Welcome to the IGHSAU blog site. We will periodically publish news items and stories that relate to the Iowa Girl and our activities. Our first blog post features one of the most legendary teams in Iowa Girls’ High School Basketball history: the 1968 Union-Whitten girls basketball team. The 1968 Cobras were led by six-on-six scoring legend Denise Long. The Cobras are being recognized at the 2018 Girls State Basketball Tournament as this year’s Honor Team. The following story was written by Chuck Schoffner in honor of the 50th anniversary of their thrilling state championship game victory.
Championships are built on foundations of many layers. Teamwork is essential. Discipline is important, too. So is good coaching.
The girls basketball team at Union-Whitten High School had all of that in 1968 and something else as well -- a drive to make themselves the best players they could be. They made that happen with hours of practice, not only during the season, but year-round on an outdoor court in a small park in Whitten, across the street from the Community Church and just south of the fire station. There, you usually could find Denise Long and her cousin, Cindy Long, shooting at the two baskets. Teammates often joined them and so did some of the boys from the school. They played on the hottest days of summer and, if they couldn't get in the gym during the winter, shoveled the snow off the court so they could keep shooting.
The payoff for their work came on March 16, 1968. In what is regarded as the greatest championship game in the long history of Iowa girls basketball, Union-Whitten beat Everly 113-107 in overtime, a classic duel that showcased two of the brightest stars ever to grace an Iowa basketball court -- Denise for Union-Whitten and Jeanette Olson for Everly, both now members of the IGHSAU Hall of Fame.
Half a century later, the Union-Whitten Cobras are being recognized again as the Honor Team for this year's state tournament. And what a team it was. "We all had the desire. We all wanted to work hard to do it," said Pam Paglia Norman, one of the team's guards. "The reward of having this memory for 50 years is just really exciting."
The season before had ended in disappointment for the Cobras, a 60-59 loss to Beaman-Conrad in the district semifinals. It was one more stinging setback for coach Paul Eckerman, who in the previous five years had seen his team lose four times in the district finals, one game from state.
But after that 1967 loss, a couple of things happened that would change the Cobras' fortunes. Denise, who already had a variety of moves around the basket, including a hook she shot with either hand, perfected a jump shot. And Carol Hannusch moved into the district from Gilbert. Carol was a 5-foot-10 guard, tough and strong. She had won three state shot put championships for Gilbert and would win another that spring. Her presence made a good guard court even better.
Carol fit right in with Pam and the other starting guard, Mary Hammill, though she wasn't real sure at first. Carol could fling a basketball easily from the end line to midcourt. In Union-Whitten's tiny gym, she could grab a rebound and hurl the ball to one of the forwards under the other basket for a layup. "It was hard to catch," Cindy said. "It was like she was throwing a shot put."
Well, at her very first practice, Carol zipped one of those passes to Mary. "Instead of putting her palms out, she caught it with her fingers and jammed a finger," Carol said. "At that time, I thought, 'Oh, everybody is going to hate me.'"
They didn't, of course, and the guards became a fine complement to the high-scoring forward court of Denise, Cindy and their playmaker, 5-foot-2 Debbie Callaway. Union-Whitten rolled into the school's first state tournament appearance with a No. 2 ranking, a 27-1 record and a 91.6 scoring average. The lone loss came to Gilbert in the regular season finale, when Eckerman played only the reserves and left the starters at home because the team had its first sectional game the next night.
"Whatever Eckerman said, we did. We never questioned it," Carol said. "He treated us all the same. He was tough on all of us."
He treated us all the same. He was tough on all of us.Carol Hannusch
And there were rules. They all had to get the same green and white dress (the school's colors) and wear it to games. After the girls game, they sat together, no boys allowed, while watching the boys play. No one went to the concession stand for a soft drink because soda pop during the season was a no-no.
"Paul had a way about him, he could just get us to do things," Pam said. "He got us to want to get better, to strive harder, to work harder."
If things ever got tense -- and even if they didn't -- Cindy always was around to crack a joke or make a silly face. She also wrote funny poems before each game, making up stories such as the one in which her mother hit her over the head with a vacuum cleaner. Even their usually taciturn coach laughed at some of them. She panicked one time because the team was about to play a game, she had not written a poem yet and she couldn't find any paper. So she wrote it on some toilet paper -- which she kept all these years.
Everly showed up in Des Moines with the No. 1 ranking, a 26-0 record and tons of state tournament experience. It was the eighth consecutive trip to state for the Cattlefeeders, who won the title in 1966 and finished third in '67. They were a veteran group filled with confidence and they had Jeanette, whose jump shot was the envy of anyone who ever tried to shoot one.
So when the bracket came out with Everly in the top half and Union-Whitten on the other side, the anticipation heightened with each passing day. Think of it -- No. 1 vs. No. 2, Denise with her 61.6 scoring average (she had scored 111 in a game that season) against Jeanette and her 58.7 mark. "I can't ever recall a buildup to a game like there was for that one," said Ron Maly, who covered the tournament for the Des Moines Register.
The two stars whetted everyone's appetite in their first games. Jeanette set a state tournament record by scoring 74 points in a win over Nevada, a record that lasted all of 24 hours. The next night, Denise poured in 93 points (that record was never broken) in a rout of Bennett. After three rounds, Denise had 218 points, enough to break the four-game record of 200 set 11 years earlier. Jeanette went into the final night with a three-game total of 182 points. Unless someone managed to shrink the baskets, the title game had all the makings of a shootout. And that's exactly what it was.
