Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Orris Jirele won 4 Minnesota state basketball titles

Orris Jirele, who knew almost nothing but success on the basketball court, died last Saturday evening, September 21, 2013, of natural causes while duck hunting.

Orrie played high school ball at Austin Pacelli, leading the Shamrocks to the 1958 state Catholic championship. Austin High School won the MSHSL state championship that year, too, making this the only season ever in which teams from the same city (other than Minneapolis or St. Paul) won both the Catholic and public school titles in the same year. He then played college ball at St. Bonaventure (NY). He was the Bonnies' point guard at a time when they were rated as high as #3 in the nation (in 1961).

He returned to Minnesota where he taught math at Pacelli in 1964-1965. It was there that he met, and married, his wife of 48 years, Marie. They moved to Rochester the following year, where Orrie coached the Lourdes Eagles to the first three state Catholic basketball championships in the school's history. 

His first team, in 1965-1966, had no returning starters, no size to speak of, and no expectations of success. What they had was an aggressive full-court pressing defense—from baseline to baseline, and for 32 minutes. Nobody in southern Minnesota had ever seen anything like it, and Orrie and his kids just devastated teams with it. In the 1966 Catholic final, they hammered the DeLaSalle Islanders, who had won seven state titles in the previous dozen years, 64-43. 

The following year, Steve Fritz (yes, that Steve Fritz) transferred to Lourdes, rendering the Eagles unbeatable. But, as good as Fritz was in the lane, even he can tell you that the full-court defense of the Galuska brothers and Tom Resner was the key to their success. At the conclusion of Lourdes' unbeaten season, Jirele sent a letter to Duane Baglien, coach of the equally undefeated and two-time defending state (public) champions, proposing that the two schools meet during the 1967-1968 season. Jirele never received a response.

Lourdes won its third straight state title in March 1968, making it a clean sweep in the three years in which I lettered in high school hoops. The last game of my high school career was shellacking by Jirele's Eagles in the old Catholic regional tournament.

Jirele moved on to Green Bay, WI, in the fall of 1968, where he coached for five years. He returned to Minnesota in 1973, and coached (and taught math and was a counselor) at Albert Lea for 15 years, before retiring from coaching in 1988. Orrie took on a tough challenge, coaching basketball at the smallest school in the Big Nine and in what is generally regarded (and correctly so) as a "wrestling town." His son David was a wrestler. Still, his Tigers won three Big Nine titles, though they never played in the state tournament.

I had the pleasure of meeting Orrie many years later, thanks to his son David and granddaughter Andrea, who now plays ball at Eden Prairie. Among other things, I asked him where he learned the full-court defense that his Eagles deployed to such devastating effect. He said, oh, that was back east. Nobody played like that out here in the midwest in those days.

Jirele molded his strategies to the available talent

At Pacelli, Jirele played for legendary coach Marty Crowe who, like his protégé, also won four state Catholic titles—three in Wisconsin and the one at Pacelli. He "was known for molding his strategies to the abilities of his players," according to his obituary (in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1999). So it was with Jirele. He said he used full-court pressure because the Galuskas, in particular, were good at it. He never played the full-court defense at Albert Lea, he said, because he never had enough players who were good at it.

He also reminisced about the days (and confirmed that it happened) when the dads of great athletes from various and sundry southern Minnesota towns would mysteriously receive offers of good jobs at the Hormel meat packing plant in Austin on the condition, of course, that their sons would play for the Packers. He named names.

Jirele is survived by his wife, Marie, of Albert Lea; four children; and ten grandchildren. Funeral services are at 11 a.m. Thursday, September 26, 2013, at St. Theodore Catholic Church in Albert Lea. Visitation is from 4 to 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 25, at Bonnerup Funeral Service, and one hour prior to the service at the church. Memorials are requested in lieu of flowers. 

Orrie was a great basketball player, a great basketball coach, a devoted husband and father, and a wonderful, warm, engaging and very likable man who will be missed by many.

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