Harmon’s Histories: Early UM women’s hoops set stage for today’s greats
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Before today’s players like Sammy Fatkin, Katerina Tsineke and Haley Huard . . .
Before Shannon Cate, Lisa McLeod, Marti Leibenguth and Skyla Sisko . . .
Before all the great names in UM Lady Griz basketball, there were Evelyn Stephenson, Eunice Dennis, Grace Reely, Vera Pride, Beatrice Taber and Hazel Hawk.
But we have to go back more than 100 years to find them.
The women hoopsters of the turn of the 20th century wore Edwardian-style sports dresses, a la John Wanamaker, with ruffles and breast pockets. Sporting pants (a form of knickers) rounded out the ensemble.
A few of the women athletes had handkerchiefs in their breast pockets and most of the team members wore ribbons or bows in their hair (one must be stylish!).
Unfortunately, the precursors of today’s Lady Griz did not play very many games and certainly did not get the kind of press coverage we’re used to these days. Often they had to play high school teams.
One of the rare write-ups (this from the University of Montana Kaimin newspaper) declared, “The co-eds have chalked up one more victory on the basketball floor by defeating the Helena high school girls 18 to 10.
“The battle was fast all the way through and was close enough as far as the merits of the two go to warrant the proposal of a return game on the part of the Helena girls. This is the first invading that the co-eds have done and the record they have started gives them reason to claim the championship of the state.
“Helena is supposed to have one of the best girls' teams in the state and the defeat was a source of a bit of rejoicing on the part of the local girls. It is likely that there will be a game with the Montana college at Deer Lodge on the Montana floor before long. The co-eds feel that after they have miled (gone the distance) with this school, their claim to the title of the state will be unchallenged.”
But before the winter 1915-16 season could begin, there was the question of “lettering.” The student newspaper reported, “Before any girls' basketball team is organized this year there should be an understanding concerning the awarding of the university letter.
“If there is a place for a university girls’ basketball team, that team should play only girls' teams from institutions of higher learning, or at least only games with institutions of equal rank with the university, should be considered in awarding letters and sweaters.
“If games can be secured with teams from Washington state, or some school where girls' basketball teams exist, let’s have a team and award letters, if not let’s have inter class games.”
Ten years later (1925), things were still a bit uncertain. Under the headline, “Girls' Basketball Makes Poor Start,” the Kaimin reported, “Only three upper class girls and six freshman girls have turned out for girls’ basketball practice, so far. So the outlook along this line of girls’ athletics is not very promising.
“Wednesday night from 7:30 until 9:00 and Saturday morning beginning at 10:30 the girls have been practicing under the coaching of Miss Florence Gettys. No regular team has been picked yet and will not be until there is some game in view.”
The modern Lady Griz have come a long way since those days of uncertainty. They’ve made appearances in 21 NCAA tournaments, facing teams like Georgia, Florida, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame.
I wonder if (as in other sports) they might, one day, turn out in vintage sportswear from the early 1900s, with ruffled sports dresses and knickers. And don’t forget the bows in their hair!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.