Some may have called them “The Purple Machine” or “The Purple Crush,” but neither of those nicknames were adored and adorned on a T-shirt like the name “Denny’s Doomsday Defense.”
That was best what described the 1981 Chaska Hawks boys basketball team. The first team in program history to reach the Minnesota State High School League Tournament.
Denny Welter, coach of the Hawks, said then, “There’s nothing magic about this Doomsday Defense; it’s just a 1-3-1 zone, but played better than anyone would think imaginable.”
Todd Biewen, star guard for Mankato West High School, the defending region champion from 1980, concurred with Welter’s assessment some 40 years later.
“I don’t even remember getting close to the basket. In retrospect we didn’t try and penetrate. We tried to throw through it, throw it over the top. It was a tough day. I felt I was not even a factor. Even getting shots from the outside was tough. There were hands all over the place,” Biewen said.
It was a defense that Mankato West, coming off a state appearance in 1979, wasn’t prepared for.
“We did have a lot (of players) back. We probably lost three pretty good contributors, but we had the bulk back. ... We were rated fifth going into my senior year. I think we had a 16-4 record into the Chaska game. The Big Nine was really strong that year. Rochester Mayo was really good, Austin, of course. But I knew we were going to have our hands full with Chaska,” Biewen said.
What set Welter’s version of the 1-3-1 defense apart was its trapping style on the ball handler at mid-court. If a team was able to get into its offensive set, what waited for them was long arms in the passing lanes, and quickness down low.
Al Liestman, a 6’3” guard, played the top position in the zone defense. Dave Dahlke and big man Chuck Priess were on the wings, and Wayne Luedloff was in the middle. Pat Schindler ran the baseline from corner to corner.
“I remember seeing Denny at my games in sixth, seventh grade. I came out of Guardian Angels, so I transferred into the public school. Denny would be putting names on a piece of paper, probably scouting who would work well in his system. I had a pretty wide wing span, and lanky, so I fit in his defense up top,” Liestman said.
Chaska rolled off 22 consecutive wins to reach the state tournament, defeating Eden Prairie (65-37) and Prior Lake (80-54) in the playoffs before topping Mankato West (69-50) and Willmar (56-44) in the region championship in Mankato.
“The personnel needed to run the 1-3-1 zone, and run it well, we had it. We had two wings that were 6’5”, 6’8’ with long arms. Al was a taller guard, too. If we cornered their guards, it was pretty hard to see over us. And then you had Pat on the baseline. He was quick and he would pick up loose balls. He closed out really well if the ball swung to a corner,” Dahlke said.
While Chaska’s defense was their forefront, Dahlke and Co. offensively were talented as well. In their 23 wins, the Hawks reached 60 points or more 17 times. And this was before the 3-point era. They topped 80 points twice as well.
Dahlke was the team’s star that season, then a junior. He was Jim Dutcher’s top in-state recruit at the University of Minnesota. He was who teams focused their attention on often, scoring 21 points or so a game.
Chaska had enough big guys with Dahlke, Priess and Luedloff, so Liestman worked to switch over to the point guard position.
“The best thing was if they focused on him, he could kick it out to me. I could hit the shot where the three-point line is now. He was getting double- and triple-teamed, and if you had good shooters, which we did, you could tear a team apart,” Liestman said.
Chaska won the state opener at the St. Paul Civic Center 62-53 over Section 8 champion Moorhead. In the semifinals, the two unbeatens left met, with Austin prevailing 57-52 to hand the Hawks their first loss.
Anoka beat Austin 61-53 for the championship, while Chaska lost to St. Paul Central 57-55 in the third-place game.
“It was amazing playing at St. Paul Civic Center. The place held like 17,000 seats. To watch a high school basketball game. Everywhere we went, the places were just full of people. It was just so exciting for guys to take the court. You had family, friends, the TV there. It might have been a bit overwhelming for us kids. You just tried to block it all out and play the game,” Liestman said.
Dahlke, who played two seasons at Minnesota before transferring to Drake University where he started 29 games as a senior, averaging 9.3 points per game, said the experience of playing against the state’s top players in the tournament was unmatched.
“It was a phenomenal experience. Most kids don’t get that chance. The level of basketball, it was a challenge. I wish every kid could experience that. It’s the times you share with your kids. I’ve been coaching youth teams for years and I always share those experiences with them. There are lots of good memories from those high school years,” Dahlke said.
An estimated 3,700 Hawk fans were in attendance for Chaska’s regional final against Willmar. This was for a school of 851, which then encompassed the cities of Chaska, Chanhassen, Carver and Victoria.
“Our first time, it was something how the town really rallied around us. You could feel the energy from the community. You just don’t have that same kind of energy these days. Every gym we went to was full. We had three, four thousand fans each game. They were turning people away at the door,” said Dahlke, who now lives in the Phoenix area in Arizona.
Chuck Achter was the principal at the time at Chaska High School. That year stands out among the 32 years he was a building leader through three school districts, 16 in Chaska.
“The experience in Chaska with the boys and girls teams of going to the state tournament, whether it was basketball, baseball or volleyball, rank as my most memorable experience. The communities of the Chaska school district really pulled together as one community. From the pre-tournament pep rally and send-off, to selling tickets to the adults, the games, and the welcome home was unbelievable, Achter said.
“The best part of experience was having the fire departments from all the communities come together to bring the teams to the high school and then having the mayors from each community welcome the teams, cheerleaders, band, and fans home,” he added.
Liestman remembers well the support from the town.
“Chaska was like how Litchfield (where he lives and works now) is. Small town. Every business closed shop so they could attend the games. Doors were closed at the restaurant. Everyone wanted to be there. It was such a supportive deal with the communities,” Liestman said.
Chaska would go on to repeat as region champion in 1982, but the camaraderie began with that 1981 state team.
“The neat thing about that group was our bond. It’s hard to describe into words how close we were. It was just one great friendship. I’d hadn’t seen Scott Ind in 30 years. My youngest daughter was playing in a volleyball tournament a couple years back, and I get a tap on my shoulder and I hear this voice ask ‘Dave?’ I couldn’t believe it was Scott. We sat and talked for like an hour. It was like we never missed a day. It was like old times,” Dahlke said.
“It was one community enjoying the time together. There were a couple of years when the girls basketball team was playing in the state tournament on Thursday in Bloomington and the boys team was playing in the semifinals of the sectional in Mankato on the same day. We took bus loads of student and adult fans to one site and after the game we all drove to the next site,” Achter said.
While Chaska did not win the state championship in 1981, it did return home with the inaugural sportsmanship award. Ind and cheerleader Sonja Christiansen received the trophy during the awards ceremony. Captain Scott Ind in a Denny’s Doomsday Defense T-shirt, Christiansen in her cheer outfit, a walking boot on her right foot as she hopped across the floor.
“The high school cheerleaders, band and fans really took pride in working to show everyone our school pride. That year we also surprised the MSHSL by selling our ticket allotment for the first game. They were nice enough to get us more tickets,” Achter said.