Though the explosive suburban sprawl was only a few years away from first taking off, the overwhelming majority of the state’s largest high schools still remained snugly within the city limits of Minneapolis in 1950.
Similar to how contemporary “big school” championships are dominated by the ever-expanding peripheral communities of the greater Twin Cities metropolitan area, the dozen or so public high schools within Minneapolis at the time housed the state’s unquestioned powerhouse programs, a trend that lasted for the first 40 years of organized athletic competition in Minnesota. Lakeville, for instance, was still 17 years away from even being incorporated in 1950 and had a population of about 700 people. Today, the bustling outer-rung suburb has an estimated population of 68,000 and is home to a pair of massive public high schools.
Within the landscape of the Big Nine Conference, Rochester, Winona and Austin were the three largest communities 70 years ago and stood between 23,000 and 26,000 residents apiece. Mankato was hovering at around 18,000 people while Owatonna had just surpassed 10,000, which is less than half of its current population of roughly 26,000. Owatonna High School was also a fraction of the size it is today and had yet to claim a state championship.
That, however, was about to change.
Ushering in the first truly consistent and bountiful era of athletic success in school history, the OHS boys track and field team captured gold the single-class state competition in 1950 and accounted for the first of six state championships for the Indians over the next 30 years. The three-decade span also featured more than 10 individual state titles and 23 conference crowns in a wide range of sports.
Though the boys track team might not have directly caused the rise of the OHS wrestling program in the mid-1950s or the string of success in girls track and field in the 1970s, it did put Owatonna athletics on the map and was a significant timestamp in what was the beginning of the end of Minneapolis public school supremacy in high school sports.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Heading into the 1950 season, 14 of the previous 17 state track and field titles had been claimed by one of the Minneapolis public schools with a pair of Duluth programs winning the other three. Up until that point, the Indians — who would later change their official mascot to the Huskies in 1994 — hadn’t even made a significant impact at conference level as Mankato and Northfield had dominated the sport since its inception in 1928.
So, when OHS out-paced the competition at the annual Big Nine Conference track and field meet in May of 1950, it was considered benchmark achievement in the program’s 20-year history.
Buoyed by its terrific performance at the league competition, the Indians entered the postseason with momentum on their side and oozing with confidence, all of which could have been derailed after having the rug pulled out from under them at the District Four competition in Faribault the following week.
THE PHANTOM TITLE
In what was dubbed “Owatonna’s most disputed track points of the decade” by The Daily People’s Press, the Indians were robbed of the district championship due to an oversight that is almost impossible to comprehend in the modern age of electronic timing and instant results.
The controversy centered around the mysterious 220-yard dash in which Owatonna’s Pete Ellingson crossed the finish line behind teammate Peter Prentner and an unnamed runner from Northfield, but was not awarded the requisite points for third place. At the time, results were determined by a panel of judges that were assigned to track a single individual throughout the entire race, but according to the Daily People’s Press, Ellingson, “apparently had no judge” and “wasn’t placed.”
Despite offering visual proof that Ellingson, indeed, finished in third via a photograph taken at the finish line by OHS student Jim Alexander and receiving no argument from the opposing coaches, a panel of district officials ultimately ruled against Owatonna and Northfield preserved its title.
According to the Daily People’s Press, “(the) director of the meet agreed that the picture had merit and on Monday called the District Four committee into executive session. The committee ruled, in effect, that the judges were the judges, and their results were final.”
Had Ellingson been awarded the three points for finishing third in the 220-yard race, the Indians would have upended the Raiders atop the final leaderboard, 62-59. Instead, the final results read: Northfield 60, Owatonna 59.
MAKING A STATEMENT
Perhaps buoyed by the divisive finish at the district meet, or perhaps simply because its roster was brimming with speed, talent and versatility, Owatonna lapped the competition at the Region One meet in Austin, beating second place Rochester by nearly 20 points
“Still miffed over last week’s oversight by the judges, which cost them the district title, Coach Eddie Keefe’s thinclads went hogwild in the big meet yesterday and picked off almost every honor and award in sight. This time there was no squabbling, no photographs to point out errors, no indecision on the rightful winner,” stated the Daily People’s Press in an article dated Sunday, May 28, 1950.
In Owatonna’s first regional championship since 1945, the team snagged blue ribbons in seven of the 13 events, broke three meet records and qualified five individuals for state in seven events (100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, 440-yard dash, high jump, 120-yard high hurdles, shot put, 880-yard relay).
Up next was the season-ending competition hosted in the backyard of the state’s powerhouse programs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Owatonna’s hopes of capturing the school’s first ever state title were pinned on the shoulders of Peter Prentner (100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, 880-yard relay), Dick Schradle (high jump, 120-yard hurdles, 880-yard relay), Paul Stoltz (shot put), Dick Francis (880-yard relay) and Pete Ellingson (880-yard relay, 440-yard dash).
Minneapolis Washburn was considered the favorite as teams from across of the state assembled upon Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, June 6, 1950, but it was the Indians who asserted their dominance on the big stage, building an early lead, overcoming an injury to Ellingson in the 440-yard dash and accumulating a meet-high 19 points.
Washburn made a late push and finished in second with 16 points, comfortably ahead of Minneapolis Southwest (10 points) in third and defending state champion Duluth Denfeld in fourth (nine).
And that was it, Owatonna had its title.
Coverage of the event included a spotlight story on the front page of the Daily People’s Press beneath a massive headline stretching across all columns that read: “OWATONNA WINS STATE TRACK CROWN” with the sub-headline stating: “Indians First Small City School To Win State Crown Since ’32.”
The beginning of the article went like this: “Owatonna High school’s track team did the impossible yesterday. It won the 1950 Minnesota state track championship in the spacious confines of Memorial Stadium at the University of Minnesota,” read the first paragraph of the article on Page 5. “It was Owatonna’s first state track title in history. It was also the first time in 18 years—since 1932—that a community other that one of the state’s three biggest cities—Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth—won the crown.”
Prentner accounted for two of Owatonna’s three first place medals in the 100 (10.2 seconds) and 220-yard (23.1 seconds) races with Schradle earning the blue ribbon in the high jump with a leap of 5-feet-10-inches.
The Indians registered the meet’s deciding points by finishing in second place in the 880-yard relay, breaking the school’s record at the time with a swift 1:34.8.
Mankato would go on to capture the state title in 1951, and though Minneapolis city schools enjoyed a decent string of success from 1952 through 1960, its undisputed reign of dominance had already faded by the time first-rung suburb St. Louis Park finished atop the podium in 1958.
In the last 60 years, Minneapolis public schools have accounted for just seven state championships in boys track and and none since Washburn won the Class AA title in 1994.