As Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball players aim for next month's Southeast and state tournaments, they'll take time this weekend to honor those who blazed their trail.
Thirty years ago, the 1974-75 JDHS girls basketball team played in the first sanctioned region and state girls tourneys. The current Juneau girls squad is inviting all girls basketball alumni - and those from the 1974-75 team in particular - to be recognized Saturday night between the girls and boys homecoming games against the Colony Knights.
The Crimson Bear girls play at 6 p.m. and the boys at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the JDHS main gym. They'll play their series openers tonight at the same times.
While Valdez won the first girls basketball state title back in February 1975, Juneau claimed the first Southeast crown, at a tournament played in Wrangell.
"It was a big deal," recalled Ellen Chilton-Field, a member of that 1974-75 JDHS squad. "We talked about it all the way there, we talked about it all the way back. ...
"When we won that tournament, I swear they could hear us back in Juneau."
The 1974-75 girls team was far from the first at JDHS; there were girls hoops squads in the 1920s and before. But it was the first to take part in official postseason tournaments.
When the school recently replaced signs in the gym marking each region and state winner, current Juneau girls coach Lesslie Knight said she realized it was the 30th anniversary of the first tournaments and decided to mark the occasion at homecoming.
The 1974-75 team was coached by Cyndy Daniels, and included Chilton-Field, Margi Mulligan, Robin Parks, Cathy Crow, Lori Fitzgerald, Kim Southard, Jolene Colby, Debbie Patrick, Pam Sargent, Nancy Thomas, Lisa Turner, Gayle Callahan and Denise Peterson.
"It wasn't nearly as popular as it is now," Mulligan said. "The girls mostly did the drill team, or cheerleading. There were a lot of really good basketball players who didn't go out for the team. ...
"Obviously, the sport has gotten much, much better. It's a lot more acceptable now, and there is better competition throughout Southeast."
A lot has changed in the ensuing years - from opposing teams to travel.
"We played all of Southeast - Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Mount Edgecumbe, Metlakatla - all the smaller places," said Jody Schmitz - then Jody Leamer - who played in 1976 and 1977. "We mostly traveled by ferry. When we did travel by plane, we had to wear dresses. We always had to dress up when we traveled."
Chilton-Field recalled rules requiring all the 1974-75 players to wear identical socks and shoes - red-and-black Converse sneakers that were hard to find.
In the 1975-76 season, Fred Van Wallinga took over as Juneau's coach.
"I came in about three days into the season," said Van Wallinga, who now lives in Willow. "It was probably the best educational experience I had in my career. It was wonderful. This was a group of kids with not a lot of basketball experience, but we worked really, really hard."
Van Wallinga coached for just one season, leaving to become principal of Auke Bay Elementary. He moved to the Mat-Su valleys in the mid-1980s and served as an administrator at several schools, including Wasilla High.
He remembers that girls games in the '70s sometimes drew inexperienced referees - with interesting results. During one game in Sitka, Van Wallinga recalled, a Juneau player - seeing all her teammates well-defended - inbounded the ball to herself and drove for a crucial layup. There was no violation called, much to the dismay of Sitka's coach.
The Juneau girls program had to work to get gym time and funding - assisted by the passage of Title IX - and home-game crowds were sparse. Gradually, the situation improved.
"When I left Juneau, there was a completely different attitude toward girls athletics," Van Wallinga said. "It was really healthy."
"It was tough at the time," said Coreen Savikko, who played in 1975-76 and 76-77 and now is a teacher in California. "(But) it was a great memory - my best high school memory. I'm so glad that to hear that (girls athletics) has taken off as it has, and that girls have that opportunity."
Some "early" Juneau girls players have seen their children take part in Southeast high school hoops. Schmitz's daughter, Jaimee, played for the Crimson Bears before graduating in 1999. Patty Grantham, who played for Juneau in the 1975-76 and 76-77 seasons, now lives in Petersburg where her son, Michael Serafini, plays for the Vikings.
"It's been neat to see him go to high school, play ball and have these same experiences," Grantham said. "It's a great thing for a kid to have. It's wonderful that it continues over the generations."
Grantham, who also played some collegiate basketball at the University of Washington, downplays the notion that she "pioneered" the program.
"I don't think of myself as someone who led the way," she said. "I think of myself as someone who had a tremendous opportunity to grow as a person and mostly have a lot of fun."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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