SIOUX CITY | When I reminisce about the great Jim Duncan, I want you to realize I don’t hang words like “the great” on just anyone.
When I stop to think the beloved former Drake University broadcasting professor has been gone for nearly three decades, my bones start to creak. How can this be possible?
Indeed, though, it was 1989 when the Clearfield, Iowa, native suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 77. He had distinguished himself in a public fashion by serving more than three decades as the P.A. announcer for the Drake Relays and the tradition-rich Iowa Girls State Basketball Tournament.
Both of those wonderful events, I might add, were decidedly enriched by the memorable voice and equally singular passion this gentlemen’s gentleman brought to the table. Making his acquaintance was truly my good fortune.
This has all been rattling around my skull for nearly a month, mainly because Elle Ruffridge of Pocahontas Area led her team to a second consecutive Class 3A state championship while also finishing her high school basketball career with 2,951 points.
Ruffridge, a quicksilver 5-foot 4-inch guard who has signed with Missouri State, managed to add nearly 200 points to the 14-year-old state record of 2,756 points by 2003 Rock Valley graduate Deb Remmerde. And, both of them certainly enjoyed sensational high school careers.
Still, these are the records for the five-player game, which was introduced to our state in 1985. Thus began a nine-year co-existence with the inaccurately labeled “six-on-six” that wound up crowning 74 champions from 1920 through 1993.
We have, of course, reached the point when people born since all of this happened are fully grown and even raising children of their own.
Suffice it to say, however, that Iowa’s six-player game was quite entertaining and should be remembered forever in a far more positive light than you’ll often hear from many who fought to have it discontinued.
For those unfamiliar with this “ancient history,” we’re talking three forwards on one end of the floor responsible for all their team’s scoring while three non-scoring defenders, labeled as “guards,’’ tried to stop them. Conversely, the other team’s three forwards attacked the opposite basket, negotiating their rival’s three guards.
So, it was more like three-on-three, which made for some high-scoring battles.
When it came down to Iowa and Oklahoma being the only states still playing the six-player rules, the pressure to make the switch to five-on-five was unstoppable. Never mind that many states didn’t offer girls high school basketball until the 1970’s or ‘80’s.
The college women’s game, same as the men’s, was a five-player contest. And, even though the Iowa state tournament drew capacity crowds dwarfing such events in most other states, many believed the old rules were denying our girls college scholarships.
Of all the things I remember about Mr. Duncan, I’ve always valued the research he showed me to debunk such theories. A staunch advocate of the six-player rules, he hauled out several sheets of paper to outline that Iowa girls had made All-America teams at some level of college hoops, often several, every single year since early 1930’s. Mind you, the first women’s national champion was crowned by the AAU in 1926 and the first All-America teams were selected in 1929.
No matter the rules, you see, I believe the work ethic of Iowa girls and the enthusiasm surrounding E. Wayne Cooley’s immensely popular state tournaments proved to be quite inspiring. It was fascinating even to those of us from larger Iowa cities, where high school programs weren’t introduced until the 1970’s.
As a kid in Cedar Rapids, I listened faithfully to “Sweet Sixteen” broadcasts, marveling at the hefty point totals you’d have when three girls were doing most of their team’s scoring.
It was a Duncan line, I’m sure, honoring a prep star from the past, and those who tried to impersonate him will remember the script: “That great all-stater from Maynard, Iowa, Irene Silka!” And, the name was stretched out much like our old friend Mike Casuscelli used to introduce Briar Cliff’s Rolando Frazer.
I didn’t know the heart of this story until the other day, when I realized Miss Silka had scored 110 points against rival Hawkeye High School all the way back in 1926. Seven other Iowa girls later tallied 100 or more, but it wasn’t until 1952 that Norma Schoulte of Monona poured in 111 – the record Union-Whitten’s Denise Long later matched in 1968.
Consider the five-player career mark of 2,951 and then check out the 122 players who topped 3,000 in the six-player era. Heading that list with a whopping 6,736 is 1987 Ventura grad Lynne Lorenzen, breaking the 18-year-old record of 6,250 that still ranks Long second.
In Northwest Iowa, the Cattlefeederettes of Everly boast Jeanette Olson (1964-68) and Peg Petersen (1959-63) ranking sixth and seventh with 4,634 and 4,458, respectively.
Olson led Everly to the state title in 1966 and nearly delivered another in a classic 1968 showdown with Long and Union-Whitten, which prevailed 113-107 in overtime. Olson scored 76 while her teammates “limited” Long to 64.
People like Jim Duncan are never “replaced,’’ but the girls tournament and the Drake Relays have soldiered on.
Tom Kroeschell, one of Duncan’s former Drake students and later the Iowa State sports information director, handled the call at Drake for many years before 2006, when he turned it over to Mike Jay from Columbus Junction, another Iowa treasure.