Minnesota is well-stocked with exceptional high school girls basketball players who will go on to successful college careers. That wasn’t always the case, and for Iowa, too.
Paige Bueckers, from Hopkins, Minn., is now a freshman at UConn. She came in as the No. 1 recruit in the country. Today, another Hopkins product, junior Naya Nnaji, is another top-ten national recruit.
Iowa is producing outstanding college women’s basketball players today, as well. Since 1993, when the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union voted unanimously to go from 6-player basketball to the 5-player game, Iowa began to grow college talent that the 6-player half-court game wasn’t designed to do.
I remember New York Mills’ Janet Karvonen, who dominated Minnesota high school basketball in the late 1970s. Her classic jump shot helped her score 3,129 points at Mills, and she was honored in 1980 as a first-team Parade All-American.
My first sports editor job out of college was at the Long Prairie Leader, and I was able to see Karvonen play a few times. She was royalty on the basketball court, and I -- along with everyone else -- assumed her star would shine brightly at the college level.
But it didn’t, exactly. She received a scholarship for one of the national powers at that time, Old Dominion, but her high school success didn’t transfer quite as well to Division I. The way I remember it, her defensive skills were suspect. She finished her career at Louisiana Tech.
Back in the 1970s, Minnesota high school basketball was not what it is today. It took a few years before big-time women’s college programs began to take the state seriously. It took longer than that for Iowa to get that same kind of recognition.
I asked legendary Sibley-Ocheyedan girls basketball coach Henry Eekhoff about the Hawkeye State’s move from 6-on-6 basketball to the 5-player game. There’s no one better than Henry to discuss the subject. A member of the National High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the now-retired Generals coach led a 6-player team to a state championship in 1986, then led a 5-player team to another state championship in 1996.
Eekhoff has always been a big fan of the 6-on-6 game.
“I’d go back to the 6-on-6 game in a heartbeat,” he told me. “Five-on-five crowds are not even close to the 6-on-6 crowds.”
The most famous 6-player Iowa state championship game occurred in 1968. It featured two incredible scoring forwards, Denise Long of Union-Whitten and Jeanette Olson of Everly. Union-Whitten won the game 113-107 in overtime.
I watched the game with my parents on television in our Allendorf, Iowa, home. Henry Eekhoff saw the game in person.
“I remember Jeanette Olson. She could hardly walk to the half-court line and the guards were getting the ball to her. She just took off like a streak to the basket. That was something else,” he recalls.
In Iowa 6-player basketball, of course, the court is divided into halves. Each team has three forwards (scorers) on one side, and three guards (defenders) on the other. The guards only play defense. The forwards do all the scoring. It was an exciting game for fans, but not everyone liked it. Because the format wasn’t a good preparer of college players, its critics grew increasingly louder. Lawsuits were threatened. The IGHSAU caved and ended its historic 6-on-6 approach 27 years ago.
To Coach Eekhoff, that meant the end of an electrifying brand of basketball that the fans dearly loved.
“I think the big draw was that the people scored,” Eekhoff said.
State tournaments were practically indescribable. To get a decent seat, Eekhoff said, fans would have to order their tickets six months in advance. “We would always get there 45 minutes before game time, and it was packed already.”
The 6-player game wasn’t just high-scoring, but it was inclusive, too. Girls who couldn’t shoot could always be a guard, where shooting wasn’t required. But the critics were right: The style limited girls’ options for college. At least two of Eekhoff’s star 6-on-6 players went on to be successful at the college level, Stacey Doeden at Morningside and Sarah Van Diepen at Colorado, but no guards made the jump.
Eekhoff remembers telling his wife that before Sibley-Ocheyedan made the switch to 5-player hoops, that would be his signal to hang it up. But when the time came, he said, “I just couldn’t leave it alone.”
He went to clinics to get a better understanding of coaching the 5-player game, and he picked the brains of 5-player coaches he knew. Obviously, he learned well. His record is proof enough of that.
But he’s not convinced that the move from 6-player to 5-player is a universal success. Sure, more Iowa basketball players go on to play in college nowadays, but the 6-player game had its benefits, too. For one, it allowed more girls to participate. And the 5-player game has never been as popular -- or as breathlessly high-scoring -- as the 6-player game was.