Queens of the Hardwood
By BRANDON HURLEY
The queens of the hardwood honed their success on the diamond, paving the way for an unprecedented stretch run.
In an age when women still weren’t entirely viewed as equals, attempting to dive into the male-driven world of baseball was a risky tactic in 1947. Though Churdan’s girls’ six-on-six basketball team played very few actual baseball games – two to be exact – the experiment paid off, providing years of spectacular on-court success.
There’s much more to the long ago Churdan basketball dynasty as well. The core athletes stuck around to bear witness to the fruits of their labor. Their nickname, changed on a team vote. The wild and wacky sporting days of the 1940s and 1950s were defined by success and a strong bond by a long line of athletes.
Lola Konke, the Fitzpatrick girls, Shirley Scheurermann, Maxine Lightner, Joanne Tolliver and Beatrice McDonald - were just a few of the women who defined Churdan basketball, a group which first blossomed on the dirt baseball fields before tallying 110 victories over a five year span on the hardwood.
The Churdan High School six-on-six girls’ basketball reached the state tournament three times in four years, traveling to the prestigious Des Moines showcase in 1949, ‘51 and ‘52 - losing three games in heart-breaking fashion by a combined six points. They nearly secured four straight state trips, but were upset in the 1950 district final after spending most of the year ranked No. 1.
The history of Churdan High School female athletics is rich, but shockingly sparse. It all began with a unique name.
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Churdan athletes were initially known as the Irish Corks because of the large number of Irish students in the school. The Churdan basketball girls decided it was time for a change just as their dynasty was sprouting. Transition was in order.
“Most of our Irish girls graduated, so we held a meeting and voted a new name for the team,” a Churdan player was quoted in the Des Moines Tribune in 1949.
The athletes settled on Gremlins, and quickly took the state by storm. During a five-year span from 1948-52, Churdan was the class of west-central Iowa basketball, tallying nearly 100 victories aided by their three state appearances.
But it was that strange experiment in baseball that really got the ball rolling. Former girls’ coach Martyn Bacon wanted to toughen his athletes and keep them in shape in the offseason, so he created an all girls baseball team. They were the only girls’ baseball team in the state in 1947 and had a bit of trouble locking down boy counterparts. Even if scheduling was an issue, Bacon felt the gamble was necessary to improve their on-court skills. Though he certainly believed in his girls, he didn’t necessarily hold them in the highest regard, even in the press.
“I want to get more fight in them,” Bacon said in the April 4, 1947 issue of the Des Moines Tribune. “Last year, they were a little sissy.”
The local boys team wouldn’t let the girls join their squad, afraid they’d ruin their gloves, so Bacon turned to baseball. The girls only played two games against shockingly disrespectful opponents, a team composed of fifth and sixth grade boys.
Churdan was likely the only girls’ unit in the country, the Des Moines Tribune predicted, and had to resort to playing lesser competition.
Lola Kohnke, star of Churdan’s 1949 state team, possessed a nifty curveball out on the pitcher’s mound. She averaged 22.1 points per game for the 1948-49 Churdan basketball team, her senior year (and Churdan’s first state trip in 30 years) and admitted how her time on the diamond was a nice little booster, increasing their confidence as well as their stamina.
“I think baseball did help us,” Kohnke told Des Moines Tribune sports editor Jack North in a March 1, 1949 story. “We played about a month - beat the sixth grade boys, 8-4 in our only game - and got so that we didn’t get winded running around the bases,”
Kohnke also played the piano prior to each tournament game to calm her nerves. She was nicknamed Blondie and was later selected third team, all-state after the 1949 state tournament trip. She helped her dad mix cement for feed floors in the off season and later married Charles Weicht in 1957. Lola passed away at the age of 84 in Huntington, Indiana.
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Baseball created the foundation, allowing the girls to gel as a unit away from the court, bonding behind an intense lack of respect. This next wave of athletes was going to do big things, and it didn’t matter if the critics threw shade their way. They were poised to execute the greatest multi-year run in Churdan history.
