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On super Saturday night, rockets glare and bombs burst while lasers play on a star-spangled banner the size of a drive-in movie screen. The Battle Hymn of the Republic rebounds from the rafters of Des Moines's Veterans Memorial Auditorium, dribbles behind the bleachers and slips under locker room doors.
In the Dike High School locker room, coach Tom Murr diagrams plays on the door. His chalk skids on the polished surface. Murr, who's wearing cowboy boots and a Western-cut suit that hasn't been cleaned since his team's 12-game winning streak began two months ago, runs a gnarled hand through his crew cut. "When that buzzer rings, let's go out there, keep our poise and have fun," he says. He claps his hands, then remembers his manners: "If anybody has to go to the rest room, I'll step out now."
The Bobcats relax. Sometimes it's such a pain to have a man in the locker room.
Murr stands outside the door, watching the finale of the Patriotism Pageant, fingering his lucky tie. One more win, he thinks, then he can wash the luck out of these clothes. One more win and his girls, representing a town of just 855 citizens, will be champions of all Iowa. "Tomorrow we go home and I give the kids back to their parents," he says. "But we got one more game."
Alone with their thoughts in the locker room, Murr's Bobcats stretch, primp and exchange weighty glances. Six-foot-two power forward Darci Graves and 5'6" catalyst Dawn Meester trade high fives. Darci and Dawn have been neighbors and pals since they were born 85 hours apart in 1971. As scandalous tykes they streaked through their tiny hometown with their undies on their heads. They learned to play basketball together, battling their older brothers under the hoop at Darci's house. Darci grew up tall and quiet, a willow topped with a sandy perm. Dawn was smaller, and skittish, a button-nosed spark plug. Dawn's mom calls them Mutt and Jeff. Tonight—March 12, 1988—Darci and Dawn might get famous together.
The Battle Hymn ends. The buzzer summons 30 Iowa girls to the grandest night of their lives.
Iowa girls have been playing basketball since 1898, when Agnes Martin of Dubuque High "threw three baskets" and was lauded in the local press for "the cleverness with which she threw them." In those days girls played by strange, feminized rules—six players on a side, one dribble—but hamlets like Lost Nation and Fontanelle adored the game. City girls played in gyms and even opera houses; farm town teams from Mallard and Mystic and Mingo played outdoors on God's good dirt—and soon were beating the city girls at their own game.
In 1925, alarmed that the popularity of girls' basketball might be impeding the growth of the boys' game, the state athletic association dropped girls' hoops. A few small-town schoolmen, furious at this big-city power play, formed the Iowa Girls' High School Athletic Union and began holding their own state tourney in 1926. Today the Girls' Union—the only state high school association in the U.S. devoted solely to girls' sports—runs a tournament that galvanizes Iowa in late February and early March. (This year's final in Des Moines will be played March 11.) Farm towns from Correctionville to Buffalo Center transform themselves into mobile cheering sections. The Girls' Union tournament is televised statewide, and it fills Veterans Auditorium, often outdrawing the annual boys' tourney. It bankrolls the lion's share of Girls' Union programs in 10 other sports and attracts so many fans to Des Moines that Girls' State week ranks right up there with Christmas as one of the biggest retail weeks of the year in the capital. And it makes legends. Every year an Iowa girl joins the likes of Machine Gun Molly Bolin, Denise Long and Lynne Lorenzen on the list of the state's favorite daughters.
The rules have changed since the old days, but they are still strange. The one-dribble rule was replaced by the two-dribble rule—players may bounce the ball only twice before shooting or passing off. They may hold the ball only three seconds before dribbling, shooting or passing. The three-second-possession and two-dribble rules give the game the herky-jerky look of an old newsreel.
Equally quaint is the two-platoon system. Iowans call the game six-on-six. It is more easily understood as platoon three-on-three. Offensive players—the three forwards—cannot enter the defensive half of the floor. Defensive players—the three guards—cannot enter the offensive half. Guards defend, forwards score. The forwards even shoot the free throws when their defensive teammates are fouled. Guards finish their high school careers with a scoring average of 0.00. Which leads to the question: Why does anyone ever go out for guard? The answer: civic pride. In Iowa, suiting up in the colors of your hometown team confers glory that lasts a lifetime. In Iowa, middle-aged husbands sit around the fireplace reminiscing' about their wives' high school hoops exploits.