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A Game 81 Years in the Making: Columbia Heights Plays in Boys Basketball State Tournament

The Hylanders end a generations-long state tournament drought with their game Wednesday at noon at Williams Arena.

Columbia Heights High School is finally heading back to the state tournament in boys basketball Wednesday, last Friday in Blaine to win the Section 3AAA championship

It felt like a lifetime. Mainly, because it was.

The Hylanders' victory ended a three-year streak of section final losses and, more notably, an 81-year drought in state-tournament appearances.

Columbia Heights takes on Marshall High School at noon Wednesday at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

“Some of it’s overwhelming,” said guard Keanu Walker, one of eight seniors on the current roster. “But it’s a lot of excitement going around, especially around the city.”

Now Columbia Heights (23-6) serves as a civic cynosure.

Since Friday, Coach Willie Braziel has received missives from state Sen. Barb Goodwin and Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson, who will honor the team Monday at City Hall.

“It’s meant a lot to this community,” Braziel said. “I think if you wanted to, last Friday, rip off Columbia Heights, you could’ve done it. The whole darn city was at [our game].”

Players' Perspective
For some players, it’s a relief to know they can focus on basketball again.
“I’m happy we got there, made history,“ said senior captain Zach Lofton. “But there’s no pressure there.”

Lofton, who is one of the metro’s elite scorers with more than 30 points per game, doesn’t want to settle for being the team to end the Hylanders’ long-standing tournament absence.

“We want respect, but we’re going to go earn it, though.”

When asked what motivates his team beyond playing at Williams Arena (and if they advance, at Target Center), Lofton said, he hopes that next week he can say, “we made more history.”

'This Is Your Year'
As Lofton and Co. try to pen their names in the state’s record books, a local family will watch intently. 

In a handwritten letter to Braziel, Mallory and Linda Pickens—son and daughter of the late Walter Pickens, the last captain to lead his team to a tourney berth—congratulated the team on its efforts.

They wrote that their father, the smallest player on his team, was proud to be a part of something special, and they added in impeccable cursive lettering: “This is your year! Good Luck.”

“It just brought me to tears [that] they hung out with Columbia Heights that long,” Braziel said.

High School Highlight
Mallory Pickens said in an interview that he knows his father would be proud of this year’s team because of the effect the event had on his father as a youth.

“I think it was probably, in some ways, the highlight of his high school days,” he said.

That was 1930, and no one from the varsity roster is still living. Braziel and the school administration tried to track down then-coach P.J. Deanovic, who had outlived his entire team, but speculation is that he too is gone.

Once in a Lifetime
Even though the two teams are generations apart, Braziel and his players will have those players as inspiration.

"It’s the first time in 81 years, so we got to make the city proud,” Walker said.

As for advice from Mallory Pickens, imparted on behalf of his father:
“Don’t settle for last place. For those kids it’s going to be a once in a lifetime experience, and enjoy every second of it.”

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