After nearly 50 years of meager opportunities, girls’ basketball dramatically changed June 23, 1972. On that day, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX. In brief, the new law stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity that has received federal financial assistance.”
The new law applied to the entire school or institution if any part of that school’s budget received federal funds. Although athletics received little direct federal funding, it was nonetheless considered subject to the law. Girls’ basketball was back in business, but not without many detractors who were not immediate “fans” of the new legislation.
In fall 1972, high schools around Kansas were sent into scramble mode with the passage of the law. Many schools lacked adequate gym space and dressing rooms to accommodate girls playing the game.
I personally recall my senior year at Wilson High School. Since the seniors were managing the concession stands (to raise money for our senior trip), I was instructed to serve as a guard and doorkeeper for our girls’ first game of the season. What was I guarding? The ticket booth, which the Wilson girls used as a dressing room on that night! It was a rough first season of girls’ basketball at Wilson but the girls would gain confidence quite rapidly. By 1976, they qualified for the state tournament.
One school that had immediate success on the hardwoods was Centre High. The 1973 team was coached by Janet Mashak and the squad consisted of Rosie Bina, Marsha Poppe, Janelle Poppe, Susan Bezdek, Sandy Chizek, Donita Buethe, Rhonda Swinney, LaVonne Tiede, Glenda Fike, Melony Beneke, Connie Bowman, Kathleen Bailey, Diana Edmonson and Mary Lou Heiser.
“The girls are full of spirit and feel that they are going to have a good season,” reported the Herington Advertiser-Times. “They hope to have a large turnout at each game to cheer them on to victory.”
On Dec. 4, 1972, Centre played its first official game and defeated Remington, 49-19, as Janelle Poppe tossed in a game-high 28 points. They followed the win with a narrow 49-41 victory over Peabody before a challenging battle against Hillsboro.
Centre trailed the entire game and in fact, was still down by six points with just two minutes to play. The Cougars rallied and gained their first lead with just seconds remaining and held on for 49-48 victory. Janelle Poppe again led the scoring with a strong 25-point performance.
After playing a limited regular season schedule, Centre entered the 12-team regional tournament at Rosalia. After a first-round bye, the Cougars dispatched Melvern, Gridley and finally Goessel to qualify for the Class 1A state tournament with a record of 9-0.
The state gathering was held in Emporia. Joining the Cougars were teams from Edson (13-0), Wetmore (9-2), Paradise (10-2), Kendall (11-0), Pratt-Skyline (13-1), Udall (14-0) and Scandia (4-5). Unlike today, this girls’ tournament was played separate from the boys’ tournament. In fact, this first state one was played in early February, a full month before the boys played their games.
Great uncertainty surrounded these first state tournaments. One story in the Emporia Gazette summarized the mood: “The new bleachers that were recently installed in White Auditorium were designed to increase the seating capacity by several hundred fans,” reported the Gazette. “That should come in handy during times of great ticket demand during basketball season. It seems the upcoming girls’ state tournament games, however, will not be one of those occasions. Only a handful of reserved tickets have been sold and officials of the KSHSAA say they do not know what to expect in the way of spectators. It has been reported that Centre High School is bringing a contingent of over 100 fans themselves. Hopefully, the other teams bring their share of home-town rooters as well.”
Centre opened the tournament with a 48-39 victory over Paradise. Now in the semifinals, Centre kept its perfect record intact with a 43-42 squeaker over previously unbeaten Edson. The Cougars trailed 25-14 at halftime but rode the scoring skills of the Poppe sisters (Marsha and Janelle) to finally pull ahead late in the third frame.
Edson had several chances in the final seconds to pull ahead, but failed, and Centre advanced to the title game. In the finals, Centre could not find the magic and was defeated by Pratt-Skyline, 45-36.
Both Marsha and Janelle Poppe were named to the all-tournament team following the championship game.
One other story was noted. Centre won the sportsmanship trophy at the tourney, largely due to the “cheerleading” section that was led by the efforts of five boys who took over the cheering duties from the girls. Those boys were Mark Moffitt, Alan Henke, Clay Brown, Tim Kerbs and Rod Erickson.
It had been a magical time at Centre High School in 1973. The girls’ basketball team had successfully begun a new legacy of basketball at the school and nearly brought home the ultimate prize, a state title.
Across the state, it had been a season of some remarkably skilled basketball, and girls’ skills would only become more honed and sharpened over the years.
It also was a year characterized by some grudging acceptance of a new era in basketball in Kansas. One comment by sports reporter Don R. Wipf of the Hillsboro Star-Journal captured that final sentiment: “While this corner is not a leading proponent of equality of girls athletics,” wrote Wipf, “congratulations are in order to the Centre High School girls’ team on their second-place finish at the Class 1A State Tournament held this past weekend.”
To members of the media and other detractors, one thing became clear. In 1973, the girls had arrived on the basketball court and would now become a permanent fixture in high school basketball around Kansas.
NEXT: Goessel Bluebirds head to state.
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