Three years ago, Tyler Johnson, Isaac Johnson, O’ Dell Wilson IV and Jamil Jackson Jr. were the foursome that was going to lead Minneapolis North back to the Promised Land. They were going to restore the memories of dominance in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.
Their coach, Larry McKenzie, was new to North but an accomplished veteran — winning four consecutive Class 3A titles at Minneapolis Patrick Henry from 1999-2002 — who had just finished a short stint at Holy Angels.
Expectations were high. The Polars were talented but young.
Tyler Johnson, a 6’2” athletic guard who energized the crowd with his leaping ability, was a sophomore. Sharpshooting Isaac Johnson, a 6’4” guard, was a freshman. Jackson Jr., who stands 6-foot-6, was a natural scorer who would dunk when given the opportunity, while the 6’5” Wilson IV, who had a dominant inside presence, was only in the eighth grade.
JaQuan Sanders-Smith, a point guard who would play a prominent role in the coming seasons, was also a freshman at the time.
Despite the talent base, a 52-51 loss to St. Paul Central in the 2013-14 season opener was enough for McKenzie to acknowledge that there was some growing to do. “We’re young,” he would say after the game. “We are a work in progress.”
That season, which provided plenty of highlights, the Polars went on to tie Washburn for the City Conference title and the right to play in the Twin City game, losing to St. Paul Johnson 91-81.
They breezed through the Class A Section 4A playoffs before losing to Maranatha 67-65 in the championship game.
The 2014-15 season nearly mirrored the previous one. By this time, however, Sanders-Smith, and fellow 6’1” sophomore Ahzerik Rodgers had blossomed into two of the city’s top backcourts. Their ball-handling skills and court sense brilliantly complemented the play of Tyler Johnson, Isaac Johnson, Jackson Jr. and Walker IV.
They won the City Conference crown outright and lost to St. Paul Johnson in a 123-119 double overtime Twin City classic. Again they breezed through the Section 4A playoffs and again loss to Maranatha 69-67 in the title game.
By the time the 2015-16 season began — though it might not have been apparent at the time to the average fan — North got the two final pieces to their championship puzzle with the addition of Patrick Dembley and Tayler Johnson.
Dembley, a 6’3” senior guard who sat out last season after transferring from Richfield, was a great addition to an already loaded backcourt (Rodgers didn’t finish the season due to academics) with his scoring and ability to distribute. The slender 5’7” sophomore Tayler Johnson (Tyler’s younger brother) became one the Polars’ top clutch performers.
The result was different this time.
Tyler Johnson, Isaac Johnson, Walker IV and Jackson Jr. — all of whom stayed the course — played brilliantly with Sanders-Smith, Dembley and Tayler Johnson making major contributions as the Polars won a third consecutive City Conference crown, a Twin Cities title and Class A state championship.
A quote from North’s website previewing the 2015-16 season summed it up best while putting McKenzie’s quote in perspective: “No longer the young Polars. Now a veteran team, the Polars are expected to bring home a title.”
By the end of the season, the Polars were no longer a work in progress. They were state champs!
Mitchell Palmer McDonald welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Mitchell Palmer McDonald is a contributing columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.