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The ‘Baran’ ruled the court (03/09/2008)
by Steve Kiedrowski

Ken Barankiewicz. Not a name that's easy to say or remember. But mention the name Ken Baran and the celebrated stories will start. Starting first in the Centerville-Trempealeau area, then sprouting throughout the whole state.

Baran became one of the very best basketball and baseball players ever to play the game from Trempealeau High School. He set records that went through the roof.

But let's peel back that roof and take a look at this amazing athlete.

Ken Baran was born in 1941 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. When he was five years old, his parents, Stanley and Harriet, moved the family to Centerville.

Stanley was a part time mink rancher and worked full time at Badger Foundry in Winona. Harriet was a homemaker. Both were born in Winona.

Ken Baran said it cost too much to legally change your name in those days, so the family just shortened it up themselves.

From grades one through six, Baran went to Centerville School, then Trempealeau School.

There were five kids in the Baran household: Rose Marie (Winona), Virginia (Centerville), Mike (Alaska), Lori (Milwaukee), and Ken (Trempealeau).

Baran remembers, "We had an old horse barn that was half gone. I fixed it up so I could play basketball in it."

Ken Hovell, Trempealeau's true number one sports fan, has been going to games for over six decades. He says, "When Kenny was a kid, every time I drove by his house, he was outside shooting baskets."

As a freshman, Baran played a few varsity basketball games. The next season, with his skills being honed on that homemade basketball court in Centerville, Baran blossomed. With four sophomores starting on the Trempealeau Bears varsity team, he led the Coulee Conference in scoring.

There was a nucleus starting to grow in the small river town of Trempealeau. Better days were ahead for this team of destiny.

One of Baran's talented teammates was Bob James, who now lives in Weatheford, Texas. James says, "There were times when Kenny made shots that were unreal. Ken wore glasses and I, as well as his other teammates, spent a lot of time picking them up and returning them to him after some of his shots.

"I remember times when we were coming into an opponent's gym, I was asked by people which player was Kenny Baran. I would point him out and people would say, ‘You mean the guy with the glasses?' and my standard reply was ‘Wait till you see him in the game, then come and tell me what you think!' Surprisingly, I never did see those people again."

When Baran entered his junior year he got a new coach, Claude McCormick. It was his first full time coaching and teaching job. He taught physical education at the high school as well as grades 1-8 in Trempealeau and four county schools. He coached basketball, baseball and football.

Mac (as everyone calls him), says, "Kenny was fantastic. He had good reflexes, jumped like a deer and he was great at blocking the ball from behind a shooter, then taking the ball down to the other end of the court and scoring."

The assistant coach on Mac's team was John Kane, who went on to an exceptional career at Winona State University in administration. Baran's senior year was one for the record books. The 6'1" forward scored 681 points and averaged 30 points per game, knocking down the most points ever scored in one game at that time in the Coulee Conference, 48!

"People would ask me after the game how many I scored and I never knew the answer," Baran said.

The regular season ended with the Trempealeau Bears a perfect 18-0 and ranked number one in the State of Wisconsin for small schools. Yet, history was waiting at the threshold for this team to arrive.

On February 27, 1959, in the Sub-District Tournament in Holmen, the Trempealeau Bears took on the Gale-Ettrick Redmen. With the score tied at 45-45, just as the buzzer went off to send the competition into overtime, Baran tossed up a 40 foot jump shot to win the game. The crowd went crazy as they carried him off the court and of course, he lost his glasses.

What's even more amazing is that it was all captured on film along with all of the other games that season. Almost 50 years later, you can still witness that spectacular finish.

Teammate Ron Ryder said, "We could always count on Kenny in the clutch. He was a leader on and off the field."

The Trempealeau team won four more games on that glory road that traveled toward a state title in Madison.

March 14, 1959, at the old Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium in LaCrosse, Trempealeau took on LaCrosse Logan for a trip to state. Trempealeau had 115 students. LaCrosse had 610 students. Over 3,000 people saw a classic game that is still talked about today.

Baran tied the score up at 68-68 with 6 seconds left in the game. Trempealeau missed a free throw and Logan's guard, Dave Robertson, got the rebound. He hustled down the floor to the far corner and shot. As the clock showed zero, the ball swished through the net, season over, Logan wins.

That amazing night Bob James scored 28 points and Ken Baran poured in 31 points. They accounted for 59 of the 68 points that Trempealeau had. After the game, Baran went outside and started throwing snowballs in frustration against the auditorium wall. Coach McCormick went to console him.

Baran softly said, "Coach, I'll take that game to my grave!"

Controversy still continues to this day on that contest.

Ken Hovell says, "I was at that game. I swear, and everyone around me said, the clock started late after the missed free throw. That gave LaCrosse extra time to get the ball down the court. Their player dribbled the ball right in front of me. But I tell you what, that Trempealeau team and Kenny Baran, played their hearts out that night."

