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Unofficial state champions: Label was it for Cathedral girls with no official tournament in 1976

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Five starters now

The five starters of the 1976 Cathedral High girls basketball team consisted of, from left, Marjie Ducey, Nancy Soener, Eileen Halpine, Rose Smagacz Parfitt and Judy Howard. The Cathedral girls were named the unofficial state champions because a tournament didn’t exist in their sport after Title IX was slowly rolled out.

I pull the plastic bin from the closet, pawing through old newspaper clippings and photographs to find the gold medal that lay hidden beneath a lifetime of memories.

At not much bigger than a quarter, it was much smaller than I remembered. Tiny figures play basketball on the front, and there it is on the back:

Cathedral High School bicentennial Greater Omaha League and Omaha World-Herald all-class champs.

It took a lot of abbreviation to make it all fit. Instead, we just called ourselves the unofficial state champions. The last of our kind.

Fifty years ago, Title IX legislation changed the arc of women’s sports. But not immediately. At least not in Nebraska high schools. Girls state tournaments sprouted little by little.

Track and field in 1971. Volleyball in 1972. Swimming in 1973. Golf in 1974. Tennis in 1975. Basketball in ’77. One year too late for my senior class of ’76. Nebraska’s tardiness cost my Cathedral High School team a chance at a sanctioned state championship.

Our achievements were lost in time. Only nine losses in four years. Champions of the Greater Omaha League in 1976. Our roster included seven seniors, including all five starters.

Three made The World-Herald’s All-Omaha team (it included Metro Conference players): Rose Smagacz Parfitt and Judy Howard on the first team and Eileen Halpine on the second. Howard was a repeat selection on the All-Nebraska team, and she and Parfitt were repeat Class B all-staters. Although they didn’t make it, both were asked to try out for the 1976 Olympic squad.

I joined the team as a sophomore, after a summer of playing basketball against the neighborhood kids improved my shaky skills. Cathedral already was deep and talented.

Frank Smagacz, who had coached Gale Sayers at Central High, had made sure of it, fielding teams in softball and basketball for his daughter and other Cathedral girls. Alongside another legend, Roger Higgins, he built a juggernaut.

Back in ’73, when that special class went 19-0 as freshmen, Smagacz lamented that Cathedral wouldn’t get a chance to play for a state title. They’re pushing everything but basketball, Smagacz told the weekly Omaha Sun newspaper, even though it’s growing.

“Iowa has it,” Smagacz said. “Their girls get as much publicity as the boys. Everybody has it. We’re probably the least progressive in that area than anyplace in the United States.”

One of my earliest basketball memories is Smagacz’s voice booming from the stands at the John F. Kennedy College Invitational in Wahoo. Between games, the glorious sound of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the Globetrotters’ theme song, filled the gym.

Scrapbook

Marjie Ducey, Eileen Halpine, Nancy Soener, and Rose Smagacz Parfitt flip through an old scrapbook.

Everyone called me Duce then, which Smagacz interpreted as Juice. So that’s what he’d yell as he urged me to use the backboard. My dad, a Wayne State football player and quite an athlete in his day, would tell me to watch the back door, so no one would sneak behind me for an easy layup.

I’d gotten my first taste of the state basketball tournament in 1972, when the Cathedral boys won Class B. Hundreds of fans traveled to Lincoln to see Mike Fouts sink a 20-footer with six seconds left in a 66-65 win over Crete. What a thrill.

But I knew I would never get the same treatment.

By ‘76, we weren’t the only ones who felt the sting of no state tournament. Omaha Burke coach Karen Peterson, whose team was one of the favorites for the first Metro Conference title, said so in a preseason preview.

“I wish it was this year,” she said. “I’m losing three seniors, and I would have liked to have seen how they would have done.”

But while coaches were talking about goals, we were clueless. We concentrated on the games themselves and what was coming after graduation.

“It’s hard to miss something you did not have,” longtime starter and defensive specialist Nancy Soener said recently.

Girls athletics had progressed at Cathedral, a now-defunct school of mostly working-class kids at 39th and Burt Streets.

Marijo Wasinger Malesa remembers then-athletic director Tom Kros buying new uniforms for the track team when she was a sophomore. “I felt like we finally had somebody who gave a damn about girls sports,” she said.

In 1975, the girls won state in track and field. Thirty-four teams scored in Class B. “We competed against all those schools in track,” Howard said. “Why wasn’t it the same in basketball?”

Another CHS teacher, Nadine Ridder, created a C Club for those with varsity letters in basketball, volleyball or track. We recognized the differences between the boys and girls teams, but any improvements due to the landmark Title IX legislation that passed in 1972 still were far away.

“It was just in the beginning,” Howard said. “Nobody really knew what the effects or ramifications were going to be.”