From the beginning, Everly's strategy was clear: The guards would surround Denise and leave Cindy open at the free throw line.
"When those three people got around her I just thought, gosh, if that's the way they're going to play, I'll just go under the bucket and make layups or sit out here and shoot," Cindy said.
She stayed out and shot and the shots went in, one after another. It was not by accident.
"She practiced that shot zillions of times at the park there in Whitten," Denise said. "They underestimated her."
Sometimes, though, it took a little prodding by Denise to keep Cindy shooting. Cindy got frustrated one day and told Denise she was going home to ride her horse. "I said, 'No you're not,'" Denise recalled. "'You leave this court, I'll beat you up.' She started to leave and I took her by the arm and threw her right back on the court. And she stayed there."
"She did that many times," Cindy admitted. "If I said I wanted to do something else, she would say, 'No, you're going to stay here and practice.' And I'm glad she did."
Once, Eckerman told the girls he wanted to see them practicing so much they should be camping at that park. So one day, Denise and Cindy went to their grandmother's house, grabbed a mattress and hauled it to the park, where they slept on it that night when they were too exhausted to continue. But not before calling Eckerman on a nearby pay phone. "Remember when you said you wanted us to camp down here at the park?" Denise told him. "We're doing it. Why don't you come by and see?"
While Cindy was knocking down her early shots, Denise started to get antsy. She wasn't scoring and that was her job. "I thought, can she keep this up?" Denise said. "I was really nervous about not being able to score because Everly had a good guard court. I felt like a fish out of water kinda."
Cindy will tell you that Denise was nervous all the time. She drank Pepto Bismol before some games to calm her stomach and listened to Dean Martin records to calm her nerves. Like a gazillion other girls at the time, the two cousins both loved the Beatles and bought all their albums. They took those albums and a record player with them when they went to Des Moines so they could listen to their favorite music to pass the time. Nothing like cranking up "Twist And Shout" to fire up for a game.
Denise got her first bucket of the night about four minutes into the game and for the rest of the way, she and Cindy took turns scoring. At the other end, Jeanette did her thing, hitting one jump shot after another, usually with a defender -- and sometimes two -- in her face. "Our coach told us to stand straight on your feet. Don't jump with her or you'll be called for a foul," Pam said. "When she would do a jump shot, her feet would be up to my belly. I was standing there like a tree. That's all we could do. You couldn't stop her."
The baskets came in such a flurry that the official scorer couldn't keep up. At halftime, the scoreboard read Union-Whitten 53, Everly 47. It actually was 52-49 and it eventually got sorted out during the break. Union-Whitten led 77-71 after three quarters, and when Denise spun around her defender and scored with 42 seconds remaining, Union-Whitten led 101-95 and it looked to be over. Jim Zabel, doing the play-by-play on a nine-state television network, thought so, too. "And she may have wrapped it up with that one," he told his viewers.
But it wasn't over, not by a long shot. Cindy Fliss scored quickly for Everly, a Union-Whitten turnover led to Jeanette's jumper in the lane and Lynda Nordstrom's interception gave it back to Everly. She whipped the ball to Jeanette at midcourt and a whistle cut through the shrieks from the fans with three seconds left. Foul on Mary Hammill.
Jeanette calmly swished both free throws -- she finished 24-of-25 at the line -- to tie it at 101, but it still wasn't over. Everly intercepted the inbounds pass and got the ball to Jeanette, who fired from the free throw line at the buzzer. Cindy feared the worst. "Yeah, because she hadn't missed all night."
The shot was slightly off to the left, however, and curled out.
Mary was distraught because of her foul, but Denise reassured her. "I was just relaxed and confident and I said, 'We're going to win anyway. This just makes it more exciting.'"
For the crowd of 13,702 packed into Veterans Auditorium, it meant three more minutes of terrific basketball. Even the reporters didn't mind seeing it go longer -- and they're always hoping games get over quickly so they can start writing. "We were all on deadline," Ron Maly said, "but it was such a great game we didn't want it to end."
Denise got the tip to start the overtime and scored right away. Then she fed Cindy for the next three Union-Whitten baskets, Debbie Callaway hit two critical free throws and this time, the Cobras held on. In the school's first state tournament appearance, they had won it all.
Denise finished with 64 points and Cindy scored 41 -- 26 above her average. Jeanette, in the final game of her brilliant career, scored 76. The two stars hugged afterward and Denise implored Jeanette, "Don't start crying because I'll cry, too."
A year or so earlier, on a summer day at the park in Whitten, Denise and Cindy had sat under a tree while taking a break, chewing on sour apple bubble gum balls. Cindy looked at Denise and said, "Wouldn't that be neat if we could win the state tournament and then go on the Johnny Carson show and tell everybody about girls basketball?"
Well, both things happened. Because after she graduated in 1969 with a national record 6,250 points, Denise appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to talk about girls basketball in Iowa. An innocent remark had turned into the experience of a lifetime.
The park in Whitten is still there, still with a basketball court and a basket at each end. Snow covered the court on a quiet, frigid day this winter and a shovel lay at the edge of the court, just in case someone got ambitious and wanted to play. There's also sign to greet anyone driving in from the east, because the park where jump shots and hook shots and layups were perfected, where dreams were hatched, where two cousins once spent the night on a mattress to impress their coach, has a name. Denise Long Park.