It’s still known as one of the most enduring sports dynasties in South Dakota high school history.
The Roosevelt girls basketball team, coached by Fred Tibbetts, reeled off 111 consecutive wins over a five-year span from 1997-2002 for a record-breaking streak that included five straight championships, plenty of entertainment and even some controversy.
The Rough Riders had enough depth and talent to beat the previous state record of 101 wins in a row set by Class B powerhouse Wakonda from 1988-91.
“When you’re rolling like that, everybody wants to beat you,” Tibbetts, who died of cancer in 2008, said during the streak. “It’s hard getting yourself up to be the best each and every night. You might think it would be easy. But it’s hard.”
Twenty years after Roosevelt’s remarkable run began, the quality of girls basketball is as strong as ever in South Dakota, with players regularly being sent into the NCAA Division I ranks. But there hasn’t been a program to match the consistent excellence of the Riders, who pulled off the top win streak in state history and one of the longest in the nation and accomplished it the right way.
“They never struck me as being a really cocky outfit,” said Ron Flynn, who coached Wakonda to its 101-game streak and was a close friend to Tibbetts. “I don’t see a lot of laughing or high-fives or goofing around out there, even when they’re way ahead. They don’t act arrogant in any way. That makes them easier to like.”
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Roosevelt hired Tibbetts in 1994 after he had coached five state title teams, plus a 67-game win streak, at Class B Jefferson High School and also serving as women’s coach at USD. Tibbetts brought his up-tempo style to Class AA but things didn’t start well. The Rough Riders finished 4-16 that 1994 season and were one of the few teams he coached that didn’t contend for a state championship.
Lisa Griebel, a sophomore during Tibbetts’ first year, recalls the transition in styles.
“It was just getting used to his style of coaching,” she said. “The seniors had played for three years under a different system and the learning curve was a little shorter for the younger players.”
By the second year, Tibbetts, a Volga native, had the team in the running for a state title but lost to Mitchell in the semifinals. In 1996, Roosevelt took an undefeated record into the state finals but were staggered by Yankton, which pulled off a 57-47 upset.
Had the Rough Riders won, it would have been the first championship for a Sioux Falls public school since 1981.
“It was tough going through the whole season undefeated, knowing you were probably the best team in the state, and then losing at the end,” said Mandy Kappel, a standout guard on that Roosevelt team. “But I think it was another one of those things that our team needed. It reminded us to play every game at our best.”
Bursting with young talent, Tibbetts led his 1997 team to a 22-1 season and capped it with Roosevelt’s first championship. The streak began mid-season after a double-overtime loss at Brookings. Then-assistant coach Larry Toft remembers the team being overconfident that night and Tibbetts taking drastic measures.
“There’s only one game I can remember where we were overconfident, and that was in Brookings,” Toft said. “[It was] the only time in my nine years that Fred did not go into the locker room before the game started and the streak started the day after that.”
It wasn’t just Tibbetts and Toft making an imprint for Roosevelt. Assistant coaches Nate Malchow and Denise Klein oversaw the younger teams and helped push the practice pace.
“Fred inspired kids to get in the gym and work hard and inspired his coaching staff to do the same,” Malchow said. The Riders were successful at the junior varsity, sophomore, and both freshman levels, helping to spark the overall program.
“Honestly, the girls were very talented and very competitive — they all wanted to play and they knew they had to play well to get time on the court in a game,” Klein said. “They stayed focused because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t play.”
Malchow and Toft remember times when Tibbetts wouldn’t like what their teams were running during summer camps and how Tibbetts would confront them about it.
“He’d let you know if he didn’t like what you were doing but after we won the game he would forget about it and focus on where lunch was going to be,” Toft said.
Before all the championships and talks of a winning streak, there was the routine that every team in the country has to go through during the season: practice. Tibbetts’ passion translated into intense and competitive practices.
Highlighted by “Competitive Wednesdays,” practices were rarely scripted and often run on what Tibbetts thought the team needed.
“He was probably the best at reading his players during practice,” Malchow said. “There were times where he would address the team for a half hour and then they’d do some shooting drills and be done.”
