Only in Iowa3/4/2020
A girls high school sports union
Hundred-year-old organization is yet another heartfelt Iowa quirk.
Iowans embrace the state’s quirks. We believe wiener schnitzel should be made with pork instead of veal and served on a bun, and that French dressing should be orange and very sweet. We drink more Black Velvet Canadian whisky than any kind of Bourbon or Scotch. We are still proud that most of us came from rural areas, even though the population has been moving to cities, towns and suburbs with increased acceleration since the 1900s began. In fact, most of Iowa’s counties peaked in population more than 100 years ago. The fact that most of
coastal populations still view Iowa as rural doesn’t bother us. We flock to the Iowa State Fair every year a million strong. The Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant and the Clay County Fair in Spencer also draw large crowds to celebrate the history of farming. Politicians in Iowa attempt visiting all 99 counties, even though there are more than 125 times as many voters in the largest compared to the smallest. Political rallies here often incorporate farm props like hay bales for rallies in cities.
Then there are the Iowa caucuses. Only Nevada holds a contest that eschews the privacy of the voting booth for a system where everybody knows your business and tries to influence your elective choices. My mother used to say that the Iowa caucuses reminded her of elementary school, which she taught. The cool kids all try to sway others to join their kickball team. Even when our caucuses fail to determine results in a timely manner, Iowans stand by them like Tammi Wynette on her fourth husband, because they have become a feature of the state culture.
Another beloved quirk
The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) is another beloved quirk. It is the only high school sports organization in America that represents just girls. It also represents girls participating in music and speech. (The state has separate organizations for dance and cheerleading competitors.) It will begin its second century of state basketball tournaments this month at the Iowa Events Center. Every year at this time, discontents complain that it is out of step with the nation and a waste of taxpayer money having two separate organizations for boys and girls.
“I’ll tell you who never says that — the participants. We keep talking to them and hear from almost everyone whoever played in the state tourney in Des Moines at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium or Wells Fargo Arena what a special experience that was growing up,” explained Jean Berger, the IGHSAU executive director and a former Iowa athlete.
“Most state tournaments in the country are played in high school gyms. Also, we raised 86 percent of our annual budget ourselves, so it’s not a drain on the taxpayer. People are misinformed about that. Member fees, ticket sales and corporate sponsors account for most of it,” Berger said.
Though the state tourney is only 100 years old, girls’ basketball began in Dubuque in 1898.
“That’s amazing considering that James Naismith didn’t invent basketball until 1892,” added Jason Eslinger, assistant IGHSAU director.
Girls hoops were so popular in Dubuque that the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald wrote this in 1901: “Basketball, a rollicking game that upbuilds the sinews and gives health and grace, is the latest pastime of a number of Dubuque young women. Once or twice every week they assemble at the YMCA Gymnasium and romp and jump and run and shout in pursuit of the inflated sphere. The game is as healthful as it is enjoyable and many peals of laughter may be heard afar as the feminine onslaughts are made up and down the gym floor. The girls are selected from Professor Pierson’s young women’s physical culture club. Speaking of the young women, Pierson says that they catch the spirit of the game more easily than their masculine counterparts. They are quick on their feet and not as inclined to scrimmage as men, depending more on strategy… The teams are composed of the city’s most prominent young women… The teams have costumes for the games. They are of the bloomer pattern and made to reckon with the harshest treatment for the distance between basketball and football is not so very great.”
In 1920, the Davenport Blackhawk wrote: “It is interesting to note that girls are turning more enthusiastic for sports every year. This illustrates the versatility of the American girl that no matter when or what the acid test appears to be, her resourceful mind finds that way out of diversity.”
The idea of Iowa girls playing hoops did not carry as well outside Dubuque and Davenport. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union began in a downtown Des Moines church basement in 1925. That was in response to a decision by school administrators who voted to discontinue funding girls’ basketball because it was too strenuous and inappropriate for young ladies. Mystic Superintendent John W. Agans warned the anti-girls sports group that they would end up on the wrong side of history.
“Gentlemen, if you attempt to do away with girls’ basketball in Iowa, you will be standing on the railroad tracks when the train runs over you,” said Agans. He and 25 other mostly small-town superintendents met in Des Moines and formed the IGHSAU. By 1924, the state final was packing the 5,000-seat Drake Fieldhouse from floor to rafters.
