HIBBING — After the success that Dave Kleffman, Gary Kleffman, Joe Roberts, Jerry Scott and Tony Ongaro had on the ice for the Hibbing High School curling team, it was going to be hard to replicate those seasons.
The torch was going to be passed after that 1971 season because graduation was going to hit the Bluejackets hard.
The blow was softened as Rick Novak took over the skipping duties with Ben Gardeski at third, Terry Pogorels, second and Steve Penoncello, lead.
Novak had the state-tourney experience with Kleffman, Scott and Ongaro, but he had some big shoes to fill.
“Every evening after school with the B team, I would skip against Joe,” Novak said. “I don’t know if I ever beat them.”
This time, Novak was in charge, and he had a lot of weight on his shoulders.
“When I was the alternate in 69 and 70, we were undefeated, and so much better than any team in the state,” Novak said. “They proved that five years later, they won the men’s World championship.”
At 4-feet-11-inches, Novak needed to find something to excel at, and curling was that sport.
“In 1968, I wasn’t curling yet, but one of my friends said, ‘Let’s go try it,’” Novak said. “I couldn’t even lift a rock. I learned how to slide, so I had a chance. I was the B team third in 69, then I was a second alternate my freshman season.
“When you’re that small, what are you going to play?”
Novak took it seriously, but that’s how he was brought up at the curling club.
“They treated competition in curling matches like it was war,” Novak said. “They were serious about it. We weren’t, in retrospect, kind to our opponents. We wanted to win. We would shake hands, then walk away.
“We weren’t nice guys, but we were raised by people in a mining town. We were a little barbaric.”
Gardeski, who would skip if Novak couldn’t make an event, was finally able to get on the ice after being an alternate the season before.
“It was a tough group to crack,” Gardeski said. “It was tough for Rick because he was stellar.”
Gardeski had a little problem the year before, which took him off of the ice.
“I had a floating tibia fracture,” Gardeski said. “I didn’t play at all that year. I could still walk and work with it, but it took me out for the season. That was tough because the game gets in your blood.
“Everybody is focused on one thing, getting that silly rock ending up in one place.”
In reality, Hibbing never missed a beat even after Kleffman, Scott and Roberts graduated.
“There were so many good curlers, and there’s only four on a team,” said Ron Bonazza, who was an alternate on the 1973 and 1974 teams. “The A and B squads were all intermingled for a while. We always had close games.
“Everybody was so steady, and John (Coshignano) was always there to monitor things.”
Bonazza was well aware of how tough it was to crack that lineup.
“When we were younger, with Kleffman and Scott, Ben and Glenn (Saarinen), we couldn’t break in,” Bonazza said. “Cosh had his mind set as to who it was going to be, but there was never any animosity.
“We were all the same caliber. It was about who’s going to have a good week or a bad week.”
“The B team was the toughest team to play,” Gardeski said. “We’d play after each practice. It was nip-and-tuck. Sometimes, they would beat us. They were the best curlers we could find to play, but we also played in the men’s league, too.”
During that 72 season, the Bluejackets ended up 18-1 heading into the state tournament.
“We drubbed everyone all year,” Novak said. “We only lost to Virginia.”
Gardeski remembers one trip in particular.
“The most fun we had were on road trips,” Gardeski said. “We went to Fort Francis where they had a big-barn-style curling club. We won that bonspiel. We had the B team there, and we played them in the finals.
“It was a Hibbing sweep on that 200-mile trip.”
In 1972, the state meet was held in Duluth.
The ice conditions weren’t ideal.
“They stuck us on a sheet way over to the right that had a high pile of snow, five-feet high,” Novak said. “They put us on a sheet where all of the curling was backward, and I was a novice at reading tricky ice.
“I’d put the broom down for a takeout, it would go backward and we’d miss.”
Unfortunately, the Bluejackets lost to Buhl for a first-ever loss at state.
“I took the responsibility there,” Novak said. “We had won state every year, but my senior year.”
Gardeski remembered that, too.
“It was a dungeon, if you want to describe it in one word,” Gardeski said. “There were icicles hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t good. It was awful. It was like playing pinball, the rocks bouncing off obstacles.
“We had just shut out Buhl one week before at their club. It was sheer luck out there. There’s an element of luck in curling, but the same teams consistently win. We should have refused to play on that ice.”
The one thing that sticks out to Gardeski was Coshignano.
“He was fair and passionate,” Gardeski said. “He recognized who could play, so he assembled excellent teams. He paid close attention to that. He did the statistics in his head. I never saw him write down anything.
“He was fair beyond a fault. I respected the man. I would like to get him in the curling hall of fame as a coach.”
In 1973, Hibbing would rebound and win the state again, this time with Penoncello at the helm of the team. He was curling with Gary Gardeski, Joe Beasy and Kenny Baehr.
Bonazza and Pogorels were the alternates.
“I had been playing third on my dad’s club team for quite a few years before that,” Penoncello said. “It wasn’t that much of a jump. I remember the first time I threw last rocks was scary, but once you get that under your belt, it gets better.
“We just clicked, all four of us. We knew each other’s weights. It was easy to follow. Joe and my strategies were similar, so we never had any arguments. It was a good team, one of the better teams I’ve curled on.”
Those same curlers participated in the state in 1974 as well.
Learning the game came easy for the Bluejackets with the likes of Fran Kleffman, Dick Brown and Nick Jerulle and others around the curling club.
“Starting at the high-school level, Hibbing had the best older curlers, so we had a head start,” Bonazza said.
Penoncello was introduced to the sport in 1968.
