PETERSBURG - Nineteen twenty-nine was a good year. The mink farms appeared to be well stocked, two steam ships a week were docking in town, and the Petersburg High School Vikings won the very first all-state, or rather, all-territory, basketball championship.
"Rough games back then, hardly anyone fouled out," Petersburg resident Leo Ness said. "It was tough to play."
Ness was a sophomore on that 1929 PHS basketball team. The eight-member squad became the first All Alaska Basketball Champions. They included Harold Runstad, Joe Kahklen, Frank Gordon, Herb Mjorud, Arnold Wasvick, Aubrey Shaquanie, Louie McDonald, and Ness.
These players grew up watching older siblings playing ball in the Enge roller skating rink (where the present Fish and Game building now stands) before it was turned into a theater in 1923. Players then rented the Sons of Norway Hall for games. In 1925 elderly schoolteacher Cheta Wheeler spent many freezing gym hours organizing a nucleus of eighth and ninth grade students who would eventually become the state champions.
"I was third in line in the substitutes so I never got to play," Ness laughed. "They kind of adopted me I guess. We had hardly enough kids turning out to have a team. Three of the team were from Kake, they didn't have a team in those days."
In the early years Viking teams would travel with seven players. They played against Ketchikan (then called the Polar Bears) and Wrangell in the southern division while Juneau (Hill-Toppers), Skagway, Sitka, and Douglas made up the northern side. Ketchikan won a string of Southeast championships, from 1925 to 1927.
In 1928, Juneau won the north and Petersburg the south. The Hill-Toppers and Vikings agreed to meet in Wrangell for the championship. The three-game series was won by Juneau 28-18, 15-24, 20-19. Dick Brennan, Mjorud, Runstad, Wasvick, Matt Rayner, McDonald, and Kake lads Joe Kahklen and Harlan Skeek wore the then cardinal and gray of the Vikings.
In 1929 the nucleus of the Vikings were back. They posted an 8-1 season record and defeated Ketchikan to earn the right to face Juneau for the SE title. Ness was voted to go with the team to the Southeast Championships in Juneau. The victors in that tournament would head westward to Fairbanks.
"There was no Anchorage then," Ness said. "Fairbanks was the main schools. We played a lot of our town teams and coast guard teams and stuff like that. We never had a regular coach, it was always some high school teacher."
The 1928 and 1929 teams were coached by teacher R. O. Warfield, but mink farmer Jess Ames, a former University of Washington standout and player on a local town team, actually was running the practices and was responsible for their success. Halfway through the 1929 season the team called a closed-door meeting at the SON. Herb Mjorud, an imposing player, was elected spokesman.
"They knew they had the talent and should have won the previous year," recounted Ness. "They were angry that Warfield had taken credit for coaching and not mentioned Ames. They called in Warfield and you should have seen him shaking when they gave him the low-down."
At the 1929 SE championship in Juneau, the Vikings won the three game series 22-7, 16-19, and 12-5.
"The score at halftime of the final game was one to nothing," Ness laughed. "We got a foul shot."
Up in Fairbanks, a leading interior newspaper had issued a challenge to pit their high school champ against Southeast's. Seven Petersburg players got on board an Alaska Steamship Company vessel to make the week long voyage to Seward. Ames couldn't make the trip and Warfield wasn't invited to go unless he wanted to be manager.
"They could only take seven players," Ness said. "That was all right because I never got to play anyway."
The steamship stopped in various ports along the way and Petersburg defeated a few town teams in Yakutat, Cordova, Valdez, and Seward.
In Seward they boarded the Alaska Railroad and headed to Fairbanks via Anchorage. The train became snowbound halfway to Fairbanks, in Circle. Three-and-a-half weeks after leaving Little Norway the players made it to Fairbanks.
They walked directly to the gym and lost the first game 16-11. The half time score was 11-1. Harold Runstad led the coast boys with six points. John Butrovich led Fairbank's scoring with nine points and Captain Henry Miller added three.
Petersburg won the next game 18-17 using the 'eastern stall.' They would take the ball out in the defensive territory and pass it among themselves to draw out the Fairbanks defense. A local Fairbanks paper wrote... 'Harold Runstad of the coast team and Austin Gibbs of the local cagers were given a portion of the game to think over their misdeeds and to come back the following night and play a cleaner game.'
Fairbanks heckled our lads throughout the series, calling them 'fish-eaters' and 'coastal clods.' The Vikings won the final game 25-20 and returned as heroes. A big feed and speeches by local dignitaries and townspeople was held in a packed Sons of Norway Hall.
Although Juneau fans helped pay the travel costs, it took several years for Petersburg to pay off all expenses of the trip.
"There wasn't any money around like now," Ness recounted. "We went on halibut boats to our games. Geez it would be in the middle of winter sometimes... pretty tough weather you know. The guys that went to Fairbanks, they were gone from school a month. Our shoes were canvas... hard soled."
This year's Petersburg High School Viking basketball programs will honor the 1929 Championship team with a banner unveiling during the homecoming series against Wrangell on Jan. 30-31.
All PHS Southeast Championship teams will be included on the banner as well as in a special booklet handed out at the door. The teams to be honored include the Viking boys of 1937-38, 1938-39, 1939-40, 1941-42, 1943-44, 1970-71, 1996-97, and 1997-98. Viking girls teams to be honored include 1981-82, 1996-97, 1997-98, and 2002-03.
Players, family, friends, and relatives of these teams are invited to share the court at this special dedication.
"Of our state championship team, those seven players have all passed," Ness said thoughtfully. Then he grinned, "It's just the sub left now."