The queen is dead. Long live the queen.
— “Tradition to end: Farewell, 6-girl game,” Des Moines Register, Feb. 4, 1993
This is a big anniversary year in Iowa sports history.
It has been 50 years since the girls’ basketball title game for the ages and 25 since the last 6-on-6 championship.
Iowa has continuously held a girls’ basketball championship game since 1920, the same year women received the right to vote — and doing so was a radical move. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union owes its existence to men from rural Iowa who, in 1925, took a stand after being told their girls would not be allowed to play basketball. The game flourished.
Decades later, what once was radical was challenged as discriminatory. Title IX opened the door for girls and young women in sports nationwide, but new basketball programs were full-court 5-on-5. Iowa’s two half-court, two-dribble-rule game was the one whistled for a violation.
The 1968 state championship — Union-Whitten 113, Everly 107 (OT) — is widely considered the greatest 6-on-6 game ever played. Denise Long, Union-Whitten’s three-sport star, was drafted in the NBA (as a publicity stunt, but still), and there is a park in Whitten named for her. Everly’s town welcome sign depicts a girl shooting hoops.
Neither school district exists today. The 1993 and final 6-on-6 state champion, Hubbard-Radcliffe, lost its independent high school a decade ago. Six-on-6 is primarily — except for about 1975-84, exclusively — a story about rural Iowa.
Then as now, teams that went to state did it with the whole community behind them. In 1959, Garrison pre-cancelled classes for three days so the town could be there. It ended up the right move for two reasons. First, Garrison placed third after losing to eventual champion Gladbrook and winning the consolation against Rockwell City. Second, it was the year of the infamous blizzard that yielded an impromptu “sock hop” for stranded fans and forever connected tournament time with bad weather.
But while the basketball queen still holds court in Iowans’ memories, by one measure, her throne was usurped almost immediately.
Three years after 6-on-6 ended, the number of volleyball players in Iowa soared. Based on numbers reported to the National Federation of State High School Associations, since 1999, girls’ basketball participation in Iowa has hovered around two-thirds of volleyball in any given year.
Even those numbers are falling. Last year, Kevin White of the Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs looked into the decline. According to an anonymous western Iowa athletics director, “Single-sport athletes — club volleyball especially — are killing girls’ basketball.”
The twin pressures of consolidation and depopulation put a damper on things, too. Starting sixes for two schools became a starting five for one. A coach may have a small player rotation not because she wants to but because there are only so many bodies on the bench.
Still, it’s the opportunity that’s the thing.
In today’s multi-class era, the percentage of girls at Springville who played on the 2016 state championship team is much larger than the percentage of girls at Ankeny Centennial who did the same. The universality of girls’ basketball in small towns and the tradition of high school athletics overall are why so many Iowans can look back on their time on a team.
As the years go on, the links to 6-on-6 dwindle. The state tournament has moved out of Veterans Memorial Auditorium and a week up on the calendar. State trophies have been changed from sport-specific towers to flat rounded slabs. The 95-year-old school building in Waterville, an Allamakee County town that sent a team to state seven times in eight years (1934-41) and finished second twice, will be closed this year.
Regardless of how many players are on the court, the legacy remains. The place of the “Iowa girl” in sports is something to remember, cherish and extend for decades to come.
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