ASHLAND — The year 2020 marks the centennial of the first Kentucky high school girls basketball state tournament.
Like so many other events, this year’s edition at Rupp Arena was suspended. The tournament, though, wasn’t embarking on another 100 years of state tournaments, because after the 1932 tournament the event was shuttered.
The cancellation wasn’t because of a war, virus, polio or tuberculosis outbreak, and its dismissal led to 43 years without hoop action for white girls, and it didn’t just happen in the Bluegrass State.
“We played in 1919, 1920, ’21, ’22, ’23, ’24, and the next game we had was in 1976,” said Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission.
Dolan said he thinks girls maybe didn’t get much respect in the 1920s. Ben Feree, assistant director of officiating and sport management for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said there was no early era of girls basketball in the Buckeye State, and Ohio’s first basketball state tournament for girls was in 1975.
“Actually I could narrow it down to two most likely influences: the Great Depression and the role of women new to the physical education profession and their perspectives on girls playing competitive basketball,” said Dr. Sallie Powell, adjunct professor of women and gender studies history at Eastern Kentucky University. “My master’s thesis and PhD dissertation are on the topic of why there was such a gap between 1932 — Kentucky white girls’ last state tournament — and the return of the girls’ state basketball tournament in 1975.”
“Some people viewed basketball as a girls sport. Males were expected to play football or baseball. Maybe (University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Adolph) Rupp changed that view in Kentucky,” said Powell. There was hearsay that a daughter of a state official actually died from playing basketball, Powell said, prompting the state tournament’s demise, but Powell could find no proof of that.
Powell is writing a book to be titled “If We Played Basketball We Couldn’t Have Babies: The Metamorphosis of Kentucky Girls’ Interscholastic Basketball.”
There was never a law banning girls basketball, but the Kentucky High School Athletic Association stopped sponsoring a girls state tournament. Girls state tournaments did continue to be held for what at the time were referred to as “negro schools” because the KHSAA didn’t have jurisdiction over them.
The cats’ meow
Coach W.B. Jackson’s Kittens went 19-0 and won the team’s first state championship, beginning one of the greatest dynasties of high school sports in Kentucky. Jackson became head coach in 1917 and his Kittens won five state championships from 1921-29. In 1922, the state tournament moved to Buell Armory in Lexington, the original home of the Kentucky Wildcats, and again the Kittens capped off a 19-0 season by crushing Sardis 39-7 in the title game.
The trophy-winning Kittens had become the toast of the town and even appeared in advertisements for local businesses. “The Ashland Kittens were celebrities,” said Powell, who was also a high school/college basketball referee, and played basketball for KWC. She added, “Ashland held parades for their Kittens and people hung out from windows and climbed into the trees to get a view of their stars.”
There was no question of the competitiveness of girls at the semifinal game between Ashland and Georgetown in the 1927 state tournament. The Kittens and Buffalettes were fierce rivals in the 1920s and the game had gotten rough. Several players were injured and one Buffalette was knocked unconscious, in the game won by Georgetown. In Kentucky, girls played games on a full court. Many physical educators, mainly in the Northeast, considered that to be unladylike. Some states used what were called girls rules and girls games were played on a half-court.
A look at the rest of the Kittens first era looks like this: 1922-23, 16-2, lost in semifinal of the state tournament; 1923-24, 17-1 state champion; 1924-25, 11-2, lost in second round of the state tournament; 1925-26, 11-2, lost in first round of the state tournament; 1927-28, 19-1 state champion; 1928-29, 21-0 state champion; 1929-30, undefeated until losing in round 2 of the state tournament to Georgetown. Before losing in 1930, the Kittens won 58 consecutive games.
After knocking off Paintsville in the 1932 state championship game, Burnside was denied the chance of becoming a three-peat state champion. Even though there wasn’t a state tournament in 1933, the Kittens had a lot less organized team in the 1932-33 season. The school annual doesn’t show a schedule or scores.
There wasn’t another Kittens’ team until the 1964-65 season. Coach Judy Morris’ Kittens lost their first game to Breckenridge and won 11 consecutive games to finish the season. There was no postseason play. Prior to 1964, the only basketball competition for high school girls in Ashland was between the Beta and Sigmet clubs.
On June 23, 1972, Title IX was signed into federal law, mandating more opportunities for scholastic female athletes. It said if schools were receiving federal money, they would have to provide athletic programs for females. That helped the state tournament to be reinstated in 1975.
By 1975, coach Linda Meyers was in charge of the Kittens. Meyers was the daughter of George Conley, a basketball player for the legendary Cam Henderson at Marshall University. Meyers said there wasn’t a Kittens team when she was in high school. She is recovering from a stroke and her brother, Larry Conley, said she was one tough player.
“We used to play in the back yard all the time. You know, we’d get out the basketball and shoot on a hoop somewhere around the neighborhood. She was fine. In fact, I thought she was a pretty good player,” said Conley, a former star player for Ashland and the Kentucky Wildcats.
Meyers’ 1974-75 team barely missed being in the long-awaited return of the state tournament. It reeled off 27 straight wins before finishing the campaign at 27-2 after being upset in the 16th Region championship game by Russell.
Meyers’ 1976-77 Kittens went by Kittens Paws, a take on the hit movie “Jaws.” The country was experiencing a gas shortage, and brutal weather caused numerous missed school days. The hot-shooting Kittens, though, upset their old adversary Russell in the region final, and won a state tournament game for the first time since losing in the championship game of the state tournament in 1931.
2019 was the first year the girls state tournament was held in Lexington since the tournament was abolished, and took place at Alumni Gym, another former home of the Kentucky Wildcats.
“It was a privilege,” said former player Birdell Fish Thomas, adding, “Not sure how I would have reacted to that situation (in the 1930s).”
Thomas was an all-state selection in 1976 before playing for Morehead State University.
“I was very thankful for all of it,” said former Kittens star Mykasa Robinson, whose University of Louisville Cardinals upset No. 2 University of Connecticut last year and were a No. 1 seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament. She said she was glad to have had a couple of good runs with the Kittens and her sister Alexis Robinson, who finished her hoops career with the University of Colorado last year.
“I loved playing with my teammates and for coach (Bill) Bradley,” said Julia Parker.
In February, Parker became the only Ashland basketball player, boy or girl, to surpass 2,000 career points, and she’ll be playing for the University of Pikeville next season.
The Kittens still sometimes practice in Alumni Gym, where Coach Adolph Rupp brought the UK Wildcats to play Marshall. From the 1920-21 to 1928-29 seasons, Ashland posted a 141-10 record. From 1927-28 to 1929-30, the Kittens outscored their opponents 2,157-570. The Kittens hold various state records, including being tied for most state championships (five), with Butler and Laurel County.