It was just totally amazing.”

The Lumberjacks lost convincingly in the contest, and fell to the Bluejackets a second time later in the season with a trip to the state tournament on the line.

Though he was unable to make it to the big dance at Williams Arena, Franz was a key piece of the Lumberjacks 1975 baseball state tournament team, and later starred as a pitcher for UMD. There, he was named to the All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference team in 1978 and 1980. He was the NSIC “earned runs champion” 1980 with a 1.93 earned run average.

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Shogren followed his high school basketball career with excellence outside the realm of sports. In 2007, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with former Vice President Al Gore on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with 2,000 fellow scientists working on the project.

The final Wood City Classic of the decade was played in 1977, which saw the Lumberjacks earn their first tournament championship against a field of teams that included Esko, and Twin Cities newcomers Park Center and Brooklyn Center. After coming off the bench for Cloquet in its previous tournament run, Keith Levinski helped lead the ‘Jacks to victory over the rival Eskomos with a 23-point effort.

New start

Following a three-year hiatus, the Wood City Classic returned in 1980 with the addition of the girls tournament that has continued to this day. Cloquet boys basketball coach Steve Battaglia, who participated in the tournament as a player during the mid-late ’90s and won the tournament as a senior in 1998, appreciates the opportunity it provides fans to enjoy a day’s worth of basketball.

“There’s four games every day in the gym, and you can come in for the price of one game and you can watch four. For the basketball junkies, that’s kind of a dream come true to have a local tournament like this,” Battaglia said.

The 1998 season, which saw the Lumberjacks make a run to the state tournament, was a revival of sorts for the tournament as it captured some of the magic of the earlier tournaments in the 1970s.

“They not only had Steve but his younger brother Tim (Battaglia) and Michael Johnson. They had two all-state basketball players on the team, and that brought a lot of life and excitement back to that old gym at the time, where the gym would be really full. Not like it was in the ‘70s, but the gym would be near capacity,” Cadwell said.

The vintage gym at the old Cloquet Middle School, which hosted the tournament up until the 2003 season and once more in 2008 during renovations, has since closed, and is now part of the Carlton Lofts building. The Wood City Classic has lived on at the new Cloquet Middle School gym, however, with gap years interspersed as the team traveled to other holiday tournaments.

As fans pack the gym again and relive the tournament’s vast history, Battaglia has no intentions of ending the holiday tradition anytime soon.

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“The gym is relatively full over the tournament over the holiday here,” Battaglia said. “I’ve done it the other way where we’ve traveled to a tournament and this is significantly better to play in your own town.”

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