Willoughby: March Madness, a female perspective
Legends & Legacies
March madness culminates the basketball season. The date and the stakes haven’t changed since a century ago, but perhaps the definition of “madness” has. Local hoopsters gathered for championship games and celebrated high school athletics. It may seem like it has always been that way. Except for girls.
While sorting my aunt Lucille Van Deveer’s memorabilia, I came across a photo of the Hotchkiss High School girls basketball team of 1915-16. They played against Paonia and Eckert. Although my aunt attended Hotchkiss High at the time, she did not join the team. But her cousin Jean Duke (in photo, third from the right) did. Years later, my high school’s policies excluded girls from athletics, so I felt curious about the early days.
Aspen High School’s first basketball team for girls — boys, too — formed in 1907, and they played against Glenwood. Leadville mustered a team in 1905 with only one opponent, Salida. In 1911, organization grew more formal, with a league that included Aspen, Leadville and Glenwood. The Aspen team traveled to games on the train. On their way to Leadville, they would stop and play non-league Buena Vista. In 1912, Aspen also played Palisade.
March madness began in 1913 with Aspen girls playing Leadville for the Western Slope Championship. They lost 25 to 4. Leadville announced that the victory crowned them state champions unless someone came to town to beat them.
Aspen hosted games on the league’s largest court, Fraternal Hall. Later, it was called Armory Hall, and more recently it’s been known as City Hall on Galena Street. Boys and girls teams traveled together and played games back-to-back. Afterward, the hosting town sponsored a dance for the entire community.
Unlike modern times with many players on a team, the boys’ and girls rosters listed exactly seven players each. That seems odd, but in later years the state governing body’s rules limited teams to between seven and nine players.
Both my mother and father played basketball for Aspen High School during the mid-1920s, with Armory Hall as the gym and site of post-game dances. They traveled on longer trips to towns served by trains. They played different teams from year to year. Always at least one school opposed Aspen’s boy’s team, but sometimes the girls lacked a challenger. When that happened, the girls played an alumni team at home.
Aspen played a wider variety of teams than they had in the previous decade. They continued to counter the larger towns of Leadville and Glenwood, and the usual valley teams of Carbondale and Basalt slotted into the schedule. Rifle, Gypsum and New Castle rounded out the competition. The disparity between the smaller towns and large ones was exemplified by Aspen’s games against Basalt in 1925. The boys won 48 to 5, and the girls walloped Basalt 62 to 1.
Even with more teams to play, few games took place on the home court, so a basketball game registered as a major community event. Aspen High’s band kicked off the performance, followed by a dance orchestra. The entertainment made the visiting team’s journey worthwhile. In 1926, Aspen hosted the visiting Glenwood teams for a tour of the Durant Mine.
During the 1940s, the league began to take into account a school’s size. This policy limited Aspen’s league to Basalt, Carbondale and Eagle.
The Colorado High School Activities Association has been the guiding entity for high school sports since 1921. They have awarded a boys state championship basketball team annually since that time. Aspen’s girls continued play from 1911 through 1942, and although Title IX — a law that extended athletic benefits to all — was enacted in 1972, the association did not begin to list girls until 1976. March madness continued along with another kind of madness: exclusion.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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