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Everywhere Cindy McVay looks these days, she sees something that reminds her of what once was.

And she remembers the hard work it took to get here.

As a substitute teacher in the Marshall school district, McVay has watched basketball fever run rampant through the community this winter — most of it in honor of the Cardinals girls basketball team.

Businesses have signs and slogans in their windows, students are decked out in red and white. … And everyone is making plans to head to the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon today, to watch the top-seeded Cardinals (25-1) take on Wisconsin Dells (25-1) at 1:35 p.m. in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal.

McVay loves the energy, the excitement, the positive vibes. And the memories. Most of all, the memories.

McVay was head coach of the Marshall girls team when it won the Class C championship at the first — yes, the very first — WIAA state girls basketball tournament, back in 1976.

“It was so exciting, just so exciting,” McVay said. “I still get teary-eyed when I think about it.

“The Marshall band came, the whole town was in the stands even though there was an ice storm. … We had breakfast at the governor’s mansion and as soon as we got back into town, we got on the fire trucks and rode around and had a big rally at the school.

“That was so exciting for the girls,” McVay said. “They knew they were the first, they were setting something up, and they knew something big was going to come out of this.”

McVay and Marshall won another state title, mostly with the same group of players, in 1977. And that — 41 years ago — was the last time a Marshall girls team had made it to state until this year.

Pat (Walter) Anderson was the star of those teams, getting 18 points and 11 rebounds in a 40-36 win over Bloomington (now River Ridge) in the final after accounting for 14 points and 14 rebounds in a 34-31 semifinal win over Owen-Withee.

“We had the same uniforms for basketball, volleyball and track. That’s what we wore,” said Anderson, who now lives in Sun Prairie. “We didn’t have any warmups and they were required at state, so we used the boys’ warmups. It was so new.

“Everything about it was new. Marshall was a ghost town because everybody was at the game,” Anderson said. “You look up and see all those people. ... It was so wonderful.”

Make no mistake, though: the girls game back then was much slower and markedly less refined. Girls didn’t have the benefit of summer leagues, individual instruction and the chance to learn from older peers. And those rules: A jump ball after every tie-up, no 3-point line, the ball was the same size as the boys’ ball, and all the players had to be on the blocks for free throws.

“We played much slower. We didn’t run and gun,” McVay said. “It was ‘go down, set up your plays, get your baskets.’ We ran a great 1-3-1 defense and offense.

“It’s much faster now. The skill level is so much better. The girls just barrel through the middle today. I’m just amazed with the endurance level, the stamina, the dribbling. Everything is so much better.”

Still, it’s hard for those in the younger generation to wrap their minds around the fact that before McVay’s team won the 1976 championship, a state girls basketball tournament did not even exist.

“People were a little prejudiced against the girls,” McVay said. “Instead of having a school team and a league, they had the GAA (Girls Athletic Association), and played after school. The emphasis was on participation. No awards, very little travel, (fan/parent) attendance was discouraged, no cheering allowed.

“They didn’t think girls could handle (competition), emotionally or physically. They thought it’d be too much for them. We all know that’s wrong now, but that’s how it was.”

“Sports give you so many skills,” said Anderson, who went on to play at West Point. “Teamwork, friendships, athleticism, leadership, fighting through adversity, working under stress. All of those things are so important in helping to develop the whole person.”

McVay was part of a group that made several trips to the WIAA office in Stevens Point to lobby for a girls basketball tournament — though the WIAA had little choice, since the federal act creating Title IX passed in 1972. As luck would have it, Marshall had a lineup loaded with talent by the time the tournament was approved.

“We had two sets of sisters, the Walter girls (Pat and Chris) and the Motl sisters (Sheila and Karen). The Walter girls’ brother, Dan, played at (UW-) Green Bay. The girls would play with their brothers, and that’s how they learned the game.”

The excitement of that first state tournament — including a stay at the Sheraton Hotel — threw some of the Cardinals a little off their pregame routine.

“Before the championship game, my 6-foot-2 center, Chris Walter, forgot her shoes back at the hotel,” McVay said. “It turned out to be pretty hard to find a pair of shoes to fit her. We were scouring the locker rooms.

“Finally, (her parents) got back to the Sheraton and brought back the shoes about two minutes before I had to turn in my starting lineup.”

McVay, Anderson and some of the other players from those championship teams reunited at a Marshall girls game in 2014. “They brought out the trophies, we brought our scrapbooks, they introduced us before the game. It was a lot of fun,” McVay said.

Just like today, the girls played basketball to form friendships, to work together toward a goal, and to build pride for their school and their town.

“When I moved back to the area in the mid-1990s, the Sun Prairie girls went to state and the local paper asked one of the players if she dreamed of going to state,” Anderson said. “She said she did. I wondered if she had maybe watched us play — but then it hit me, she hadn’t even been born yet.”

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Wisconsin State Journal prep sports editor Art Kabelowsky has traversed the state to cover sports while working for daily papers in Fort Atkinson, Racine, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Baraboo.