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Holding Court

West Virginia's First Girls' High School Basketball Tournament
By Bob Barnett and Steven Cooper

The Runnion sisters of Spencer were basketball stars when this picture was made in 1923. From the left are Geraldine, Orlie, Elsie, and Eva.
Their team, the Spencer High School Midgets, won the state championship that year. This photograph was distributed to newspapers nationally.

The 1920’s were exciting years to be a woman in America. Not only did the 19th Amendment to the Constitution give women the right to vote, but employment opportunities opened for women in nursing, teaching, sales, law, medicine, and other fields. Often considered the Golden Age of American sports, the 1920’s saw achievements from women athletes as well as males.

In this fertile seedbed for girls’ sports, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia each held state girls’ high school basketball championship tournaments beginning in 1919. Here in the Mountain State, those memorable tournaments were held in Spencer, Roane County, from 1919 through 1924.

To some, Spencer seemed an odd place to hold a state tournament. It had a population of only 2,500 and was so rural that no paved roads connected it to other towns. Its principle claim to fame was the sprawling State Hospital for the Insane. Still it had some assets. Oil, gas, and farming had made it wealthy, and it had rail service. Two trains a day traveled a spur line to Ravenswood, where they connected to the B&O main line that led to the web of major railroads and interurban trolley lines that bound the state together.

But Spencer’s main asset was a group with a dream. In 1918, W.W. Lovell, principal of Spencer High School, and the local board of education decided to hold a girls’ state basketball tournament to rival the boys’ tournament, which had been held at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon since 1914.

To many, this was unthinkable. Spencer did not even have a gym. The girls’ team, formed just a year earlier in 1917, played at a local armory. Undaunted, Lovell and the board recruited local carpenters and the high school shop classes to build a wooden gymnasium with enough seating and standing room to hold 1,000 spectators. The tournament was on!

Ten teams rode the B&O spur line from Ravenswood to join host Spencer for the first tournament on March 21 and 22, 1919. The teams, who could bring a maximum of seven players each, would compete under tournament rules, which differed from the more widely used Spalding rules. Spalding rules called for six-girl teams with three playing on each half of the court. In the West Virginia tournament, teams used five players: two forwards and two guards who played on half the court, and a roving center who played at both ends of the floor. One player shot all of the foul shots for her team. Tournament games had 15-minute halves. To get in all the games, the first half of a second game was played during halftime of the previous game.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.