FARGO — This weekend’s Fargo Oak Grove Carnal Classic is as much a family reunion as it is a boys basketball tournament.
Current and former Oak Grove players and coaches funneled into the Oak Grove gymnasium on Friday for the first night of the Carnal Classic. As the night wore on, the stands filled with familiar faces greeting each other with a smile, an enthusiastic handshake or a hug.
They were all there to honor longtime Grovers boys basketball coach Steve Carnal and watch basketball games played by four teams coached by Carnal’s former players — Oak Grove coached by 1985 graduate Kyle Card; Hawley, Minn., coached by 1999 graduate Nathan Stoa; St. Peter, Minn., coached by 2001 graduate Sean Keating and Sunrise Mountain, located in Peoria, Ariz., coached by 1987 graduate Gary Rath.
Things got emotional for those involved during a ceremony to recognize the coach between the two varsity games. Card, Stoah, Rath and Keating spoke about what Carnal meant to them as coaches and players. Card struggled to hold back tears as he spoke about playing for Carnal in high school and working as an assistant coach under him for more than a decade before taking over as head coach.
“I was his assistant for 13 years and then when he decided to retire, he went to bat for me so I could become the coach here,” Card said. “And now this is my 12th season as the head coach. He’s been a part of what I’ve done as a coach for more than 25 years. I’ve learned a lot from him not just on the court, but how to handle yourself off the court. That’s more important than wins and losses.”
Carnal spoke after his former players, struggling to get the words out amidst a stream of tears.
“These were all good basketball players and even better coaches,” Carnal said. “They were good students and good role models for younger players.”
Carnal coached at Oak Grove from 1980-2008 with a career record of 559-223 with 12 district championships, three regional titles and a state championship in 2000.
“Simply put, I’m not sure I’d be coaching if not for Coach Carnal,” Stoa said. “Coach gave us the confidence to star in our roles and the knowledge of how to keep everything in perspective. It was his impact on my teammates and myself that made me want to pass that on to kids that play for me.”
Rath says now that he is coaching, he has carried over lessons he learned from Carnal as a player and tries to instill some of those same values with his players. Rath said that Carnal had a way of making his players want to play hard for him.
“He’d get on you,” Rath said. “He was tough. But he was never demeaning or anything. You wanted to play hard for him. We wanted to win for him, do it for Coach, do it for Mr. C. I’ve been coaching since 1992 and to get a kid to play for all the right reasons, he just had a way of doing that.”
The tournament gives the coaches a chance to share a bit of their past with their players and show them where they came from. Card gets to share a bit of the basketball history at Oak Grove and help to build an appreciation for the past among his players, including his son, sophomore Cody Card. And the other coaches get to show their players where they came from.
“Steve talked to our kids halfway through practice (on Thursday),” Rath said on Friday before the tournament tipped off. “They got to hear from their coach’s coach. He was kind of saying the same things that I say. They’re excited to play tonight and they know that this game means a lot to me.”
The players from Sunrise Mountain got to Fargo on Thursday and Rath took them around town to some of his old favorite places including Duane’s House of Pizza and Scheels. Many of them are experiencing snow and cold wintry weather for the first time.
“The kids are excited about the snow,” Rath said. “They were all outside running around in the snow. It’s a great experience for them. Most of them have never been around it. We’re not too far from Flagstaff, so some of them have seen snow in the mountains, but it’s not quite like this — not this cold.”
Bringing together the four former Oak Grove players who are now coaches for the Carnal Classic has been in the works for more than a year. Card said that both Rath and Keating — the two coaches who traveled furthest — told him they were interested. It just came down to whether they could pull it off.
Rath started trying to get the trip cleared with his school district in the spring and once he got the go ahead, it was all systems go. Sunrise Mountain held a golf tournament as a fundraiser and raised all of the money for the trip through their booster club.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Rath said. “Unfortunately with my schedule, I had not been back in quite awhile. A chance to play against Oak Grove and coach against Kyle, I was all for it. We want to pay it forward. What Mr. Carnal meant to me as a coach and what it meant to our school all those years. I think the other coaches feel the same way.”