In 1941, Centerville (population 8,400) was the largest school playing girls basketball, though the number of schools playing then was nearly double today’s total. IGHSAU began telecasting the state tournament in 1951. By the late 1960s, it was shown on a network that included nine states. It received higher ratings in those markets than the telecast of the Super Bowl in those years. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Sports Illustrated sent reporters. One year a national television network from Japan covered it.
Not just for girls basketball fans
The tournament moved from the Drake Fieldhouse to Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium in 1955. Sixteen teams competed Tuesday through Saturday in six on six rules games. The first final at Vets drew 15,333. It wasn’t just for fans of the teams. The new arena was so large that the entire population of all 16 towns in the field could fit inside at the same time and still leave 1,700 seats. Entire populations of some towns did caravan to Des Moines. In short order, the tournament was selling out nearly every session. How?
The executive director at the time of the move to Vets was a Coon Rapids native named E. Wayne Cooley. Realizing he now needed to fill three times as many seats in the new arena, he began incorporating other school activities into the show. High school stage bands became part of each session. So did 20 other acts, including five color guards, a large chorus, a national champion drill team, gymnastics and drill/dance teams. The floor cleaners wore tuxedoes.
The end of six on six
In 1985, the Union allowed five-on-five rules with schools having a choice. The first year, 130 mostly large schools adopted the boys’ rules while 260 still chose six on six. Political pressure, though, was carrying the tide against the quirk. By the early 1990s, the rules of the game were considered sexist for limiting a player to just two dribbles between passes or shots and for dividing teams into offensive and defensive players. The following year, Cooley announced that six on six was being discontinued. Lisa Brinkmeyer led Hubbard-Radcliff over Atlantic in the final championship of the game that had packed in fans for decades.
Crowds would dwindle after six on six ended. The Japanese quit coming and so did most out-of-state media. All-session tickets became less common. So did other traditions. The basketball tourney used to be associated with the week when girls bought prom dresses. Now, I am told that’s no longer the case. Schools used to make spring break coincide with the tourney. Girls from non-qualifying teams would sit together in the Vets balcony and chant to other teams “Hey, Gladbrook.” “Hello, Montezuma.”
The tournament was a weeklong affair for players and fans. Today, most fans drive in for the game and leave afterwards.
“Business is nothing like it used to be,” Downtown/Mercy Campus Holiday Inn president Bob Conley said.
Other tricks were needed to put fannies in seats. The field of five-player teams was divided into four classes in 1994 and into five in 2013. Forty teams now make the final field instead of 16, yet sellouts are gone with the winds of time.
Still, the old game is part of the fabric of Iowa. A movie is being made about the last six on six game. Brinkmeyer, the star of that game, plays her old coach. Special exhibitions of six on six games still draw large crowds, in an era when no current player has any memory of the game. Some coaches, even boys’ coaches, still employ the old rules in practice and for young players.
Eslinger thinks that boys and girls both learn fundamentals better with six-player rules, at least up to middle school level.
“It’s not pretty watching players dribble till they lose the ball,” he said. Berger mentioned the crossover pivot move, a specialty of many six-player girls, some of whom became coaches. Jan Jensen, from Elk Horn Kimballton and Drake, now coaches at Iowa. She was a third-generation high school Hall of Famer. She has turned out one superb post player after another. The best known in Des Moines is Jennie Baranczak, formerly Lillis, who now coaches Drake. The most prolific was National Player of the Year Megan Gustafson. Jensen also worked with Kristi Kinne, of Jefferson-Scranton and Drake. Kinne’s crossover move was one of the best ever. Her son, Jackson Hayes, uses it as a star rookie with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.
“I watch Luka Garza at Iowa, and I wonder if he hasn’t learned something from Jensen or Gustafson,” adds Eslinger.
“I wonder how much of George Kittle’s (NFL all star who played at Iowa City West as a sophomore) skill set came from his mom (Jan Krieger of Winfield Mt. Union and Drake),” added Berger.
Stars have fused energy into the lore of IGHSAU, particularly when smalltown girls became celebrities in Iowa and occupied a spotlight that is rarely available to girls in other states. Irene Silka of Maynard was the first after scoring 110 points against Hawkeye in a 1926 game. Helen van Houten set two state scoring records in 1940 while leading Hansell (enrollment 89) to the title. Berta Longseth of Ottosen became
first to top 3,000 career points in 1942.
