When Jim Russell came to Central Lakes College seven years ago, his plan was to win a North Division men's basketball championship.
It took a little longer than Russell had planned, but as they say, good things come to those who wait.
And the Raiders are in the midst of one of their most successful seasons after capturing what is believed to be the program's first North Division crown.
After beating Northland last Thursday to remain unbeaten in the North at 10-0, Russell and his team had to sit and await the outcome of the game between second-place Mesabi Range and third-place Vermilion on Saturday at Ely.
Mesabi was 7-2 in division play, Vermilion was 6-3. A Vermilion victory meant the Raiders would win the division outright with two games left in the regular season. A Vermilion loss would mean the Raiders would have to sweat out the rest of the season. Vermilion obliged with a 90-83 win.
"I thought we would contend for the title," Russell said. "We always want to be in the top three every year. Some years things fall in place and this year things did for us.
"This team is very good. And not because we have one or two outstanding players but because we have a bunch of guys that believe in the system and the coaching staff."
Russell admits the only thing on his mind was what was going on 189 miles away in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"We were going to do a family thing together," Russell said, "and my wife ended up being sick so I had the kids. I was constantly watching the clock. I was on the Internet trying to find the score. I called anybody I could think of to find out the score. It was a restless day."
So far though, the enormity of the accomplishment hasn't hit Russell yet. The Raiders are preparing for their toughest road game of the year when they travel to Mesabi on Wednesday and host Vermilion at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Raiders at Mesabi
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday (women), 8 p.m. (men)
"It'll hit me when the last regular-season game is over and we start a new season," Russell said of winning the division. "There's been a lot of emotional things that have gone on this year with the program, the players and my life personally.
"They say you should win the conference between three and five years. For me I had a lot of learning to do and I had to make sure the program was headed in the right direction. Eventually I knew we'd get there."
By winning the North the Raiders earned an automatic bid to host the Region 13 tournament March 5-6.
The last time CLC competed in the region tournament Lyndon Johnson was president. That was 37 years ago when the 1966-67 Raiders lost to Rochester in the region quarterfinals. In the past 37 years, CLC has had only 16 winning seasons, with Russell having six of those.
For now at least, the hand-wringing and sleepless nights are over, as the Raiders enter the final week of the regular season and prepare for the state tournament Feb. 27-29.
"We just want to go out and have some fun now," Russell said. "We want to finish strong and go into the postseason prepared. Clinching early has relieved a lot of pressure."
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