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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Sept. 27, 2023

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Clark County history: Women’s basketball


Women in Clark County likely came late to the game of basketball. The first women’s game was played in 1893 at Smith College with six players on a team. That was only two years after James Naismith invented the game at Springfield College in Massachusetts. In its infancy, the game was written as two words: “basket ball.”

Nine years later, Seattle women played their first game. The Vancouver High girls team posed for a photo in 1903. The earliest newspaper reporting about local women hoopsters appeared in The Columbian in 1909, one game in February and another in March. By that time, basketball merged into a single word.

The earlier game pitted high school girls from Washougal and Vancouver against each other. The names of the teams weren’t mentioned, but Washougal won 13 to 7. In March, a girls’ team from Orchards trounced one from Fisher in a high-scoring game, 25 to 9.

Under Naismith’s rules, which the women adopted, each half was 15 minutes with a five-minute break between halves. Three consecutive fouls by a team awarded a goal to the opposition. A referee did not judge the fouls; instead, an umpire did. Fouls included shouldering, bumping, pushing, tripping or striking an opposing player. It also included striking the ball with a fist. In part, the length of the game and the point awarded for fouling may explain scores lower than modern high-school games.

In March 1913, The Columbian revealed the first local female basketball coach, Miss Waldorf, and a team captain, May Stanley, of Vancouver High School. They expected to “invade Astoria” that week. Interestingly, it suggests there was a possibility of several girls’ teams, hinting at the expansion and acceptance of female basketballers.

By 1915, “inter-class” games seemed typical. These were what today would be called intramural games, freshmen played sophomores, and seniors played juniors. Then the winners played each other, as did the losers.

It was common for the newspaper to cover boys’ and girls’ games together. For example, a column called “High School Notes” covered basketball games regularly. Players’ names began appearing in this column, suggesting increasing interest in the girls’ games. The columns were short but often gave the girls more space than the boys.

One column even called out the players’ positions: Helen Leathers and Phyllis Schooner were forwards, Frances Leitz and Hilda Campbell guards and Mable Brothers center. It went on to note that team member Marion Phillips left high school for Vancouver Business College, but the report failed to mention if this change made her ineligible to play.

World War I hit just as high school girls got basketball rolling in the county. Then the Spanish flu pandemic struck. It wasn’t until the post-WWI era that women’s basketball teams spread across the county.

The Roaring ’20s brought girls’ basketball back. Nearly every community sprouted a homegrown girls’ team. Gertrude Smith organized a group in La Center and assumed its managership claiming she could “work up a good team for the season.” A February 1923 Columbian article declared that girls’ basketball was bouncing back after a “few years of inactivity,” then went on to explain that no male spectators were allowed.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.