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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest girls accumulated state track, volleyball and first-ever basketball titles in same year, 45 years ago

Apr 26, 2021 10:46AM ● By Julie Slama

Husky Cindy Carlson, seen here at the tip, said she cried when they won the first-ever girls high school basketball championship. (Photo courtesy of Hillcrest High yearbook)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Kaya Burns. Cindy Carlson. Cindy Dahlberg. Connie Dahlberg. Mechell Fowden. Kathy Howa. Vicky Lundgren. Barbara Nielsen. Kathy Ott. Terri Rekoutis. Marie Velez. Penny Wanberg. 

Those Husky cagers went unnoticed this past season on the 45th anniversary of the first Utah High School Activities Association 4A state girls basketball championship game, where they beat Viewmont 61-42 at Highland High School on March 6, 1976.

Many of these student-athletes also won the 1975’s 4A state girls track and field title, the region softball title (softball wasn’t yet sanctioned by the UHSAA) and the state volleyball title—earning the top sports titles in a single year.

“There was a core group of girls that played everything,” Vicky Lundgren Dexter said. “Back in those days, you could play volleyball and basketball and run track. It wasn’t just that year. We were the team to beat for two or three or four years.”

The state basketball trophy now sits on a shelf in a storage room awaiting its display case as the Huskies moved into their new sports facility this past fall.

Their championship was just four years after Title IX had passed and high school girls’ sports was playing catch-up to the boys. They played in the “girls” or auxiliary gym instead of the main gym; there were no team locker rooms; funding was limited, and girls’ uniform choices were few—they first played in polyester top “starchies” which they joked could stand up on their own, then in the “pickle” or “watermelon” shorts sporting wide stipes of different colors of green.

Those times are still evident today as Kathy Howa’s name was left off the state trophy and Coach Jane Miner’s name was recently corrected in UHSAA state records as the winning coach.

In spite of those shortcomings, the Huskies prevailed. 1976 was one of four state titles the Huskies would nab in the early years of Utah girls basketball.

During that first championship game, Hillcrest came from behind 18-12, to post a 33-26 lead at half. After adjustments at half, the Huskies grew the lead to 47-31 and ended the game with Wanberg and Fowden each contributing 21 points.  

There was no back court clock, no shot clock, no three-point baskets and the women’s ball had yet to be introduced. 

Viewmont, which head coach Cathy Avery said had an “off-night shooting,” got in foul trouble in the first half, with only their ball handler Pam Hansen (who eventually went out with an ankle injury) able to break the Hillcrest press, the Davis County Clipper reported.

Hillcrest High’s Mechell Fowden contributed 21 points in the state championship win. (Photo courtesy of Hillcrest High yearbook)

After going undefeated all season, Carlson said they were confident heading into the 16-game tournament.

“When you win, you get more and more confident. We practiced hard; we knew what was expected and what we were going to do, and we executed it. As a result, we won,” Carlson said. “All we thought about was winning.”

They were coached by Jane Miner, a 22-year-old Brigham Young University graduate who didn’t have firsthand experience nor classroom knowledge as “women were not allowed to take the coaching classes” then. In fact, Miner was told to start the girls’ athletics program and coach 12 girls’ sports teams—and did so, without pay. 

In the state tournament, after winning against Sky View (66-34) and Clearfield (59-52), the Huskies beat Weber 57-33 in the semifinals at Roy High, with Wanberg leading Hillcrest scorers with 18. Fowden chipped in 14 and Burns added 11. That led to the finals.

Miner recalls she had a game plan for the state title game against Viewmont.

“I had a big plan for it and realized by halftime that wasn’t working,” she said. “We went right back to what we’d always done. The phrase that I always think of when I think about that game is ‘dance with the one that brung ya.” I came up with these fancy-dancy things we were going to do, and it wasn’t necessary. At halftime, we went back to the things that we did all the time. We just ran them off the floor.”

They were able to do that because “Kaya had really good hands. She would go for everything. She was quick—and she wasn’t afraid. We made a lot of layups. We just beat teams down the court. We were always going to run. We weren’t boring, I’ll tell you that,” Miner said.

Kaya was Kaya Burns Le Prey and her teammates knew to expect a fast break pass from their point guard.

“She had the fastest hands you’ve ever seen on a human being and she could take the ball from anyone. So, we were constantly fast-breaking because she always had the ball in her hands. I think that we had a lot of speed and we had a lot of runners and that’s how we killed people,” Carlson said.

Guard Barbara Nielsen Barnett said she’s never seen anyone play like Le Prey.

“Kaya would just cherry-pick them to pieces, and they would call time out because the other team would get so frustrated,” Barnett said. 

It wasn’t just the other teams Le Prey frustrated, said Howa, who ran scrimmages against her in practice.

