WEST FARGO — West Fargo’s boys basketball team ended a 29-year championship drought just over a week ago when the Packers beat Minot 65-60. They brought home the school's first state title since 1992, the second of back-to-back championships.
Jim Jonas had a front-row seat to West Fargo’s most-recent title win at Bismarck Event Center on March 14. The last time the Packers had won, he was on the bench as an assistant coach.
“It brought tears to my eyes. I was so happy for the kids and for the coaches,” said Jonas, who serves on the West Fargo School Board as vice president. “It was really emotional because I was thinking of all the teams and all the players between the state championships. I think this team kind of won it for Packer nation.”
The 1992 and 2021 championships were against the same opponents and in the same venue. But unlike this year’s, the 1992 title game didn’t go down to the wire. The Packers downed Minot 65-50 to win the championship that year.
West Fargo had a 27-24 lead at halftime. The game took a sharp turn in the third quarter when Minot’s leading scorer was whistled for two technical fouls and game disqualification. Randy Torgrimson, a junior at the time, knocked down all four of his free throws from the T’s.
“The game was kind of over at that point,” said Doug Steckler, a junior on the 1992 team.
In front of a packed arena, the Packers led 44-34 entering the final frame and continued stretching the margin. Too much for Minot to handle, West Fargo repeated as state champions — the only team in program history to win back-to-back.
“There was a lot of talent,” Steckler said. “We were really loaded. That team was extremely mentally tough. We practiced very hard.”
That team featured three Mr. Basketball candidates. Mike Birrenkott, a senior in ‘92, was a finalist that year. Torgrimson and Mark Mattson were both up for the award the following year in 1993. Torgrimson eventually won it, becoming West Fargo’s only Mr. Basketball in school history.
Mike’s son, Carter Birrenkott, was a finalist for the award this year.
Carter, a 6-foot-5 senior forward, made the state championship-winning and-1 that won West Fargo its fourth state title in program history 30 years after his dad hit the free throw that sent the 1991 championship game into overtime. Mike’s clutch play at the buzzer eventually lifted the Packers to their second title. They won their first in 1983.
“I was a sophomore and I was in the stands right behind the hoop when Mike went to the line to shoot those two,” Steckler said of the ‘91 game. “I’ll never forget the pit in my stomach for him and how nervous I was when he missed the first one. Then he hit the second one in true Mike clutch fashion.”
Jonas had some deja vu watching this year’s state tournament.
“Randy Torgrimson was our leader. He was very solid,” Jonas said. “Kind of like what (junior guard) Brett Limke is — very steady, good leader.”
“Mike (Birrenkott) was a combination of what his son is and what (junior guard) Carson Hegerle is,” Jonas said. “Kind of a slasher and a post player.”
Both teams — 1992 and 2021 — were defensive-minded, Jonas said.
“We had some role players, just like Coach (Adam) Palczewski had this year,” Jonas said. “Both played great defense and rebounded well, and both teams had really good basketball IQs. They played intelligent basketball and were well-coached.”
The Packers won back-to-back under Randy’s dad and longtime coach Bob Torgrimson. Doug Steckler, who was a junior when the Packers won in ‘92, said Bob was following West Fargo’s championship bid this year.
“I can happily report that Coach Torgrimson was getting updates from many people and he was extremely happy that they won and proud of this year's team,” Steckler said.
Steckler, who still lives in the area, remembers the celebration at the hotel after his team had repeated as champions.
“Throwing the coaches and half of the city of West Fargo into the pool — it was a great day,” Steckler said. “One of the happiest moments of my life, probably.”
“You always hope that you can make it to the last game of the year and have the opportunity to play for the trophy,” said Mattson, a junior in 1992. “It’s just surreal when it does happen for kids. I know that coaching now.”
Mattson and Steckler both watched the March 14 game on TV. Mattson’s nephew plays for Sheyenne. Steckler’s kids are in the Packers school district.
Mattson is the head coach of Valley City State’s softball team with his wife also at the helm. They were previously at Angelina College in Texas, an NJCAA Division I school, where they won a national championship in 2014.
“Since we won the state championship, that was the only time since that we had a chance to win something huge,” Mattson said of the national title. “It kind of felt like the state title a little. The memory clicked back of winning that and what it was like. That was fun to feel again.”
Steckler thinks about the back-to-back title moment often, but not as much as he remembers the following year when he was a senior. The Packers were one of the favorites heading into the 1993 state tournament and were seeking a three-peat, but came up short in the opening round. They lost in triple overtime to a team they were heavily favored against.
Steckler said it was hard to believe that almost 30 years had gone by since the school last won a championship trophy.
“For it to be decades ago, I guess on one hand, you’ve grown up and had families and moved on with careers and next phases of life,” Steckler said. “But on the other hand, it just seems like yesterday that we were out there playing and practicing everyday with Coach Torgrimson.”