When a small town wins big

The 2024 state champion Cherry High School boys basketball team (PHOTO: MSHSL)

One of the best breaks I ever got was growing up in the tight-knit, hard-working community of Cherry, Minnesota. 

It’s not that Cherry is anything special to look at. The township is composed of scrub brush, trees and hayfields. The people work as miners, nurses and truck drivers — similar to a lot of folks on the Mesabi Iron Range. When I was there, “rich kids” lived in split-entry homes with parents who had jobs. We posed on hay bales for our senior class picture.

Cherry was founded as a farming enclave by Finnish-American workers blacklisted from working in the mines after a labor strike in 1907. Local legend, loosely supported by fact, suggests that it was named “Cherry” for a farmer who tried and failed to grow cherry trees in the inhospitable climate.

Of course, here I must admit that I didn’t live in Cherry proper, but rather within the greater Cherry metropolitan area, including Clinton, Lavell, Iron Junction, Forbes and Zim. Nowadays, the Cherry metroplex reaches further south into even more remote hayfields and swamps. No matter how long the country miles, it’s all traversable by bike or snowmobile. That is, if you have hours to spend and lenient parents with their own problems to worry about.

But what I really loved about Cherry was how passionately the community supported the kids in that school. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice at the time, until you realize later how it shaped your life. 

Last week, the Cherry Tigers won its first state boys basketball championship. This small school’s raucous gym and lack of hockey turns boys and girls basketball into marquee sports, but the state title eluded Cherry until now.

Be it known, I was no basketball player. Likewise, my baseball career was cut short by a chronic deficiency of large motor skills. Football was far too shouty. In fact, anything with a ball eventually proved an embarrassment to me. But I played in the pep band and, by sophomore year, became the public address announcer at basketball games. From this, we may draw a straight line to a media career that includes this very column.

At Cherry, our sports teams overlapped with the band, choir, drama club and student council. One spring, the captains of the football team and I calculated depreciation on tractors while projecting soybean yields as members of the FFA farm management team. None of us had ever set foot on a farm, but it got us out of class for a day. It didn’t matter what the activity was, kids and teachers got excited for the thrill of discovery.

Cherry was so small that our whole graduating class sat at two neighboring lunch tables every day through junior and senior high. Like anyplace, we had jocks, nerds and stoners, but all of us had to get along. The result was a lot of jock-nerd-stoner hybrids. We maintained an active lifestyle, good grades, and a pretty chill vibe. 

I have no idea if it’s still like that at Cherry, though I recognized the competitive, collaborative spirit that surrounded the Tigers most recent state tourney run. 

The 2024 Cherry Tigers boys basketball team did something we don’t see enough. They worked incredibly hard to harness individual talents into the best team they could be. The squad set goals and achieved them, winning games with the kind of confidence and consistency that so often escape Range sports teams. Or Minnesota sports teams, for that matter.

In fact, watching the Tigers play at the state championship might have been the first time I ever felt confident that my team was going to win the game just by looking at them. It’s a special feeling, utterly foreign to the hardened soul of a Vikings fan.

Winning feels good. But making friends, trying new things, and working hard becomes its own kind of winning. Sticking together through good times and bad isn’t just a slogan; it’s how society should work.

No, not everyone can go to a small school like Cherry. We’re not all that lucky. But we can replicate a few things no matter our location or age. Get to know everybody, not just the people like you. Try things; you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Support the kids; they’ll achieve goals you never dreamed possible. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 30, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. I went to the largest school in the 5 state area, 3600 kids, grades 10-12, graduated 1968. My kids went to one of the St Louis Co schools, just previous to the major shrinkage/consolidation of all the schools around the whole Range. In fact, my oldest’s graduating class was close to double the size of the current graduating classes in the current combined schools. Well, she is your age. Comparing attending a huge school I went to to this small school, I never thought she missed out on too many opportunities. Sure, where I went, we had LOTS more “choices” of electives, but didn’t mean one could actually take them. Why?, because our 8 class hour school day included lunch and 2 study hall hours. Basically, I was on a pre college track, so there was no way to work in Wood Shop, which interested me. And that was before girls sports, so extra curriculars were also limited. My school did have an amazing school musical play every year, but you already had to be star quality to be part of it. But in the much smaller school here, average kids got the chance to join something and then grow their interests and talents. A good example of this can be seen in sports. The total size of a team, such as in basketball, is about the same in a small school or a medium school or a large school, so the percentage of the kids allowed on the team is much smaller at a big school. Your article discusses the community support often seen at the smaller rural schools. At a large city school? Not a chance. Did the local parents and other adults attend games and other activities? Hardly. How about a feeling of support for an introvert like me? Again, nope. Growing up in a city is sort of an anonymous adventure. So I second the positives you mention. Sure I guess it is possible for a rural school to be too small, so the consolidations can be positive, except for the long long bus rides for some kids. Maybe I’m overgeneralizing because of the supportive tiny town I live in, but I do hope not.

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