Roncalli grads reflect on 1975 state girls title
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Published Feb. 21, 2015
Exactly 40 years ago Sunday, history was made.
They might not have known the historical ramifications at the time, but the Roncalli girls basketball team carved their place in history on Feb. 22, 1975 in a tiny gym in Madison.
On that day, the Jets won the inaugural girls state basketball championship over Racine St. Catherine 65-62 to cement their place in history. The victory was the culmination of years of persistence and tireless effort, not just by the players, but by the coaches and teachers who knew the girls game deserved its own showcase.
Changing of the guard
Prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972, women’s sports were a little bit of an afterthought.
Ann Rhode, a senior guard on the championship team who goes by the nickname “Dust”, said basketball wasn’t offered until her sophomore year in 1973.
“It was nice to get a chance,” Rhode said of trying to play basketball before the creation of the Roncalli team. “I was a girl, so getting a chance to play was hard. I’d try to play pick-up games with the boys and I’d be picked last with the elementary kids just because I was a girl.
“I wanted to tell them ‘I have skills if you just let me show you.’ Thank God we went to a private school because if I had gone to (Manitowoc) Lincoln I’d have missed out.”
The first tournament was put on by the Wisconsin Independent School Athletic Association, of which Roncalli was a member. The WIAA wouldn’t hold a tournament until the following year.
Many players felt fortunate to have the limited resources they were given.
“We were living large with the boys leftover practice uniforms,” said Laura (DeKok) Zigmunt, then a sophomore center. “We thought we were top dogs by having the few things we did have.”
Barbara (Baryenbruch) Luhring said having their own uniform really cemented the team for her, personally.
“The boys let me play with them but it wasn’t the same because they weren’t my team,” Luhring said. “We’d play pick-up games but once that game ended we went our separate ways.
“The boys would play on school teams together which was something I didn’t have. I wanted that uniform, that team. Girls just weren’t brought up as team before us.”
The chance to play sports impacted their lives in several ways.
“At the time I didn’t realize it but now looking back I look at the life skills we learned, the relationships we built,” said then sophomore forward Carol (Naidl) Lindholm. “You can’t replace those, they were huge.”
Birth of a program
The team began play in 1973 under coach Donna Anderst and finished with an 8-3 record.
“Nobody stepped up to coach us so Donna did that for us, same as our coach the next season (Sue Schneider),” Luhring said. “(Schneider) was a math teacher and didn’t know a whole lot about basketball but we needed a coach and she delivered. They might not have known the sport but they turned us into a team.”
Rhode stressed how much it meant to the team that Anderst and Schneider made time for them so they had the opportunity to go out and play on a regular basis.
“Without all of our coaches stepping up for us we simply don’t have a team,” Rhode said.
The 1974 season ended in a bittersweet moment. The Jets concluded the campaign with a perfect 17-0 record and a regional championship, but were denied a chance to play at the state level.
“We were regional champions but we didn’t have anywhere to go after that. Having a place to go was everything,” Rhode said. “I always wonder just how good we were that season.”
A perfect season in ’74 was only the start for the Jets as Art Edinger, a former semi-pro basketball player, was set to take over the reins as coach in 1975 after Schneider had to resign for health reasons.
“Art knew basketball,” Luhring said. A third coach in three seasons was tough but the players knew it was for the best. “We were ready to really learn the sport.”
Edinger, like his predecessors, was more than a coach to the team.
“Mr. Edinger was the bomb,” Zigmunt said. “He was like a dad to us. He really knew how to teach.”
With a basketball-minded leader in place, the road to history wouldn’t come without its trials.
Not giving up
Rhode said her attention turned to winning a championship the moment she found out there would be a state tournament in ’75.
“I was told at the regional tournament the year before WISAA was planning a state tournament and I could barely contain my excitement,” Rhode said.
Roncalli won 31 consecutive games spanning the ’74-75 seasons before dropping a pair in one weekend at a tournament in Milwaukee. The Jets continued their winnings ways before nearly falling short of their goal.
In the regional final, one game before State, Roncalli trailed St. Mary Springs by nine at halftime. Edinger wasn’t about to let his players lose a shot at something special.
“I tried to stress they should win it for the three seniors,” Edinger told the Herald Times Reporter at the time. “This had to be something special for the three seniors…(Judy) Mahnke, Rhode and (Sue) Tringali.”
The Jets went on to defeat Springs going away after catching up in the third quarter. The test provided much-needed experience a week later.
The state semifinal went Roncalli’s way, a 53-45 victory over Milwaukee Lutheran setting up a showdown with Racine St. Catherine for the championship.
After being outscored 25-13 in the second quarter, Roncalii trailed St. Catherine 33-27 entering the break.
At halftime, the squad received a pep talk from an source.
Rhode recalled Chris Ostrowski, the first female sportscaster in Green Bay, coming into the locker room.
“We were all sitting around going over the first half and Chris told us she didn’t drive down to Madison to watch us lose,” Rhode said.
The talk only reinforced the notion that a Jets victory was fated according to Luhring.
“I think we always thought we would be champs,” Luhring said of the mood of the team. “It didn’t seem like we wouldn’t be champions even losing at halftime.”
“Losing wasn’t something we talked about,” Rhode said. “We knew we had a chance. We just went to play.”
The player most responsible for the comeback according to several players was senior guard Mahnke. She finished with a game-high 25 points, including going 15-of-20 from the free-throw line.
“Judy kept going to the line and making her shots,” Rhode said. “She was determined not to let us lose.”
In an interview with the HTR after the game, Edinger felt his senior deserved a lot of credit.
“They didn’t give out a most valuable player award,” Edinger told the HTR. “But word around the tournament was that Judy would have gotten it.”
The Jets closed out the game with a 65-62 win, for the championship, a 21-2 record and their place in the history books secure.
It just so happened another first was occurring that night. The Two Rivers and Roncalli boys teams were playing for the very first time that night at Roncalli, meaning a packed house was awaiting the champions.
“Coming home that night to a police and fire escort from Valders on was incredible,” Rhode said. “We walked into a jam-packed gym and everyone went ballistic because we were state champs. How cool was that?”
For the players, the win wasn’t just for themselves.
“I felt a lot of hometown pride,” Zigmunt said. “I was hometown proud for Two Rivers being one of two players from there. Having the police escort was something I’ll never forget. It was huge for everyone to support us like that.”
The experience is something none of those associated with the team will forget anytime soon.
“Simply put, it was the best day of my life. Hands down,” Rhode said.
Luhring reiterated the title was meant to be because the chemistry between the entire squad.
“We were totally in tune with one another. The stars just lined up perfectly.”