Top two SD boys’ coaches to clash for first timeMunsen, Luitjens - the two winningest boys’ high school basketball coaches in South Dakota history - will face off at 9 p.m. today at the second annual Mike Miller Classic at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.
By: Claire Meador, The Daily Republic
After 43 years of coaching, Gary Munsen is finally facing longtime friend and fellow coach Larry Luitjens.
In a unique matchup of the two winningest boys’ high school basketball coaches in South Dakota history, Munsen’s Kernels (4-1) play Luitjens and the Custer Wildcats (3-2) at 9 p.m. today at the second annual Mike Miller Classic at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.
Although they’ve each been coaching for 40-plus years, they’ve never had the chance to coach against each other. Mitchell competes in Class AA and Custer is in Class A.
“I’m really excited. You have no idea how excited I am,” Luitjens said.
Munsen is the all-time winningest basketball coach in South Dakota high school history, racking up 882 wins while coaching boys’ and girls’ basketball. Although there is some dispute about Munsen’s exact win total, recent Daily Republic research indicates Munsen has won 651 boys’ basketball games, making him the second winningest boys’ basketball coach in state history. Luitjens holds the state record for boys’ basketball with 712 wins.
On Jan. 21, Luitjens picked up his 700th career win against Lead-Deadwood. Munsen’s most recent milestone of 600 wins came on Feb. 27, 2008.
The two veteran coaches seem enthusiastic about the matchup and said they were very pleased to finally be able to meet each other on the court.
“I’ve known Gary for 35 to 40 years, but we’ve never played each other,” Luitjens said. “We’ve been bouncing around coaching but we’ve never played each other, so this will be a really fun matchup.”
Munsen started his career at Marion High School, where he won 31 basketball games. Since, he’s won 620 more boys’ basketball games and won 231 girls’ basketball games at Mitchell. He has nine boys’ state titles and three girls’ state championships.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, and I’m looking forward to the tournament,” Munsen said. “It’s going to be all about the Custer Wildcats and the Mitchell Kernels. To me, it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about playing 32 minutes of basketball.”
Luitjens has brought home seven boys’ state championships during his career. He won two at De Smet and five at Custer. He also spent one season coaching in North Dakota, but the games his team won that season aren’t reflected in his South Dakota wins total.
Luitjens said that since he and Munsen have been around so long, their coaching styles are similar.
“I just think that there’s so much commonality between how Gary coaches and how I coach,” Luitjens said. “I think it’s very much a situation where there’s one boss and we’re it. That’s the way it’s always been, and you know, some people starting out now couldn’t coach the way we do.”
Despite Munsen announcing his retirement at the conclusion of this season, Luitjens isn’t ready to commit to calling it quits yet. But he knows his career is winding down.
Luitjens said he will be sad to see Munsen go after this season and that South Dakota high school basketball won’t be the same without him.
“I’m excited that I get a chance in his last year to play his team,” Luitjens said. “And it’s close to my last year, too. Not right this moment, but when you’re 69, you know you won’t be coaching for much longer.”
Going into the Mike Miller Classic, Luitjens said his team will have to play its best to beat Mitchell.
Luitjens said he has a young, inexperienced team, but he’s confident his players will have a successful season.
“I think by February, we’re going to be a really good basketball team,” Luitjens said. “But by the Mike Miller Classic, I’m not sure. That’s still to be decided.”
At the inaugural Mike Miller Classic last year, the Wildcats were defeated by Christian Faith Center Academy (N.C.) 74-71.
“Just going by last year, they made a great run against a team from out of state,” Munsen said. “They’ll come down and shoot a lot of 3s, and they have a lot of amazing perimeter players.”
Munsen said his players will have to be ready to compete Thursday night.
“I am absolutely excited to play Custer,” Munsen said. “It’s going to be one heck of a game.”