“Kaya used to torture me,” Howa said. “She used to steal the ball from me all the time and I was assigned to come down and break the press. One time, I stole it from her, and my coach was screaming like cheering me on to get it to the basket to score on her.” 

Le Prey said that it was steal after steal that helped set the tempo in the Huskies’ favor in the title game. 

“They had this good little guard…we got her flustered,” Le Prey said.

Carlson remembered what came next: “We started getting the best of her and I remember her flipping off the crowd because she wasn’t very happy with how things were turning out. That was not a good thing because back then, girls didn’t do those types of things.”

Jeanie (Crickmore) Wilson, a referee at the championship game, who later coached the Huskies to state championships in 1979, 1982 and 1983, remembered the Viewmont player as well. 

“She was a pistol and had a temper,” Wilson said. “I was officiating the game, but they started to lose, and she got really mad. She just took off under the basket and all the way down the court, she flipped the crowd off. So, I gave her a T.”  

Even so, at halftime, Hillcrest only led by seven points. Barnett, who scored seven points in the Clearfield win, remembered the time outs.

“When we were ahead, (Miner would say), ‘Just doing great, ladies. Keep it up,’” Barnett said. “If we were behind, she’d meet our eyes, but still be positive. She’d say, ‘You know what you’re doing, and you know how to do it.’”

At the end of the game, Hillcrest Principal DelMar Schick presented the trophy to the team.

“I grabbed that trophy so I could hold it up,” Le Prey said.

That night—and after other big wins—Schick treated the team to a dinner out on the town.

“He was proud as punch,” Miner said. “What I’m most proud of is that we did something that nobody else had done, and nobody can take that away. We were the first state champions in volleyball, basketball and track and field (all under Miner) and no one can ever match that.”

The road to the championship began with hard work.

Howa said there were three cuts from about 100 girls who tried out. Practices were two hours daily.

“I was constantly worried about making the team,” Howa said. “I was so excited to make the team that I didn’t even think about not being able to play—just being on the court was a privilege. I got to practice. I got to get better.”

Miner, who never played five-on-five basketball, instilled legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s philosophy of being in better condition than their opponent.

“Here I am, in charge of this athletic program and I did not have any coaching experience, nor had I been allowed to learn how to be a coach. So, most of what I learned about coaching, I learned from the boys’ coaches. I would pick their brains and I would do my own research,” she said. “I’m a competitive person and I thought if I’m going to do this, we’re gonna win it. I had a really good group of kids. They were gung ho, whatever you want, we’re doing it, and they loved it. They loved each other. I could just work their butts off, and they’d go for it. We just outworked everybody, we out-conditioned everybody, we ‘out-mentalled’ everybody and that’s how we won.”

Barnett said the team bought into that philosophy.

“Our coach did such a good job of teaching us, preparing us and getting us ready and in condition. She just worked our tails off,” Barnett recalled not only daily drills of free throws, ladders and strength training, but also teamwork. “We had plays, we worked together, and you did your part. She taught and taught, and we practiced, practiced, practiced so we got things right and could do them continually right. That was a real gift that she had to teach us.”

The hard work included running three flights of stairs in the old gym.

“Two miles of stairs and hallways every day after practice; we never missed it,” Barnett said.

Dexter said, “We ran so many stairs, it was not funny. We would run lines during basketball season. We would run stairs, all year long, and because we did that, I think we were probably in better shape than anybody else.”

Le Prey agreed: “Maybe you kept up with us the first half, but you didn’t the second because we were in shape.”

Miner also prepared the team mentally.

“We used to do a lot of visualization and that’s way before any of that type of thing was even considered,” Carlson said.

They still had fun on and off the court. Le Prey would “put a record on in that old gym and she would just go to town. That girl could entertain. She knew every song I think that there was, and she could lip sync them all,” Carlson said.

Dexter remembered the team was cohesive. 

“We were a close team. I don’t ever remember having any bickering or fighting or ‘you’re getting more playing time than me,’” she said. “I remember going to McDonald’s an awful lot. We’d pile into my car (a navy blue ’65 Ford Fairlane); we went everywhere in that car.”

Howa also remembers drive-ins with the team: “We would go to the movies together and we would literally take our sleeping bags and our pillows and load up the back of a (pickup) truck. They were my buddies.”

Many of the girls became friends at Midvale Junior High and credit Gwen Adams, their gym teacher who introduced them to several sports and set up intramural games. They were joined by others who attended Union Junior High to became Hillcrest’s top athletes.

“It wasn’t easy, because we were girls, to win the state championship,” Le Prey said. “You still have to win games; you still have to practice; and you still have to work hard. We still had to put a ball in a hoop and we still had to learn to dribble a ball and we had to run. We had to be fast, and we had to know what we were doing and know where our teammates were on the floor.”  

While others screamed and yelled when the final game was over, Carlson remembers crying.

“It was, at that point, the best time of my life,” she said.