In the summer, the girls would often play against the boys team during open gyms at the school to sharpen their competitive edge. Playing against guys during the offseason is not uncommon for female players at the college level.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Malchow said. “And nobody got people fired up about basketball more than Fred Tibbetts.”
Many of Tibbetts’ players received basketball scholarships to area colleges. Some were standout athletes in other sports who went on to excel outside the basketball realm.
Griebel played three years under Tibbetts but was recruited by Iowa State for track and field, while Ashley Pederson played four years of varsity basketball but was recruited to play Big Ten volleyball at Penn State.
In 2005, the South Dakota High School Activities Association released the all-decade teams to commemorate the 30th anniversary of girls basketball becoming a sanctioned sport. From 1995-2005, Roosevelt led Class AA with eight players on the team or as an honorable mention.
“I don’t know if any other coach at the time could have corralled that out of the players that came out of Roosevelt,” said Griebel, who later served as an assistant coach.
Players such as Krista Orsack worked to compete for a spot on the team as a freshman. She was a self-proclaimed “gym rat,” spending every free moment working on basketball.
“Athletics had never run in my family, so it was sheer determination to be a part of that group,” said Orsack, who works at the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Orsack was in eighth grade when her classmate, Kappel, was brought up to play varsity at Roosevelt. That move drove her to get in the gym. Orsack joined Kappel at Roosevelt in 1996 to find a tenacious group of girls as her teammates.
“We all had that competitiveness and that made us all better players and better teammates,” Orsack said.
The chemistry grew more each year, something Renae Luecke says made playing the game easier. Luecke earned a spot on varsity her eighth-grade year and blossomed into one of the best guards in the state, averaging over five assists a game her senior season.
“We just liked each other. We got along off the court and played other sports with each other,” Luecke said. “We were dedicated athletes as well as great friends.”
Those friendships continue to this day with players and coaches crossing paths periodically. Some, like Orsack and Courtney Farrell, even teamed up in college at the University of Sioux Falls.
“When I was a freshman, we’d play against the seniors and it was a huge challenge,” said Farrell. “Sometimes practice was more competitive than the actual games. It allowed you to get that winning attitude and learn the system.”
Roosevelt’s winning streak had its share of controversy. In 1999, the Riders were invited to a national tournament in Beaverton, Ore., to be held in December.
At the time, girls basketball in South Dakota was a fall sport, running from August to November. The Riders, sitting on 51 straight wins in a row at the time, originally were not able to attend because the SDHSAA restricted out-of-season competition and travel of more than 300 miles.
The team petitioned the SDHSAA Board of Directors ruling and after a meeting that last nearly two and a half hours, the ruling was reversed.
“We wanted to show that we could play and that there’s a lot of talent in this part of the country,” Luecke said.
The tournament gave Roosevelt a much-needed challenge. The Riders defeated South Dakota teams that year by an average of almost 31 points a game and were pushed to a single digit margin only once. As the team, parents, and a group of devoted fans got off the plane in Oregon, Tibbetts nudged Toft and said, “Geez, I hope we can win at least one of these games.”
The team rode the momentum of their latest state championship in November to the Pacific Northwest and won the tournament, defeating Buena High School of Ventura, Calif., ranked 11th nationally at the time. Each game of the tournament was decided by seven points or fewer, and the title win was by three points.
The triumph was well-received in Sioux Falls, where then-mayor Gary Hanson declared Dec. 31, 1999, to be “Roosevelt High School Girls Basketball Team Day.” Those involved say it was the best part of the entire streak.
“If I had to pick one moment, it would be the end of the game in Oregon where Renae Luecke intentionally missed a free throw (without any of the coaches telling her to do so), got her own rebound, and then scored to put us ahead and win the game,” Klein said. “It kind of sums up the group of girls—they were smart, talented and great teammates.”
The tournament victory thrust Roosevelt into the national spotlight for girls basketball. The following week, the team was ranked No. 22 in the country by USA Today.
Upon its return, the team had little to no thoughts of the streak. But when the team’s record run was in range of the state record a year later, officials felt the need to address it. Officials at the National Federation of State High School Association said that games played out of season would not count toward an official record.