“It came naturally to me,” Penoncello said. “I can remember going to the club and watching my dad curl. The following year, I was strong enough to deal with the rocks. I threw lead for a couple of years, then moved to third.
“I lived in Wilpen, so I couldn’t participate in other sports. I never got that opportunity.”
Curling was Penoncello’s escape.
“It was a ton of fun,” Penoncello said. “Honestly, it kept us out of trouble. I enjoyed the road trips once a week. We’d travel around the northern part of the state. They were always great trips, meeting other people in other venues.
“It’s all about the camaraderie.”
Penoncello has nothing but praise for Coshignano.
“John was great,” Penoncello said. “He was a good coach. He worked us hard every day after school, then we’d go home and eat, then go back to the club. John and I talked strategy a lot.
“It helped me develop the techniques that I used. He brought Dale Gibbs in as an assistant coach my junior year, and he was helpful as well.”
In 1973, the state meet was held in Hibbing, which was an advantage for the Bluejackets.
Hibbing took on Virginia and came away with the win.
“The ice wasn’t great, but we learned how to curl on that ice,” Bonazza said. “There’s a big difference having that advantage, but it wasn’t like going to state. We walked three blocks to get there.
“We were proud of that, winning state in four of those five years. Glenn Issacson of Virginia was favored to win in 73. Glenn tried a double takeout to lay five and missed.
“We scored two, and that’s what won the state for us.”
After winning that title, Hibbing received a letter from former Hibbing High School graduate Rudy Perpich. He was the Lieutenant Governor at the time.
“He invited us to the Governor’s Mansion for a big dinner and a speech,” Bonazza said. “We’re 16- and 17-year-old kids, so that was something. We won it in March, and went down there at the end of May, along with the hockey team.”
Other than the sliders, corn brooms were the main equipment used for sweeping, but another gadget was the rise.
“Rink Rats were more effective and cheaper,” Bonazza said. “You could get one year out of that instead of one weekend with the corn broom. Corn brooms cost $12.50 to $15, and people were only making around $2 an hour at that time.
“It was almost a day’s wage to buy a corn broom.”
The one person that sticks out in Bonazza’s mind during that time was Junior Fiola, who was the guardian of the club.
“He had an influence on us,” Bonazza said. “He and Steve had that shootout and Junior nailed it. Steve didn’t hit the house.”
Penoncello doesn’t remember that scenario, but he does remember Fiola.
“I didn’t like curling against him because the guy never missed,” Penoncello said. “Junior was a good guy. I liked having him there at the club.”
After practice, they would go home to have a bite to eat, then they would be back at the club looking to play.
“If they wanted sweepers in the men’s league, they would put you to work,” Bonazza said.
Hibbing would advance to state in 1974, 1975, 1976, then in 1977.
Penoncello was still around, but he graduated, Kevin Schiltz would eventually take over the skipping duties, with Vince Taddie at third, Mike Huska second and Jim Milosovich at lead. Tim Muller and Ted Olds were the alternates.
In 1974, Hibbing lost to Grand Marias in the quarterfinals.
“We had a bad game, and we couldn’t pull through,” Penoncello said.
Those younger guys learned a lot from their older peers.
“I grew up with Penoncello and those guys,” Muller said. “Pogorels taught us how to sweep with the corn brooms. They passed on a lot of information to the younger guys. Kevin was an excellent skip.
“He could read the ice, and most importantly, he could make that last shot.”
Muller had his own duties on the team.
“I did a lot of the book keeping during games, and I was watching the other teams to see what they were doing,” Muller said. “I’d read the ice, and give them a little heads up on that surface.
“Reading the ice is always important in a curling game.”
Muller may have been on the B team that season, but they gave the A team all they could handle.
“For a B team, we had a good season,” Muller said. “We were successful. The A team was good, too, but we always had good games against them. We’d also have good games against Chisholm and Virginia (which was skipped by Craig Polski).
“I would curl with him and Sammy Perrella in men’s curling. It was a small-knit community.”
Coschignano was still coaching the team, and Muller remembers one trip to Fort Frances.
“We’d always get him distracted,” Muller said. “He had a lead foot, and he blew through a customs checkpoint. They had some border Mounties come to the club and ask who that ISD driver was.
“Naturally, we stood up and said, ‘He was.’ John’s driving skills were right up there. They were always questionable.”
The state meet was held at the brand-new Pioneer Hall at the DECC.
Hibbing would lose in the semifinals to Mankato East, which ended up winning the title, beating Virginia.
“We beat Chisholm for the bronze medal,” Muller said. “It was a lot of fun to be a part of the state tournament. There’s not as much hoopla as in basketball and hockey, but you still make friends with these people.
“You see them forever, even now. I had a chance to curl competitively in Fairbanks, and I saw a lot of familiar faces from my high school and junior days. It’s nice to catch up with your peers again.”
The MSHSL would get rid of curling after the 1977 season.
“That was disappointing,” Muller said. “A lot of things were getting cut, and we didn’t understand it. It’s not big-money pay out for the school. It’s also not a big-money draw. The USCA junior program was coming into full stride, so that made up for it.”
Could curling make a comeback at the high-school level?
If it does, Hibbing could have a heads-up on the other teams.
“I would love to see something set for the kids,” Muller said. “Hibbing has a good junior coordinator with Beth Baucom. They’re trying to push it through in the gym classes, and get the kids back into it. There’s been a lot of discussions.
“Because of COVID-19, they’re pushing the doubles idea of curling to open it up for everybody. The ideas are out there, but we need to see something done.”