By Mark Schmetzer, firstname.lastname@example.org / Photo by Mark Schmetzer
Most local basketball fans know of Mount Notre Dame's impressive record of seven Ohio Division I final four appearances and five state championships, a run that started in 1989 and gathered steam in the first decade of our current millennium.
But the Cougars weren't Greater Cincinnati's first girls' basketball dynasty. Heck, they weren't even the city of Reading's. Before there was MND, there were the neighboring Reading Blue Devils, a team that went 77-4 over the stretch of three seasons from 1980-1981 through 1982-1983 while earning three consecutive trips to the Class AA - at the time, the middle of the Ohio High School Athletic Association's three divisions - final four. None of the trips yielded a championship, but the accomplishment remains gilded.
Six members of those teams recently gathered at a local pub late on a Sunday morning - gatherings which are common among the close-knit erstwhile Blue Devils - and Karen Niehaus Hall was asked what exactly goes on at the intersections of East Benson Street and East Columbia Avenue.
"I don't know about Mount Notre Dame, but I do know we played outside all summer - with boys," said Hall, nicknamed "Ralph." "That's how we stayed out of trouble."
Joining Hall were Julie George "Marmoset" Onnen, Jenny "Enricho" Gilligan, Shelly Klare "Hamill" Cummins, Andrea Irwin "Red" Baker and Connie Burdine "Bull" Adams.
Space precludes launching into explanations of the nicknames, but they were as much a part of team-building experience as events such as Gilligan cutting Cummins' hair, a moment captured in a snapshot that was passed around the table.
"Why would I let you do that?" wondered Cummins, who lives with her family in Beckett Ridge and teaches at St. Peter and Paul Academy.
The three-year reign coincided with the return to Reading of former Blue Devils boys' coach Larry Phillips. Gilligan - who still lives in Reading, teaches at the middle school and has served as Reading's girls' varsity coach - distinctly recalls the difference.
"Under the previous coach, I do not remember running plays," said Gilligan, named to the Association Press second-team Class AA all-state team in the 1980-1981 season and a first-team pick as a senior in the 1981-1982 season. "We would just go down and throw it around and drop back on defense. He taught us plays. He taught us the game of basketball."
"He also started the summer program, and he made it fun, too," Cummins chimed in.
Ramping up paid off. Despite having no seniors, Reading won its first 26 games of the 1980-1981 season, overcoming the loss of Adams to a knee injury in the district semifinal against Harrison to a knee injury. Cummins moved from forward to guard and Baker joined the starting lineup as a freshman, scoring six points and collecting nine rebounds in a regional semifinal win over Gallipolis. Two more juniors, forward Jenny Davis and 5-foot-11 post player Brenda Vimba, filled out that first season's starting lineup.
Reading's momentum couldn't stand up against Canton Central Catholic's withering press, which wore down the inexperienced Blue Devils in a 60-42 state semifinal win at Ohio State University's St. John Arena. Reading fell behind, 9-0, and committed 14 turnovers in the first half.
"There's no doubt we were nervous," Phillips said after the game. "I had their parents write them a letter, and I wrote them a letter, too. It may have backfired. They could have been too fired up."
"I wasn't nervous, because I didn't know what to expect," Gilligan recalled.
"I was nervous, going into that big arena," Cummins added. "Then, again, I was nervous before every game. That's why we played Four Square in the locker room before the games. That drove Larry crazy. The first time he came in and saw us, he turned around and walked out. He said, 'I'm not ready to coach girls.'"
Reading was 25-0 with a better idea of what to expect going into the next season's semifinal matchup with Upper Sandusky, won by the Blue Devils, 49-36, to set up a state championship game against Warsaw River View. Again, the Blue Devils fell into an early hole out of which they couldn't climb.
"We knew what we had to from being up here the year before," Baker, then Irwin, said after the game. "It seemed like nothing went right."
The 1982-1983 season included Reading's first regular-season loss of the Phillips Era - handed out by a Maureen Fredrick-led Greenhills team - but a third straight trip to the state semifinals led by Cummins, a second-team all-state pick. This time, the Blue Devils fell victim to a stunning 39-point performance by Chagrin Falls' Jane Phend - at the time, a single-game state tournament record - in a 65-48 defeat.
When they look back now at what was then, the women on hand have mixed feelings. The winning and the accomplishment of getting there stand out for some.
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