As good as Baran was at basketball he was just as good at baseball.

He claims, "I actually like baseball better than basketball. I liked to feel the ball off the bat and the sound it made. I enjoyed playing in front of large crowds.

His home run blasts went deep to centerfield as they banged off the Trempealeau High School brick wall. The next door neighbor behind right field, Harry Eichman, had to harvest numerous baseballs from his garden during the summer.

Bob James says, "Kenny used a black bat that the rest of us on the team referred to as ‘Black Beauty.'

"The best things I remember about Ken, other than his athletic prowess, he was an idol to the young kids and a true friend and teammate to me."

Like many athletes, Baran dreamed of playing professional ball.

After high school he got a call from the New York Yankees. They wanted him to try out for their team. The workout was held at the old Milwaukee County Stadium. Baran was having a good day swinging the bat well, throwing his wicked curve ball and running hard. The Yankees were impressed. He stopped to rest for awhile, leaning his hand against the fence. Someone working at the stadium accidentally slammed the wire gate closed on his hand. Baran broke two fingers and his wrist. End of a dream.

He refocused his life and decided to become a teacher and a coach and play some college ball. So he went to Winona and started taking classes at St. Mary's College.

Baran laughed, "After four days I realized there were no girls there! At that time it was an all mens school, so...I left."

He then attended LaCrosse State College where he started at second base on their baseball team

With the military draft closing in, he enlisted in the army, just several credits short of graduating. From 1965-1968 he served his country, mostly stationed in Alaska and played baseball on the military team. After his hitch was up, he want back to college to get his degree in secondary education. He was now qualified to become a high school teacher and a coach.

Baran exclaimed, "It only took me a total of 10 years to graduate!"

But by then he had met and married Dee Olsen of Galesville. Dee smiled. "I saw him at the Vet's Bar in Trempealeau and he was never with his wife. I thought that was terrible. I then asked someone about Kenny and they said he was not married. So I went up to Ken and started talking to him."

Dee works as a paraprofes-sional at the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau library.

When asked why he didn't become a teacher he answered, "I'm not sure. We had two kids, bills, responsibilities. A person gets into a rut without knowing it. Time slips by and you realize you've missed your chance."

Baran took a job in Winona at Zeches Institution Supplies, starting as a salesman and later moving into the office. After 28 years there he retired in 1997.

During those post-college years his sports career took a big turn towards softball and baseball again. He played baseball for the American Legion, Pony League and the Trempealeau town team.

Ken Hovell says, "I was Ken's teammate in softball and on many baseball teams. We had some great games against the Winona Chiefs. Kenny was the best ballplayer I ever saw."

Baran played fastpitch softball for the celebrated Centerville Wildcats. (My brother Tony and I both played on the Wildcat team and had a chance to witness Baran's tremendous talent. We won numerous championships through the years.)

A fellow graduate who played ball with Baran ever since seventh grade was Tom Scherr. He says, "Ken had an uncanny athletic ability, but he would never tell you that. He was just a real common guy. He always gave other people the credit. He would say, ‘We couldn't do it without you.' Kenny was always seeing the good side of people."

The only time they saw opposite sides was in fastpitch softball.

Scherr jokes, "It was sad when Ken played for Centerville because I played for the Trempealeau team. He was so good, we could have used him on our team."

Baran has a great sense of humor and is always very laid back and never too quick to speak harshly of anyone. He loves playing cards.

The Kiedrowski family owned a tavern in Centerville, Art's Bar, now called the Sandbar. (In the morning my brothers Dick, Tony and I would clean the place.) Saturday mornings and during the week in the summer, when school was out, Ken would come over to the bar and play cards, a hobby he still enjoys today, along with playing the slot machines.

He takes frequent trips to Las Vegas to see his son Tim, 32, who is a professional gambler. His other son Todd, 31, lives in Mauston and works in security for the state of Wisconsin.

One wager that Baran did not want to make was in 1991, when at the age of 50 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

He says, "I felt crushed. It changes all your plans for later in life. Some days are better than others. When the doctors alter my medication, sometimes things don't always go right. If a person gets down and dwells on something too much, it becomes permanent."

But Baran has that extra ace in the hole that he was dealt in life - his wife of 33 years, Dee.

Baran says, "Dee has been my soulmate. She is one of those rare people who always sees the good side of everything. If I'm having a bad day she will always pull me up to her level, instead of me dragging her down to mine.

"I also have a strong Catholic faith. I believe there is a reason for everything that happens. At first, when I learned I was sick, I felt abandoned. Jesus said on the cross, ‘My God, why did you abandon me.' That applied to me. After dwelling on this, I soon learned to trust my God." 


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