by Jim Riggs
February 11, 2005
Recalling A Once-In-A-Lifetime Happening
That second team ever in 1975-76, coached by Jack Titus who founded the program the previous season, finished with a 21-2 record with both losses coming at the national tournament. Four members of that team - Jamestown graduates Jana Chili-McDermott, Debbie Craig, Leslie Wallen and Falconer graduate Leda Peterson - were at Tuesday night’s celebration and they recalled what it was like to be a part of the program’s only regional champion and national tournament participant.
“We used to play at Persell when it was an elementary school,” Chili-McDermott said about growing up with Craig and Wallen. “The janitor used to let us into the gym and the three of us used to play together and that’s how we got so good. When we got to JCC we were ready. We had more experience than most of the girls going into junior colleges. We were so happy to be playing together (at JCC) and to have such a phenomenal team and phenomenal coach. We were blessed because no one wanted to coach women’s sports back then.”
Peterson had been a freshman on the first Lady Jayhawks team in 1974-75 that practiced more than it played en route to a 6-4 season.
“We really didn’t mind at all because all we really wanted to do was play,” Peterson said about the limited schedule. “We were happy that there were 10 games.”
Craig said, “You have to remember, this is 1975, 1976, 1977 and we were just so thankful we had some place to play. We loved it, we lived it.”
In their second season, the Lady Jayhawks played third fiddle behind the JCC men’s basketball and wrestling teams that had won regional titles.
“We practiced five or six nights a week, and I say night because the guys had the gym,” Peterson said about the workouts that began at 8 or 9 p.m. “So it was the Jayhawk basketball, wrestlers and then Lady Jayhawks.”
And those practices were grinding, which led to the team’s success.
“He coached us as players and not as women,” Craig said of Titus. “He yelled at us and he was hard on us and we did feed off of him. He motivated us very well. I don’t know if he could coach the same way with today’s women. He might have to tone it down a little bit, but I don’t know if Jack could do that.”
Chili-McDermott also credited Titus for the team’s success.
“We never stopped running for two years,” she said. He ran our butts off like we had never seen before. He expected us to train just as hard as guys trained and what he expected we gave him. He was a phenomenal coach. I can’t say enough about him.”
Wallin agreed that all the team’s success was, “Because of Jack, he ran us hard.”
Titus had played on Nick Creola’s run-and-gun JCC men’s teams that led the nation in scoring for two seasons.
“You’re averaging 90 points a game and giving up about 50 and that’s what we were doing because we modeled the men’s team.” Peterson said. “Running, scoring, defense. Every time we scored, we had a press on.”
She recalled at the regionals, “They were pretty impressed by our style of play, we were the running and gunning team. And we were in good shape.”
As the season progressed the wins piled up and the team was 21-0 before it suffered its first loss in its third game at the national tournament at Overland Park, Kan. And that loss came after a win earlier in the day!
Despite their success, the 1975-76 lady Jayhawks were practically unnoticed.
“It’s unfortunate that the (fan) participation at sporting events for the women wasn’t as great then as it was for the men because we worked just as hard and made just as many sacrifices,” Wallin recalled about the attendance at the old Collegiate Center gym.
There was one large home crowd at a game against the Fredonia varsity played three days after the Lady Jayhawks won the Region 3 Tournament.
“It was packed,” Craig said. “That was so ironic because (before that) the town didn’t know we had a team. When we came out and scored the first basket and people cheered, it was almost scary. It was like, “There’s people here.’ It’s totally different when you’re playing before empty seats.”
And even though JCC had already won the regionals, it was a very important game.
“We had more pressure on us that game,” Craig recalled. “We couldn’t lose it. We couldn’t lose to Fredonia and go into the national tournament on a loss.”
And they didn’t with a 58-43 victory.
The Lady Jayhawks had also been unnoticed by Region 3.
“We invited ourselves that year,” Craig said about the regionals. “They didn’t know we had a team.”
They found out when Titus informed the regional tournament committee.
“When he called and told them our record and our average points offensively and defensively, then they basically had to redo the bracketing to let us come and they seeded us third that year behind Mohawk Valley and Hudson Valley,” Craig said.
But there was never a season like that again. No other JCC women’s team has made it to the nationals and only one other reached the regional championship game – the 1976-77 squad.
“I was really surprised because there’s been talent in this community,” Chili-McDermott said. “I’ve seen high school girls play and I came back here and saw the talent and the height and the experience and I’m like, “What happened?”
Peterson had predicted it wouldn’t happen again.
“I told one of the teammates on the bench in Kansas that there will never be another team like this in 25 years and it’s been what, 30?” she said.
Wallen added, “We knew then that was going to be it, that no one would come close to us.”
Craig added, “As I got older, I didn’t think there would be another team like that.”
But she added, “At the time I was 18 years old and I didn’t think about if some other team would do it. I was just thinking about doing it the next year as a sophomore.”
And the Lady Jayhawks almost did. They had a 16-3 record, but the third loss came in the regional title game. And getting that far was quite an accomplishment because the team lost two starters after the first semester because of academic ineligibility.
Craig admitted if the Lady Jayhawks would have returned to the nationals, they would never have matched the 2-2 record of the previous team.
“It would have been brutal, we would have gotten clobbered,” Craig said. “We wouldn’t have had the height and we wouldn’t have had the experience or the depth off the bench.”