The Churdan six-on-six girls’ team was engineered by the young coaching talents of Gilbert Christiansen, who also coached the boys’ team from 1948-1951. He took what Bacon had created and transformed it into a functioning masterpiece. His philosophies were rather grand for the times, but proved effective, tallying 93 wins and just 17 losses in four years. The girls seemed to like him as well, evidenced by a Des Moines Tribune photo in which they all boast wide miles.
Christiansen never had his guards practice shooting. That was his first big splash.
“They don’t shoot ‘em in games, so why not concentrate on the girls who do?” he said in the March 2, 1949 edition of the Des Moines Tribune.
CHS built quite the home court advantage during their basketball domination. It was nearly impossible for opposing foes to gain an edge. The Gremlins were undefeated in the cozy confines of Churdan for a significant stretch, compiling a three-year undefeated streak from 1948-1951.
Churdan’s only prior state tournament appearances up to that point were in the first years of the girls’ tourney, in 1920 and 1921. The Irish Corks lost 14-4 to defending champion Correctionville, in the opening round of the 1921 tourney and lost 20-5 to Linn Grove in their state debut a year earlier.
The girls’ state tournament, prior to sponsorship by the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union, was by invitation only until 1926. The Irish Corks couldn’t play their way in by winning a district title, they merely had to impress a committee. Sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it? They played in white blouses and black satin skirts which reached their knees, adorned by black headbands and black scarves. They traveled to games mostly by train as cars had yet to make a big impact in the small community of Churdan. Upon their arrival in Des Moines, the Irish Corks bunked with Drake sorority girls to save on costs. A nearly 30-year drought was approaching its demise as the CHS basketball team turned its attention back to the hardwood.
Half of the 1949 basketball team played on the ‘47 baseball squad, compiling a magnificent 25-2 record in their breakthrough season.
Kohnke wasn’t the only star of that ‘49 team. She was spelled by guard Joanne Tolliver, who stayed in shape over the summer by driving tractor and working in the fields. The Gremlins were also aided by Margaret Fitzpatrick and eighth-grader Beatrice McDonald, a rarity in those days.
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For all of Churdan’s on-court success, they often were met with some unfortunate outcomes when it mattered most. The Gremlins lost three state tournament games by a total of six points, including a devastating defeat in their upset bid of Slater in the 1949 tournament. Churdan’s knack for competing the most thrilling of battles began during the 1949 postseason run. The Gremlins punched their ticket to state in exceptional fashion, staving off Jewell in overtime thanks to Margaret Fitzpatrick’s victory-clinching bucket, sending Churdan to Des Moines with a 51-48 win. CHS entered the tournament with a dazzling 25-1 record, poised to make a racket. But, they fell inches short of the biggest upset of the state tournament, as heavily favored Slater clawed back from a six-point deficit which Churdan held in the third quarter.
Riding high off the thrills of their long-awaited return to state, the 1949-50 edition was even better. Churdan earned a No. 1 ranking in the northwest district for most of the year, tallying a remarkable 27-3 record. Maxine Lightner, a junior forward, averaged 21.2 points per game to lead the Gremlins. She was spelled by the brilliant Margaret Fitzpatrick, a senior forward, who averaged 19.3 points per game. Coach Christiansen called her the team’s “engineer or quarterback.” Younger sister Mary Fitzpatrick, a sophomore forward, averaged 15.3 points per game to help round out one of the most potent front court trios in all of Iowa.
Despite all the wonderful success, the Gremlins fell a game shy of back-to-back state tournament trips. Meriden upset top-ranked CHS in the 1950 district final. The loss would later mean Churdan lost out on reaching state in four straight years.
The devastation from a premature end to the 1950 postseason run did little to deter an outrageously talented and experienced Churdan squad the following year. The Gremlins brought back all but two players from a season prior and not only exceeded expectations but managed to achieve their greatest season in school history, tallying a school-record 30 wins against just five losses.
