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Pelican-Perham basketball rivalry spilled over into the newspapers with 'war of words' back in '62

The basketball rivalry between Pelican Rapids and Perham dates back through the decades. And it continues this year, with a likely showdown coming soon between the two Otter Tail County powerhouses within the next few weeks.

Fifty years ago, the rivalry generated a "war of words" between two hometown newspapers-with the Pelican Rapids Press reporting "poor sportsmanship" on the part of the Perham coach-who refused to shake hands after the contest, even though his Perham Yellowjackets won the game.

The Perham Enterprise-Bulletin responded with a headline about Pelican "...Its beak holds more than its belly can" and sarcastically referring to Pelican Rapids as "Beakville."

You rarely see editorial dueling between two small town newspapers these days, but considering the characters involved at the time, it was probably a volatile mix.

The Perham paper acknowledged that there was "bad blood between the two coaches involved." Joe Servon coached Perham; Frank Ashenhurst for Pelican Rapids.

In the Pelican corner, the Peterson publishing clan-rather stern newspaper folks for more than 50 years.

In the Perham corner, Harvey Smalley Jr., also a longtime newspaperman-and a colorful character who was quick to write his opinions, often with a sarcastic edge.

Perham had an exceptional team back in 1962, which included Gary Senske-who went on to play college ball and was longtime head coach at the U of M-Crookston.

In their first outing of the season, Perham slaughtered Pelican.

So, Coach Ashenhurst decided to "make the Perham Yellowjackets play to the locals rather than let them set their own pace."

The game plan: Stall as much as possible, and give the ball to the hot-shooting Yellowjackets as little as possible.

Pelican newspaper account, late January 1962:

"The Pelican Vikings controlled the ball, playing a slow, methodical type of ball game. The Vikings attempted only four field goals in the first quarter, which ended with a 4-3 Pelican lead."

"Perham Coach Servon got more and more excited, and more and more angry. His nerves affected his team's Pelican led 10-7 at the half."

Ultimately, the Pelican Vikings failed to make three shots in the closing seconds of the game, losing to Perham 28-27.

"Coach Servon of Perham was so perturbed by the near loss that he refused the handshake proffered by Ashenhurst at the close of the game. The Perham team was invited to share a lunch after the game, but this effort of hospitality was also refused. On a radio interview the next day, Perham's Servon was still fuming, but he had to admit that the Viking tactics very nearly took the win away from him."

Perham newspaper account of the same game:

"...The Yellowjackets failed to control the opening jump and hustled to set their defense. To the team, coaches and spectators surprise, the Pelican team started their stall which lasted five minutes before a Perham player finally stole the ball. This was only the beginning, as Pelican stalled whether they were ahead or tied with the superior Perham team. This accounted for the low score."

Front page response printed in Perham paper

Well, Perham publisher-editor Harvey Smalley fired the next shot.

In a front page column, in the following week's edition, Smalley indirectly referred to Pelican's Coach Ashenhurst as "Coach Wienerwurst."

Neither of the newspapermen actually witnessed the game, instead relying on accounts by witnesses and coaches-which helped stir the controversy.

"Neither the (Pelican paper or the Perham paper) actually saw the game...So I can't tell you how mad Servon got, nor whether his temper had an effect on his team's play," wrote Smalley in the Perham's front page "Smalley Smiles" column. "Joe does have a temper, but its effect is something else. This is the first Perham team I've seen for some time that is out there scrapping for all they are worth every minute of the game."

"The article tried to give the impression he was a poor sport. That is a pretty fine line to draw. He is a fierce competitor, who hates to lose. He took over a pretty sorry situation, and is beginning to make something out of it. He may make some mistakes, he may have some things to learn, but for my money-I'll go along with Joe Servon."

Rebuttal in the Pelican Rapids newspaper:

"Since Harvey Smalley devoted a good portion of his front page to the Pelican Rapids Press last week, we feel the compliment should be returned."

"Smalley contends our write-up was unfair...Whether or not Smalley approves of our reporting, we feel he would have a pretty tough time finding witnesses to disprove the story as we wrote it," responded the Pelican Press, reminding readers that the Perham coach appeared to lose his temper, refused a handshake, and refused to allow his team to "partake of the lunch graciously offered them after the game."

"Some of the benefits of high school athletics is that the participants learn fair play, and if a coach does not include this in his teachings, he is not fulfilling his obligations to the team. And, if a guy can not be a good winner, what kind of a loser does he make?"

Used with permission courtesy of Louis Hoglund, Pelican Rapids Press