116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CALAMUS — Verneil Steines sat at the dining room table, her memory scanning back 75 years.
Her conversation last week with a reporter was at a pause, then her family reignited it with some news:
'You're going back to state,' they said.
She didn't understand. Why would she?
The evidence was placed on the table, a typed note with Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union letterhead, signed by executive director Jean Berger.
Steines, now 92, is among dozens of non-agenarian women invited by the Union to attend this week's girls' state tournament. The 100th girls' state tournament.
As Verneil 'Tootie' Steffens, Steines played in the 1944 tournament for Lowden High School at the Drake Fieldhouse.
Most of the details have faded from the her memory. A few remain.
'I was just a fighter when I played,' she said, smiling. 'I worked the garden, I mowed the lawn, I painted the house. So I wasn't afraid of working hard.'
She remembered the blizzard on the way to Des Moines.
'We started riding cars, then we got to Cedar Rapids and we waited for a train to take us the rest of the way,' she said. 'This was during the war, and the passenger car was loaded with servicemen. We were allowed to ride with them, but we had to sit on our suitcases in the aisles.'
She remembered the food-poisoning outbreak that jolted the team after a first-round overtime win over Farmington.
'One other girl and I were the only two that didn't get it,' Steines said. 'But we weren't going to forfeit. We did play, and we got beat.'
They were defeated by Gowrie, the eventual runner-up, in the second round. Steines scored 33 points in her two games in Des Moines.
Steines is one of the oldest living women who played for an Eastern Iowa state tournament team. She is the first of four generations of basketball women in her family — daughters Becky Laake and Jody Whitmore (Calamus classes of 1971 and 1977), daughter-in-law Julie Steines (Calamus, 1970) and granddaughter Trina Knoche (Calamus-Wheatland, 1995).
Great-granddaughters Courtney Knoche and Noelle Steines are seventh- and sixth-graders at Calamus-Wheatland, and both play basketball.
Steines' story is just one of thousands told by 'Iowa Girls' through the past century. From the Drake Fieldhouse to Veterans Auditorium to Wells Fargo Arena, championship dreams came true, hearts were broken and countless tears were shed.
Brian Borland of Madison, Wis., is the author of a book, Maynard 8 Miles, centering around his late mother, Carolyn Nicholson Borland, who led Maynard to the 1956 championship. A motion picture is in the works.
Borland accompanied his mother to Wells Fargo Arena in 2006, when the '56 Blue Devils were honored. Before that, he had little knowledge of how good of a player Carolyn was.
'From an early age, it was her dream to play at the state tournament,' Borland said. 'Most girls in Iowa had that dream. She talked about listening to the tournament on the radio and thinking what a dream it would be.'
He'll return Thursday through Saturday to sell and promote his book. He has donated 40 of them — one to each team.
The first state tournament was in 1920; Correctionville defeated Nevada, 11-4, in the championship game. But the sport almost withered in its infancy.
School administrators voted to discontinue sponsorship in 1925. Mystic Superintendent John W. Agans famously warned, 'Gentlemen, if you attempt to do away with girls' basketball in Iowa, you'll be standing at the center of the track when the train runs over you.'
And thus was born the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
The glory days of the tournament were from 1955, when the site shifted from the Drake Fieldhouse to a usually packed Veterans Auditorium, until the early 1980s.
'Whoever started this in the 1920s saw something, and (former executive secretary) Dr. (E. Wayne) Cooley made it into a marketing machine, the Iowa Girl, all of that,' said Jan Jensen, who once scored 105 points in a six-player game for Elk Horn-Kimballton in 1987, had her jersey retired at Drake University and is an associate head women's basketball coach at the University of Iowa.
Jensen is in the IGHSAU basketball hall of fame. So is her grandmother, Dorcas Anderson, Audubon class of 1921.
The zenith of six-player basketball came in 1968, when Denise Long and Union-Whitten outlasted Jeanette Olson and Everly, 113-107, in overtime for the championship.
In 1954, Iowa had 754 high schools, and virtually every small school fielded a girls' basketball team. Most of the city schools didn't join the party in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Girls Union began reporting participation numbers to the National Federation of High Schools in 1982. A total of 21,615 was confirmed for 1986, but that has decreased dramatically.
With 7,414 participants in 2017-18, basketball now ranks No. 4 among sports by Iowa girls, behind volleyball (10,806), track and field (10,013) and softball (7,465).
'Girls have a lot more opportunities now,' said Berger, a six-player forward who graduated from Winterset in 1977, and is the first female leader of the Union. 'Back in the '70s, it was expected that you would play basketball.'
The modern five-player game came to some schools in 1984, to the rest in 1993.
Janel (Grimm) Burgess played both five- and six-player basketball at Deep River-Millersburg, then Montezuma, from which she graduated in 1994. She played at Iowa State, then coached college ball before coming home.
She will coach Montezuma at state for the second straight year.
'When you get to state, the Girls Union makes you feel darn special,' Burgess said. 'It goes back to Mr. Cooley, the passion he had. The people there continue that tradition today.'
This week's tournament won't just be a series of 35 games over six days. There will be a six-player exhibition between junior varsity teams from West Des Moines Dowling and Ankeny Centennial.
Berger has assembled a panel of hall-of-fame coaches. Among questions will be, 'If you were writing a letter to your younger self, what would you write?'
And there will be the parade of some of the state's oldest 'Iowa Girls,' during halftime of the 4A championship Saturday. Steines gasped and put her hand over her mouth when she learned of her invitation.
'Well, I need to stay alive for that,' she said.
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