Sports played a huge role in the life of West Terre Haute from 1900 to the 1930s. In addition to school and church teams there were many adult amateur and semi-pro teams in many sports.
At any one time 4-6 amateur or semi-pro baseball teams represented the town (often with my grandfather and his brothers playing on several teams during a season). With the end of the baseball season football took over. There were the Tigers, a semi-pro football team that played in a regional league. Over the years there were several different soccer (called association football) teams that played in leagues. The soccer teams were a natural outgrowth of the large Welsh and English population of the town’s love for the sport. There was even a tri-county horseshoe league in which West Terre Haute was represented. Polo, believe it or not, was played in the area.
But the most successful – and controversial- team was the girls’ basketball teams at West Terre Haute (Valley) High School from 1921 to 1923. They were talented. They were tough. They were well coached. They were undefeated. And, some said, they were unsportsmanlike at best, cheaters at worst. Some claimed they were aided by referees so biased as to not be believed. Indeed, some teams believed they were “Van Winkled” by a certain referee they claimed was fiercely partisan for the WTH team.
Girls’ basketball… cheating… hard feelings…
It may surprise some, but girls’ basketball was a very popular sport in the 1920s. And it was all but unregulated. (Indiana did not have a sanctioned girls’ state championship until 1976.) There were few hard and fast rules governing games prior to WWII. High school teams would play college teams, town teams, church teams, whomever they could get games with. There were loose associations that tried to formalize rules in their area, but there were no overall uniform, governing bodies or regulations.
The girls’ teams could even play under different sets of rules and numbers of team members on court. In addition to regular five girl basketball that closely resembled the rules we know now, there was six-girl basketball. In six-girl games the court was divided in half. Three girls were consigned to the offense, the other three on defense. They had to remain on their side of the court, could not cross halfcourt. For example, if you were assigned to the defensive side of the court your role was to guard the other team’s offense. If the defenders stopped them they could pass ball to their offensive teammates, but had to remain on their side of the court. (It may seem odd now, but the six-girl game was used in many places over the years and until 1972 was still the “official” girls game in Iowa.)
The Valley High girls appeared to have played both types of games, though primarily five-girl basketball. And they played them well. The 1921-1922 and 1922-1923 teams were undefeated over more than twenty games`. They were coached by an aggressive Indiana State Normal (now ISU) alum and basketball star named Carrie Surrell, who credited her team’s success to hard work and “teamwork.” They played teams from all over the region, including Terre Haute teams, Clinton, Rockville, Petersburg, Concannon, etc.
Among their most bitter rivals was the Sullivan High School team. The enmity began in February, 1922. The Valley girls beat Sullivan twice, but acrimony followed. A February 25, 1922 Sullivan Daily Times article following Sullivan’s second loss to West Terre Haute opined that “The Sullivan girls played a clean game, but at no time did they have a chance to win as the game belonged to West Terre haute before the whistle ever blew for the start.” This was because again the referee was a Miss Van Winkle who the paper claimed was outrageously partial to the Valley team. It noted that the other referee, a Miss Pigg from Terre Haute, called a fair clean game assessing four fouls on Sullivan and five on WTH. Miss Van Winkle, on the other hand, called 18 on Sullivan and none on Valley.
Even discounting injured hometown pride, it seems clear that Miss Van Winkle was a just a wee bit prejudiced toward the team from West Terre Haute, as if the Valley team did have an extra player on the court. And the bitter taste in Sullivan lingered. In a summer preview of the upcoming 1923-23 season published in June, 1922 the paper recalled that the losses to Valley last season were due to “the work of an umpire who threw the game to an opponent [Valley] that was clearly outplayed.”
It was not just Sullivan. A 1922 game scheduled between Valley and Terre Haute Wiley had to be cancelled when the two teams could not agree upon referees for the game. Was this all “losers weepers” talk? Some of it may have been. Obviously in a few cases it seems Valley might have had a sympathetic referee on the floor with them, but in an age when teams had a voice in who would referee their game on imagines every other team might be looking for an edge.
Clearly, the Valley girls’ team was talented and well coached. Some of the criticism of them may have come from the fact that West Terre Haute was often looked down upon and others could not accept their team was beaten by the “river rats” from West T. A check of the roster (see below) shows that 7 of the 10 players were from working class homes and they likely displayed a toughness that other teams did not. That they were a great team for the era is clear.
They first presented their claim to the state championship in February 1923. Coach Surrell noted her team had won 19 straight games over a wide variety of opponents. She pointed out that the team had outscored the opposition 522 to 231 during the streak. That average of over 27 points per game was exceptional in that low scoring era. Again they offered to take on all comers.
Valley went on to defeat several other teams that season, but one final controversy awaited. Once again enmity with a Terre Haute team was the cause. Terre Haute Garfield and Valley sparred over scheduling a game, each claiming the other was afraid to play them. It lead eventually to the following challenge issued by Valley:
Challenge to Garfield High School Girls Basketball Team, 1923
The West Terre Haute Girls’ basketball team accepts your challenge of March 9 for a two-court game to be played at any date suitable to the two managements. We desire the following rules for the game:
One official will be selected by each team
The game to be played at on a neutral floor, such as Pennsylvania, YWCA or YMCA
The profits shall be divided equally between the two teams
The entire game to be played in an attitude of good sportsmanship and friendliness
We wonder why you have never answered the challenge we sent to you some weeks ago.
Carrie M. Surrell, Coach
Edna G. Lakin, Manager
Ivan Noblett. Principal
Was the challenge accepted? It seems not. I checked both Terre Haute papers and found no further reference to a game (tho it must be noted that several articles were cut out of the sports section that may have detailed the game).
In the end, were the Valley girls’ state champions? Two other teams initially challenged that claim. One was Sullivan, who by beating the Robinson, Illinois team in a Wabash Valley tournament, said the honor was theirs. But soon after they lost those two bitter games to Valley. The Dugger, Indiana girls team believed they deserved the honor, noting they were undefeated and one of their opponents was a college team.
In the end, though, it seems that the Valley High team was accepted as the state champs. And so they remain a source of pride to those dwindling few who remember them.
West Terre Haute was home to champions for that bright, shining moment.
1923 Valley High Roster
Gwen Hill, daughter of a Welsh miner (and next door neighbor of my grandmother’s family)
Dorothy Canada, daughter of a clay worker
Frieda Kern, her father was a bookkeeper
Hilda Trueblood, daughter of shop owner
Margaret Johnson, from a miner’s family
Gertrude Snack, whose father owned Snack’s Café (see McIlroy Avenue blog post)
Emma Dahart, born in France and daughter of a miner
Catherine Wrightson, she was born in Wales and father was a miner
Isabell Emrick, daughter of a former blacksmith
Elenore Daniels, father unemployed