CHS was once again led by Lightner, who’d later earn an all-state, second team distinction from the Iowa Daily Press Association. She averaged 26 points in her final season with Churdan, including a season-best output of 46 points against Pocahontas. Mary Fitzpatrick averaged 13 points per game while her sister Kathryn Fitzpatrick averaged 12.7 points er game. CHS averaged a dazzling 60.2 points per game while holding opponents to 39.9 points per game with an average margin of victory of 20.3 points per game. CHS was undefeated in Greene County Conference play, tallying a 9-0 record. They captured the Greene County tournament title for the third straight year, defeating Cooper in a nail-biter, 66-61 to secure the title.
The Gremlins steam-rolled into the 1951 postseason, a team obsessed with finally securing a state tournament win. CHS punched their ticket to the state tournament, their second trip in three years, with a dominating, 71-45 victory over 1950 state runner-up, Kamrar.
They weren’t done yet, dismantling their state tournament first round opponent, Knoxville to the tune of 64-38, securing the first – and only – state tournament victory in school history. The Gremlins built an 11-point halftime lead, 31-20 and never looked back, carried by Mary Fitzpatrick’s team-high 28 points.
Churdan now had a date in the state quarterfinals, one of eight teams remaining. Unfortunately, the Gremlins were bounced from the tourney in heart-breaking fashion again, losing to eventual runner-up, Monona by a single point, 50-49. Churdan led by three at the break, 22-19, but surrendered 31 points over the final two quarters. Six-foot-four-inch Monona forward Norma Schoulte scored 18 of her 26 in the second half to pull ahead 44-33 with three minutes remaining. Churdan nearly pulled off a miraculous rally, but fell short in the quarterfinal thriller.
In a surprise to no one, the Gremlins once again would be at the top of their game the following winter, poised for another state trip.
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Churdan’s quest for back-to-back state tournament berths in 1952 was certainly a thrilling grind, scratching out a number of tight wins along the way. The Gremlins even overcame the struggles of a coaching transition when Christiansen left to take a post in Hartley, paving the way for Robert Muller.
CHS tallied a marvelous 27-4 record, their fourth straight year of at least 25 wins. They escaped the sectionals thanks to a pair of overtime victories, a 48-47 nail-biter against Otho and a double overtime victory against Stanhope, 66-64. The Gremlins followed that intense success in Harcourt with a mouth-watering triumph over Corwith, 49-47 in the district championship. The Gremlins were powered by an outstanding game from Shirley Scheurermann, who scored 37 of Churdan’s 49-points. Scheurermann averaged 26.5 points per game during the 1952 state tournament run.
Despite their third appearance in Des Moines in the last four years, Churdan’s basketball dynasty came to a agonizing end in the 1952 sedition. The Gremlins were upset by Tingley, 56-54 in the opening round. Tingley, as a school, possessed just 14 total girls - 11 of which were on the basketball team - helping pad an incredibly small total enrollment of 38 kids. Despite their short pool of players, Tingley managed to shock the veteran Gremlins.
Donna Ferguson, who tallied a game-high 37 points, poured in the game-winning basket with less than 30 seconds left. Churdan certainly wasn’t a team at full strenght, and it showed. The Gremlins, though a fairly deep bunch, were rather shorthanded, trying to fill the gap left by the absence of Kathryn Fitzpatrick, who fractured her ankle in the district title game. Fitzpatrick was one of Churdan’s most consistent players over her career, averaging at least double digit points in three straight seasons. The veteran’s absence wasn’t the only injury that plagued Churdan. Scheurermann was gashed above her left eye prior to the first round state game at the team hotel when she stumbled over a night stand, which required two stitches. Despite her facial injury, she managed to score 18 points, but it wasn’t enough. Churdan led for the entire game, holding advantages after each of the first three quarters, but a string of errors in the final period eventually meant their demise.
The shocking defeat closed the book on a five year run which saw the Gremlins win more than 100 games, reach state three times all while setting the history books on fire. No girls team from Paton or Churdan would reach state again until the Rockets of Paton-Churdan reached Des Moines in back-to-back years in 1967 and 1968.
The 2020-21 Paton-Churdan girls team is hoping to pave their own path, as they began the season with a 7-1 start behind 1A’s leading-scorer, Danielle Hoyle (23.6ppg).