Tibbetts responded with characteristic candor: “They were running the clock, keeping score, and playing actual games, so why wouldn’t they count?”
The games were eventually added onto the streak as the state switched the girls season from a fall to winter sport.
Students and parents filled Roosevelt’s gymnasium to capacity every game to catch a glimpse at history. The team’s quick pace and lockdown defense made the Riders entertaining to watch.
“I’m still so humbled by the community’s support,” Orsack said. “Even when we were beating teams by 40 or 50 points, people still came to watch us.”
Roosevelt’s success didn’t make the team popular everywhere. Many teams across the state would accuse Tibbetts of running up the score. During their five-year run, the Riders won by an average of 28 points and it wasn’t uncommon for them to win by twice that many.
Orsack remembers the criticism but also noted the team’s depth.
“We would be accused of running up the score but honestly it never felt like we were doing that,” she said. “After the first quarter or midway through the second quarter in some of those games, none of the starters were in.”
Having the biggest target in the state on your back can add pressure and lead to heated rivalries. Teams around the state were eager to get a chance to end the streak.
“Everybody and their mother wanted to beat us,” Toft said. “Fred would bring it on. I can still see him waving that towel at fans.”
Tibbetts was a vocal coach. At coaches’ meetings before the state tournament, he would often tell teams that they would have to play well if anyone was going to beat his team.
When other schools complained that the Rough Riders’ dominance wasn’t good for South Dakota girls basketball, he’d simply tell them to get better. His teams lost only 27 games in 11 seasons at Roosevelt before stepping down in 2005.
When the streak ended, the architect of all that success wasn’t even there to see it. Tibbetts received permission from Roosevelt officials six months earlier to go to Las Vegas to watch his son, Nate, play in a tournament with USD.
On Dec. 14, 2002, the Rough Riders visited Lincoln in the third game of the season. The Patriots prevailed 45-44 on a late running layup by Starr Boes, setting up a court-storming celebration and ending one of the most memorable streaks in South Dakota sports history.
“I didn’t think we’d lose,” said Tibbetts at the time. “But I guess it had to happen eventually.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Fred Tibbetts: With 11 state championships in 29 years, the late Tibbetts ranks with the country’s most prolific girls basketball coaches, racking up a record 551 wins in the process. Seven of his teams finished undefeated, including six at Roosevelt (’97-’02, ’05) and he was named the National Girls Basketball Coach of the Year in 1999. Tibbetts retired in 2005 and a year later was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died in February of 2008 at age 59.
Larry Toft: Arriving at Roosevelt in 1996, Toft spent the next nine years as an assistant coach under Tibbetts, winning six championships. Toft now serves as assistant girls coach at Washington High.
Nate Malchow: Malchow was a graduate assistant at SDSU under Scott Nagy before becoming an assistant coach for four years under Tibbetts and eventually becoming Washington’s head girls coach. After winning three state championships in nine seasons, Malchow stepped down and became the activities director and assistant principal at Washington.
Denise Klein: Klein was an assistant coach for the Riders during the streak. After basketball, Klein moved on to teaching and is a sixth-grade English teacher at Memorial Middle School.
Renae Luecke: After averaging double figures each of her last three seasons at Roosevelt, Luecke earned a scholarship to play at USD. She competed her freshman year averaging almost 10 points a game, but health concerns prevented her from continuing. Today she lives in Sioux Falls and volunteers in the community.
Krista Orsack: Considered to be one of the best 3-point shooters in the state at the time, Orsack split her four years of college playing basketball at USD and USF. She hit a school-record 89 3-pointers for the Cougars in 2004-05. Today she is the director of marketing at the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Courtney Farrell: After connecting on almost 70 percent of her almost 200 shots her senior year, Farrell (now Wynthein) teamed with Orsack on the court at USF. She finished as the Cougars’ career leader in scoring and rebounding, averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds her senior season. Since then she’s spent 11 years as a first-grade teacher at Eugene Field Elementary.
Lisa Griebel: After playing under Tibbetts her last three years at Roosevelt, Griebel (now Agar) received a scholarship to compete in track and field at Iowa State. Agar has been teaching social studies at Roosevelt for 11 years and also coaches track and field.