Iowa celebrates 25 years of 5-on-5 girls basketball

2009-11-14T23:05:00Z Iowa celebrates 25 years of 5-on-5 girls basketballAndrew Petersen The Quad-City Times
November 14, 2009 11:05 pm  • 

Looking back, Connie Shafar isn't quite sure why she did what she did.

Curiosity, probably.

Twenty-five years ago last Tuesday, Pleasant Valley hosted a girls basketball clinic, featuring four teams and two games.

The first tip-off featured something previously unseen in the long history Iowa girls basketball - only 10 players on the court.

Then the PV girls coach, Shafar disdained the idea of a 5-on-5 girls game. Initially, she debated giving up a coaching career she had worked tirelessly to build.

But on Nov. 10, 1984, she set up a game between North Scott and Dubuque Senior.

Held in the early evening, the contest was the first in the state by 30 minutes.

"As a head coach, you're always nervous," then-Lancers coach Frank Wood said. "I was excited because it was a new era."

Jumping in

The six-player, half-court game remained in many schools for several more years, but Iowa's larger schools made the leap more freely.

North Scott lost its five-player debut, 49-41, but junior Jenni Fitzgerald scored 16 points - a sign of things to come.

The Lancers made it to the first 5-on-5 state tournament, the first of three straight appearances to usher in the modern era.

Fitzgerald seamlessly made the transition, earning recognition as Miss Basketball and Iowa's Female Athlete of the Year as a senior. She was by any definition the first full-court girls superstar.

"It's ironic," Fitzgerald recalled. "We ended up being pretty good in 5-on-5, but we didn't want to switch over.

"I think it was halfway through that first season that we realized we're not that bad."

Indeed they weren't, but the changeover wasn't without issue.

Big transition

Iowa's girls basketball state tournament dates to 1920, but it was more 50 years later before the biggest schools even formed teams.

North Scott got started under Wood in 1975 with an eight-game schedule.

The Lancers, like many of Iowa schools that are now Class 4A, had less tradition to toss aside.

A Rock Island native, Wood had no affinity for the antiquated six-player game.

"I wish we could have gone to 5-on-5 sooner," he said. "They were used to going full court. I even used that as conditioning in practice, and the kids enjoyed it."

Wood, who is now the athletic director at North Scott, estimated 90 percent of the girls who played six-player stuck with the new format.

Debbie Menke took over for Wood after the first season and continued to develop the players, particularly the old "guards" who previously played only the defensive end of the floor.

"Those people who had concentrated their efforts on those skills were broken-hearted, to be honest," Menke said. "We had to be pioneers, but we set a pretty good standard."

Letting go

While Shafar was happy to host the inaugural 5-on-5 contest, she didn't cherish the thought of her Spartans making the jump, which they did a couple years later.

A Bedford, Iowa, native, Shafar grew up playing the half-court game, just as her mother and grandmother had.

Behind former executive director E. Wayne Cooley, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union clung to the nostalgia as well.

Some small schools held on until 1993, but national pressures eventually gave way to the girls' game mirroring the boys.

"The thing about 6-on-6 was you couldn't compare it to the boys' game," Shafar said. "We used to get crowds to see that game.

"I never quite grew to love (5-on-5) like the 6-on-6. That was my game."

Continued progress

Girls basketball has continued to advance in the past 25 years.

Shafar's final season (1995-96) yielded a state tournament berth with PV.

She freely acknowledges that today's players are much better athletes and has enjoyed the evolution.

Fitzgerald is in her 10th season as an assistant with the University of Iowa women's team.

Like Shafar, she holds nostalgic memories of the six-player days. But the concept of limited dribbles and fouled defenders being unable to shoot their own free throws seems almost comical.

"I look back and giggle when I see a picture of us running to midcourt and then stopping to watch," Fitzgerald said. "We'd put our hands on our hips like we were so tired. And back then, we really were tired."

Before Iowa's full 1993 conversion, Texas had been the most recent state to adapt in 1978.

The Hawkeye State wasn't the last to modernize though, as Oklahoma became the final state to abandon the old game in 1995.

The sport is defunct, but the memories and history remain.

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