I hustled to weekend practices smelling of Mister Donut, where I worked. I remember telling my dad we didn’t have the same kind of equipment as the boys. We had only one set of uniforms. Decent but ugly, Soener said. Parfitt remembers asking why we always had to practice after the boys.

“How dangerous was that?” Parfitt asked. “We always got the gym at 8 o’clock at night, and we were walking home at 10."

Cathedral compromised by saying we could practice early when the boys had road games. But even that was nixed in favor of the grade school boys teams.

Still, we kept winning.

Private schools made up most of our schedule: Marian, Mercy, Duchesne, Holy Name, Notre Dame, Paul VI and Dominican. They often learned their skills early in Catholic Youth Organization leagues.

“I really do have to credit the archdiocese and Catholic schools for creating that opportunity,” Marian star Julie Uryasz said. “My friends coming up in public school certainly had some great teams, but they didn’t have that opportunity that started back in grade school.”

We played most of our games away from home. Once, the bus made a pit stop before we even left the neighborhood to pick up Halpine, a two-time state hurdles champion who was slower about meeting our take-off deadlines.

She remembers feeling sorry for the boys, who didn’t win as much.

That final year, we road warriors averaged 65 points a game while holding opponents to 36. Smagacz led the way with 20 points a game, and Howard averaged 17 rebounds. (Editor’s note: The author is modest. She averaged 10 blocked shots a game.)

“I loved our full-court press,” Parfitt said. “No one could break it when we were on our game.”

Our only loss came at Marian over Christmas break while I was on a school trip to Paris. Who knew they would even miss my shot-blocking?

For years, Marian and Cathedral eyed each other across the city, often meeting for championships.

“Playing Cathedral was always the biggest rivalry of the year,” said Uryasz, the star of the Crusaders in 1976 along with Ann Cannon and Michelle McCarthy.

We couldn’t wait for the rematch in the regular season finale. At stake, the GOL championship.

Our coach, Mike Harris, said there wasn’t a “milquetoast’ in the bunch. In other words, the Cardinal girls weren’t timid. Some even lifted weights, a World-Herald article pointed out. And still had dates.

Harris was never shy about talking up our team. I was nearly 6-3, Howard was 6-foot and Parfitt was 5-11. We used to laugh at game programs or newspaper articles. We seemed to grow an inch with each one.

At Marian, there wasn’t a visitors’ locker room, just a room with a piano — school officials chastised us for playing it before the game. The tile gym floor lay between a wall and a few rows of bleachers.

We didn’t need a big venue to feel the pressure. As we closed out our high school careers, this game meant everything to us.

The first half was close, but then we took over after the break and won 58-48. Parfitt had 21 points, Howard 16 and Halpine 12. I chipped in seven. Highlights appeared that night on the TV news, and the Sun devoted an entire page to the game.

Conde Sargent of The World-Herald named us his unofficial No. 1 afterward in a tight battle with Lincoln East, which beat Burke for the first Class A title the next year.

We received our gold medals at a postseason athletic banquet, validation for our hard work. We never played together for CHS again.

Parfitt, who scored 1,324 points in her career, went on to play at Kansas. Howard chose Tarkio. Halpine attended Kearney State. Soener went to St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota.

I played two years at Creighton, where I briefly held a single-game rebounding record and, according to then trainer Clair “Butch” Fennell, executed one of the best side-saddle rejections he had ever seen.

Eleven years after leaving Cathedral, my daughter, Lindsay, was born. By the time she entered high school, she had competed in basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis, soccer and track. She traveled farther with her select soccer teams in grade school than I ever did, even in my years at Creighton.

I hungered for her to earn the state tournament bid that I’d missed. She never made it in basketball or volleyball. But as a junior, she advanced to the state tournament in tennis. I felt vindication at last.

It wasn’t her last highlight.

Five years later, we visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, after she was named an NAIA Division II first-team All-American for the third time. I saw her Hastings College jersey on display, one of the proudest moments of my life.

Who knew the daughter of a working-class Cathedral girl, a late bloomer in this late-blooming sport, could go so far?

Of course, my high school team still harbors a sense of regret. After the Nebraska girls state tournament began in 1977, girls like us were quickly forgotten. Nebraska’s last unofficial state champions merited a medal, but we preferred a place in the record books.

Judy Howard, my old teammate, thinks it would have been cool to launch the state tournament in 1976, the same year we celebrated the country’s 200th birthday. Regardless of age or anniversary, our coming-of-age story still binds us together.

“I still think we were the best team all around,” Howard said. “I don’t care what anybody says.”

Title IX end

Title IX at 50: Throughout the summer, The World-Herald will have a multipart series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, remembering the achievements of women in sports while examining the barriers that still remain to equality under the law

Title IX at 50
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