Former Marian High coach Jim Miller had a game plan for his team in 1977 at the first girls state tournament.
Unfortunately, his Crusaders were too busy in the first quarter gawking at the huge arena.
“Everybody was just looking around,” he said. “It’s kind of funny now, but not so much then.”
It’s hard to fault those first teams for being overwhelmed by the 13,595-seat Devaney Center, which opened the year before. Playing the tourney on such a grand stage is a given now.
The 40th annual tournament begins today at four sites in Lincoln.
“We’ve all come a long way,” said Miller, who coached Marian for 34 years. “It’s hard for me to believe it’s been (that long) since that tournament, but I definitely remember it.”
It wasn’t the first state tournament for girls basketball — two were held in 1923 and 1924 — but it was the first recognized by the Nebraska School Activities Association.
Fifty-three years later, the 1977 tournament program included the headline “Welcome back, Ladies!”
Barb (Hart) Baumert was at the tournament four decades ago, playing for Lincoln East. She scored 12 points in the final as the Spartans defeated Burke 51-47 for the Class A crown.
“Those were good times,” Baumert said. “It was special just to be a part of that first tourney.”
Baumert said nothing came easy for girls who wanted to play basketball in those days. Lincoln East didn’t field a varsity team until the 1974-75 season, when Baumert was a sophomore.
“We were good, but we couldn’t prove it until there was a tournament,” she said. “We lost one game when I was a sophomore and won every one of our games (42 in a row) after that.”
As a freshman, Baumert had attended a school board meeting with her parents to lobby for the addition of varsity girls basketball.
“To finally get a team was great,” she said, “and to have a tournament at the end of my senior year was awesome.”
Winning the tourney had its perks.
“They took our whole team to Valentino’s for pizza,” she said. “We thought that was pretty cool.”
Jeff Ritz, who has coached for 38 years, said he remembers those early days.
“Back then, girls basketball was pretty tough to watch,” said the Omaha Skutt assistant, who started at Howells the year after the first tournament. “It was new to a lot of people, and the teams were usually coached by guys who coached football or another sport.”
Ritz said fans learned not to sit in the first row at those games.
“Chances were pretty good that they’d get hit by an errant pass,” he said. “It was archaic, but the girls got better.”
“Players got experience basically by shooting around in their backyard,” he said. “We always went over the fundamentals in practice, like dribbling around chairs.”
Randy Carpenter spent 37 years coaching girls basketball at Lexington. He was part of that 1977 state tournament as his Minutemaids lost in overtime to York in the Class B final.
“That one still hurts,” he said. “But it was just a thrill for us to get to play in an environment like that.”
Carpenter, who led Lexington to the first of its two state titles the next year, said he still loves to attend the state tourney. Last year he saw former York coach Tom Sheppard — the guy he coached against decades earlier at state.
“I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Remember me?’ ” Carpenter said. “The great thing about state is seeing people like that from the past.”
Though it’s hard to believe now, NSAA officials were worried in 1977 that the girls tournament might not generate enough revenue to pay for the three sites — the Devaney Center, the Pershing Auditorium and Lincoln High — to accommodate the four classes.
The fears were unfounded as the three-day tournament drew 33,015 fans. The tourney has become more popular in 40 years, with a paid attendance last year of 52,914.
“It’s fun to look back on those early days,” NSAA Assistant Director Jon Dolliver said. “Girls sports are played at a much higher level now, and the crowds reflect that.”
Dolliver said it’s important that the girls and boys tournaments receive equal treatment. Both will be played this year at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Devaney and two Lincoln high schools.
“The facilities are first-rate,” he said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Baumert, who went on to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is in the Mavs’ hall of fame, said the sport has made huge strides in 40 years.
“At first, we always practiced and played in the auxiliary gym,” she said. “We had to fight for everything back then, even playing in the big gym.”
Now a sixth-grade teacher in the Elkhorn district, Baumert said her participation in that 1977 state tournament still has special meaning.
“I feel honored to have been a part of it,” she said. “It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.”
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