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Karvonen paved the way through play and leadership

Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2022 - 10:03 AM

Karvonen crop 2

She grew up right in front of everyone’s Minnesota eyes, a budding player on the still-news girls basketball scene.

At age 14, she was already well-skilled beyond her age with a near-flawless perimeter game to go with a stoic, on-court demeanor of Bjorn Borg, an international sensation on another kind of court. Two years earlier, her brother said she could be the best girls basketball player ever in Minnesota. He modeled himself after “Pistol” Pete Maravich and knew these kinds of things, he proclaimed.

She merely shrugged off the accolades and proclamations.

She just wanted to be herself.

She just wanted to be known as Janet.

A one-name reference typically calls for legendary status, and for Janet Karvonen, that fits.

Karvonen, a New York Mills native, was Minnesota’s first girls basketball superstar, a pioneer that was a Pied Piper of sorts in creating a path in a game that was in its infancy. She powered the Eagles to four state tournament appearances and was the catalyst for an historic run of three consecutive Class A championships from 1977 through 1979. In a five-year prep career, she powered New York Mills to a 116-10 record and four consecutive state tournament appearances. In her senior season, the Eagles placed third when she averaged 32.5 points per game. She ended her career with 3,129 points, an astonishing statistic that still stands among Minnesota’s best-ever players, boy or girl.

Karvonen Resize

Janet Karvonen

In 1980, she received the Dial Award as the nation’s top high school girls basketball player.

“She was the first star of our game,” said Pat Barrett, chairman of the Minnesota Miss Basketball Committee. “She was so smooth with every movement on the court. She expected every shot to go in. Really, she was just unstoppable. It didn’t how many defenses were thrown at her, she was masterful at solving them all.”

Karvonen’s play galvanized the basketball community and inspired players like Mary Jo Miller of Tracy-Milroy, Kelly and Coco Miller of Rochester Mayo, and later, Lindsay Whalen of Hutchinson, to reach higher in their playing goals. She was idolized in her mid-teens as her legion of fans grew exponentially. She started receiving fan mail, as many as 25 letters per day, with only the address of Janet Karvonen, New York Mills. The mail carrier knew where to deliver it. She was asked to prom through letters and developed a pen-pal relationship that lasted decades.  

“The attention opened my world,” she recently shared with Connect. “I remember after a game at the old Met Center, I was standing on the court and there was a line that formed through the hockey board door that was open. I stood there signing autographs. At one point, I looked and saw that the line was all the way up to the second deck.”

Paving the way, or being a pioneer, didn’t occur to Karvonen during her prep career.

“People told me along the way that I was doing that, but when you are a teenager, you just don’t have that perspective,” she said. “When I was 14, I was asked by a reporter about ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). I had no idea what that was. (Gov.) Rudy Perpich talked to me. I was asked how that was. I responded, “Is that who that was?”

Karvonen’s athletic career took root as a sixth-grader. In 1973, she watched the New York Mills girls basketball team play in Alexandria in a regional-type game. There was no state tournament at the time. When the Eagles won, as far as they were concerned, they were No. 1. Karvonen remembers observing letter jackets worn with pride and how inspirational those athletes ahead of her were in encouraging to work hard and dream. New York Mills had a gymnastics team, track and field and basketball. She especially liked playing softball, but New York Mills did not offer that athletic opportunity.

In the year prior to New York Mills making the first of four consecutive state tournament trips, Karvonen attended as a fan.

“I was in awe of the state tournament environment,” she said. “I remember seeing (League Associate Director) Dorothy McIntyre sitting in the hockey penalty box and observing everything. I thought, wow, she is in charge of this whole thing. It was just the coolest thing. When we came down, the high school league was an organization that helped make dreams come true. They have been the organization that has been a true friend to schools and communities.”

Meanwhile, 92 miles to the southeast, another superstar had emerged on the girls basketball scene.

Albany’s Kelly Skalicky, a vocal dynamic guard that played with quickness, speed and tenacity, was powering the Huskies to state tournament heights. In her six-year varsity career, she led Albany to four state tournament appearances. The Huskies were the Class A runner-up in 1979 and the state champion in 1980. She finished her career with 2,704 points.

“There were no two other players like them,” Barrett said of Karvonen and Skalicky. “They were fun because they played at an entirely different level than everyone else. In our state, those are two of the biggest names of all time.”

Despite their close proximity in age and class enrollment, Karvonen and Skalicky met just twice in head-to-head games. In 1979, New York Mills defeated Albany 61-52 in the Class A championship game. The following season, Albany won a regular-season game, 65-43. While both teams made the state tournament that season, the teams did not meet.

When New York Mills defeated Albany in 1979 for the Eagles’ third title, Karvonen said it was the pinnacle of her state tournament experiences. That season, the school won the League’s Sportsmanship Award and the glow of the community was a difference-maker in everything from the band to the fans. Upon returning home with a championship, the welcome parade started in Bluffton, eight miles away on U.S. Highway 10.

“Kelly and I always had a lot of respect for one another,” Karvonen said. “In the 1979 game, there was a picture of the two of us shaking hands that won some award. It was just a quick snapshot, but it captured the look in our faces. It was one of those photos that really spoke to people.”

Fast-forward to 2019 when New York Mills was celebrating the 40-year anniversary of their championship. As team members gathered in a classroom prior to their recognition, an uninvited stranger entered and filled the room with stunned silence. Jaws dropped and eyes popped.

“What is she doing here?’” was said amidst surprised gasps.

It was Skalicky. She had come to pay tribute to New York Mills as well.

Karvonen was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball recipient in 1979 and Skalicky, also a standout golfer with a Minnesota State High School League championship, was the honoree the following season. Both were selected for the trials of the Team USA women’s basketball team for the in 1980, but the United States boycotted those games. Karvonen played collegiately at Old Dominion University and Louisiana Tech. Skalicky played basketball at Louisiana State, but transferred to the University of Minnesota to play golf. Karvonen, who has conducted basketball camps for years, is a Lutheran pastor while Skalicky is an attorney and the CEO and president of Stearns Bank.

Both are members of the Minnesota State High School League’s Hall of Fame. Karvonen was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 1989.

Kelly Skalicky

“I love basketball, but my faith in God is No. 1, God and Family first,” Karvonen said. “I have a sense of price in that I have contributed, not only as a player, but also as a teacher to more than 20,000 players at camps. I feel like I have been a mentor and a friend. I ran my camps as a mini high school league. Let’s roll out the ball and let’s do it together. The more you give of yourself, the more you will receive.”
Janet Karvonen

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