TV began in 1951 at the tourney, and that made superstars. Monona’s Norma Schoulte set a new record for a single game with 111 points against Harper’s Ferry. Sandy Fiete and the Kandy Kids of Garnavillo (their red and white stripe uniforms looked like Candy Stripers) won two straight titles in 1953-54.
The star of the 1959 tourney was not a player, nor a girl. After a huge blizzard trapped thousands of fans overnight, Frosty Mitchell trudged through the elements to keep the kids entertained with his disk jockey show at Vets. He would become the leading announcer of the tourney later. That blizzard became a legend, and an urban myth.
Hall of Fame
The year was 1961 when the IGHSAU inducted its first Hall of Fame class. In 1968, two of the greatest scorers in Iowa history matched off in the final with Denise Long of Union Whitten edging Jeanette Olson of Everly 113-107. The Golden State Warriors would draft Long only to have the NBA commissioner rule she could not play against men. Lynn Lorenzen of Ventura broke national scoring records in 1987 with 6,736 points. In 2001, Stephanie Rich of Washington won her fourth straight award as All Tournament captain. In 2017, Elle Ruffridge of Pocahontas Area, only 5 foot 3 inches, broke Deb Remmerde of Rock Valley’s five-player scoring records.
Connie Yori (Ankeny 1982) left high school with many people calling her the greatest athlete ever in the state with all-state form and championships in basketball, softball and track. That reminds us that the IGHSAU is much more than its glamour event. One of their mottos is “70,000 girls, 10 sports, one mission.” That mission is “To govern fair, safe and sportsmanlike competition in a manner that emphasizes
the educational enhancement of all participants.”
I visited the new headquarters of IGHSAU for this story. I had been a regular visitor before Cooley retired in 2002. Physical changes were considerable. The old headquarters was in a former Governor’s mansion, filled with old building problems like mold and cold. Yet it was elegant. The new headquarters shares a new building with Knapp Properties. It is efficient, problem free, but not elegant. Coffee cups now are pink in keeping with the feminine theme of the organization. But they made me laugh thinking about Cooley’s friend and No. 2 at the IGHSAU for its legend years.
Mike Henderson was as brilliant a mind as I ever encountered. He had 5-gig memory before computers weighed less than 3,000 pounds. He had an eye for quality and analysis whether you were looking for livestock or ballplayers. And he would have overfilled those darling pink mugs with cigarette butts and cold coffee. It’s a new Union brought forth from old visions.
Changing girls’ sports
The fastest-growing girls’ sport in Iowa now is volleyball with more than 11,000 players shooting for the championships each fall in Cedar Rapids US Cellular Center. Also in the fall, swimming and diving holds its finals in Marshalltown’s YMCA/YWCA, and cross country runners share a joint meet with Iowa boys in Fort Dodge’s Kennedy Park.
Also sharing competitions with boys are the bowling teams in February with 30 teams competing at five different sites. Spring’s biggest event is the joint track and field meet at Drake Stadium in Des Moines. This three-day event packs the venerable stadium in what seems to always be lovely weather. Soccer will have championships at Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines, while golfers and tennis players will square off at Ames’ Golf and Country Club and Hawkeye Tennis Complex in Iowa City. Summer brings the state softball championships at Fort Dodge’s Harlan Rogers. Since Iowa is the only state with summer high school softball, that’s the lasting quirk of IGHSAU.
According to the 2017-18 participation survey by the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS), 42.7 percent of sports participants are girls. By my math, it’s higher than that in Iowa. For the first time in 30 years, participation in high school sports declined with football and basketball taking the biggest hits. The last time the report found a decline was in 1988-89.
Another heartfelt Iowa quirk?
Iowa has always marched to the beat of a different school pep band. With fewer boys playing sports now, particularly football, the organization that runs boys’ sports in Iowa has completely revamped the way teams find opponents. The idea is to avoid mismatches and
the corresponding humiliation of losing.
Iowa girls have never really had that problem. In decades of six on six games, contests would end with everyone — winners and losers — falling down and weeping. Who is to say if that was a symptom of a different era or just a heartfelt Iowa quirk? ♦