John F. Kennedy College, not a big name even among small colleges, was playing Team Canada and fighting to stay alive in the first round of its own tournament. With 1:11 to go, a slick Canadian guard intercepted a pass and set up a teammate, who popped the ball in from 15 feet out and Canada led 54-53. Twenty-four seconds later Canada's center was charged with a fifth personal and left the game, reddened from exertion and anger. A sloppy inbounds pass almost handed the ball back to Canada, but JFK's Simpson dashed across the key to save it and passed off to Wischmeier under the basket. Seemingly trapped, she hurled the ball back to Simpson who, with 18 seconds left, fired in a long shot. JFK hung on to win 55-54 and the next night took the final.
As college basketball tournaments go these days, it was typical, except for the fact this was the first International Invitational Women's basketball tournament—Mexico and the Republic of (non-Red) China were the other teams.
John F. Kennedy College is a half mile from the heart of downtown Wahoo, Neb. (pop. 3,840), and because of two fires the school is even less prepossessing than it was at its founding in 1965. There were 13 buildings then, mostly clapboard, and fewer than 200 students. Enrollment ballooned to 700, but the library and another building burned down in 1970, and JFK has never really risen from the ashes. Even though the new library and cafeteria are hastily constructed metal affairs that look like airplane hangars, they were expensive to build. The faculty went unpaid for months, and with the school's solvency in doubt students transferred in droves. There are 280 this year and a faculty of 20.
JFK has never been accredited. Indeed, its one claim to distinction is its women's basketball team, which in a way it can credit to its close proximity to Iowa. No state in the U.S. turns out more good women players than Iowa. Of the 12 JFK Patriettes, eight are Iowans. Since 1970, when JFK decided to use women's basketball to help build a reputation, the Patriettes have won the National AAU championship twice and last summer represented the U.S. on a tour of the People's Republic of (Red) China (SI, July 2, 1973).
Unlike the Patriettes, the JFK student body is coed and hails from 27 states. The students are not the pick of the academic crop, but they are an enthusiastic group, full of uplifting sentiments on the pleasures of attending a small, and therefore intimate, school. Although a full liberal-arts curriculum is available, more than 50% of the students major in physical education, including all the girls on the basketball team.
One of the best Patriettes is Barb Wischmeier, a 6'2" All-America from Mediapolis, Iowa, and the only player on a full athletic scholarship. Wischmeier intends to teach phys ed when she graduates and hopes to coach in Iowa. "I never saw a lady head coach when I was in high school," she says, "but there are more now." Among them is her sister, a 1972 JFK graduate who teaches and coaches in Council Bluffs.
" Iowa girls still play the old half-court game," Barb says. "Perhaps that makes us fundamentally more sound. We're taught basics: shooting for forwards, defense for guards, and in high school I played two years at each position."
JFK is not a one-woman show, however, as are so many college teams. It has two other All-Americas, 5'7" Julie Simpson and 6'2" Linda White, and two more candidates this year, Gail Ahrenholtz and Janie Fincher, who was a junior college All-America last season at Murray State.
The Patriettes' coach, George Nicodemus, recruits with a vigor usually associated with top men's teams. He had coached only two women's teams before coming to JFK in 1970, a 14-0 junior-high team in 1949 and the Look magazine AAU squad in 1969. In between he coached boys throughout Iowa, which accounts for his familiarity with those fertile grounds. "I go out to the cow pastures to get these girls," he says. "I don't mind manure on my shoes."
For all of Nicodemus' efforts, the team seems to be structured more by chance than by design. He had never heard of Julie Simpson when she arrived from New Jersey. But after watching a practice she approached Nicodemus and said, somewhat facetiously, "I'd like to learn this game." She learned well enough to start her first year and was named MVP in the international tournament. Linda White played in Victoria, Texas, a state that probably ranks second to Iowa in girls' basketball. She spent half a year at Wayland Baptist, another top women's basketball school, flunked out and went to Phoenix where she played on an AAU team. Eager to return to school, she came to Kennedy, where at 24 she is the team's senior citizen.