Lifelong Friends Kept 6-on-6 Tradition Close for Decades

Faded newspaper clipping and photos-- scanned and shared online these days--provide a 21st Century look at a pastime deeply rooted in the 1900s. Towns like Correctionville, Numa, Ida Grove, Hansell, and Wiota emerged as state champions of the only show in town; Iowa girls’ basketball. A century later, lifetime memories remain.

2019 marks Iowa’s 100th state girls’ basketball tournament. For most of its history, think ‘6 on 6’. Iowa girls’ basketball gained nationwide attention, decades before other states began offering sports for girls. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union was established in 1926, the nation’s single girls-only athletic body, with 159 schools fielding teams. Nearly all were from small towns. In the 1940s, 70% of Iowa teams were from schools with enrollment under 100.

When Jean and Joan Kennedy, best friend Donna Jean Bollig, and their Seneca High School teammates hit the state tournament court in Des Moines, there was no Wells-Fargo Arena…no Veterans Auditorium.  In 1941, the girls brought their 21-2-1 record to Drake University Fieldhouse.

“We held hands walking down the street. Not just two of us. The whole team”, quipped Jean decades later. This was not tiny Seneca, in Kossuth County, Road A-42.  With 50 students, 17 of the 25 girls were out; 12 made the trip. They were coached by Mr. Frank Hannah. Miss Worlstad was chaperone. School let out for two days, to get everybody to Des Moines.

Who was the best player? “I was better than Jean”, volunteered her twin, Joan.   Jean agreed. “She was. But Donna Jean was the best.”  That drew a nod—and a smile--from Donna Jean. They played another year together. Donna Jean, a year behind them, was around through 1943.

They stayed close through life. As they approached 90, Donna Jean and Jean were in the same Algona care facility. Joan would catch a ride up with family every month or so. They’d visit, laugh, cry a little, and sometimes talk basketball.

The decades in between had been busy for the lifelong friends. Jean (Brekke, after marriage, with seven kids) was a full time farm wife up home.  Donna Jean (Muller, with four kids) was a Kossuth County teacher. Joan (Wilkinson, also with seven kids) returned to Des Moines; as an auto dealership title clerk. She played several years of commercial league softball, too, padding her athletic resume.

Basketball remained important. For Joan--my Mom--it was a major social event when nephews or friends from ‘up home’ stayed with us in Ankeny, during State. She also taught us how to shoot free throws in the driveway. Yes, the two hand, underhand toss. But it worked.

And layups? “She had this weird ‘candy cane arm loop’ when she taught me”, recalls her youngest daughter, Judy. A family move to Ohio, in the late ‘70s introduced her to 5girl ball, with unlimited dribbles. As they moved back to 6 on 6 a few years later, this Second Generation Iowa Girl was whistled for travelling more than a few times, driving the lane for a layup.

It was hard to accept the upstart ‘five on five’ version, adopted statewide in 1993. “Oh my, they run up and down the court like that the whole game!? Don’t they get tired?” questioned Joan, with granddaughter Kelley Wilkinson, at a Vets Auditorium tournament game.

She asked the same questions, watching various granddaughters’ track meets. She would have been speechless—then again, probably not--watching them in cross country.  Yes, girls’ athletics made giant strides…thanks to those basketball pioneers.

Kelley, sister Kaitlin in Solon, and a couple cousins from Iowa to Ohio marked a Third Generation of Kennedys playing middle and high school basketball in the late 90s and early ‘00s. In a couple years, Kelley’s daughters will be first to decide who in the ‘Fourth Generation’ brings the ball up court.

It will come, though, without color commentary from the Great Grandmas. Joan, Jean and Donna Jean passed away (2017-18) within seven months of each other. Each was 92.

Still? Lots of happy endings.  Except for 1941. Seneca lost to Seymour, 42-36 in that first round. Numa won the state title. But there is always next year.

-submitted by Joe Wilkinson

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