VanHaren: From six-on-six to the full-court press

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Roger VanHaren

I live in Beaver Dam, and the real buzz around here is the third consecutive state championship won by our high school girls basketball team. These girls have lost only five games in the last four years, and only one of those losses was to a team from Wisconsin. This year, for example, their only loss was to Miami Country Day, the No. 1-ranked high school team in the nation.

The Beaver Dam girls play a fast-paced, full-court, trapping defense that would be the envy of many boys teams. They routinely beat their opponents by 20 or 30 points while playing all 15 of their players. They don’t attempt to “pour it on” against anyone. The starters play very few second-half minutes.

Girls basketball has come a long way since President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Educational Amendment in 1972. Before that, girls had almost no opportunities for interscholastic athletic competition. Title IX stated that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance.” Title IX insured that girls had to have as many interscholastic opportunities as the boys did.

My sister Joyce was a really good athlete. (Much better than her older brother!) But there were no girls’ sports in the the ’50s when we were at Oconto Falls High School. Boys had football, basketball, track and baseball. The only thing close to being a sport was cheerleading, but that certainly wasn’t interscholastic, and it involved very few girls.

Whatever chances Joyce had to play any sports were in GAA (the Girls Athletic Association), and those opportunities were very limited. The girls sometimes went to the bowling alley downtown, and they had intramural softball and basketball.

But girls basketball back then was a pretty strange animal. It was played with most of the same rules of regular basketball, with the following exceptions:

1.) Teams had six players instead of five – three forwards and three guards.

2.) Only the forwards were allowed to shoot the ball. Forwards had to stay in the “front court,” and guards had to stay in the “back court.” So forwards played only offense and guards played only defense. No one could cross the midcourt line.

3.) Players were allowed to dribble the ball only twice; then they either had to shoot (if they were forwards) or pass the ball to another player.

So the game was basically two three-on-three games being played simultaneously on the the two ends of the court, except that when the ball was on the opposite end of the court, players on the other end stood and watched.

Iowa and Oklahoma were the last two states to drop the six-on-six game. Iowa was famous for its six-man teams. My good friend Bob Schantz was from Iowa, and he used to talk about what amazing players came out of that game.

According to Bob, the six-player game represented the essence of small-town life in Iowa. I looked it up and in the ’40s and ’50s, more than 600 schools in Iowa had six-player girls basketball teams. But change came in 1984, when schools were given a choice of sticking with tradition or switching to the five-player, full-court game. Iowa’s decision to switch left Oklahoma as the only state still playing six-on-six girls basketball.

There have been many changes in the look of the game besides just the obvious ones. Watch any good girls team today, and you’ll see amazing 3-point shooters, ball handlers who dribble behind their backs and ball hawking guards who trap and strip their opponents of the ball. It’s been a big evolution from six-on-six to the full court press.

Contact Roger VanHaren at