A Century of Grudges With the Oldest Rivals In Girls' Hoops
--"The Game (with apologies to Browning)," from the 1909 Bryn Mawrtyr
On March 31, 1895, the Baltimore American reported that a game of "basket ball" had been played by the upper classes at the Bryn Mawr School. The girls' school, then located in Mount Vernon, had been founded a decade earlier; the sport was but four years old. "A number of fouls occurred during the first half," the paper recounted, "but in the second the work was steady and strong."
Six years later, Bryn Mawr took to the court against St. Timothy's School in the nation's first documented girls' high school basketball game, and the two Baltimore-area institutions have repeated the matchup annually ever since. Not only is the rivalry the longest in girls' hoops; few rivalries in any sport are as bizarrely steeped in tradition. This century-old grudge match involves a dessert named after a Hungarian patriot, a silver cup to the winner, and antiquated, turn-of-the-20th-century "three court" rules.
"St. Timothy's was the biggest game of the year," recalls 93-year-old Rosalie Hammond Oster, a member of the Bryn Mawr team in 1926--back when she was "5-foot-8 and play[ed] jumping center." She has, she allows, "shrunk since then."
Among Oster's modern-day counterparts, the annual contest remains a big deal--especially this year. On Nov. 30, the schools square off for the 100th time, on the hardwood of Bryn Mawr's Van Bibber Field House. To mark the occasion the schools have planned a series of events for that last Friday of November, including readings of accounts of earlier games, a demonstration of the old rules, a pre-game tea, and a post-game alumni social. The biggest attraction will undoubtedly be the moment they take to the court and play.
"This is a great moment for both schools," says Terry Detorie, Bryn Mawr's interim athletic director. "We open our season every year against St. Tim's, and this one is special. We reconnect with the history of this game. The whole school is energized."
Athletics figured prominently in the founding of St. Timothy's in 1882 and Bryn Mawr three years later. Both schools were founded on the then-radical principle that women should be afforded the same educational opportunities as men. Their founders also adopted the Greek ideal that athletics are important to one's physical and mental well-being.
"Athletics challenge you. If you get knocked down, you learn how to get up. You learn to overcome fear," Bryn Mawr librarian Mary Dagold says, explaining the thinking that fueled an emphasis on sports at the schools more than a century ago.
Today, Bryn Mawr, now located in North Baltimore, and St. Timothy's, which sits just outside the city in Stevenson, are best known athletically for consistently competing for interscholastic championships in field hockey and lacrosse. (Girls in the lower grades at both schools religiously carry lunch bags around on miniature lacrosse sticks slung over their shoulders.) But basketball was among the first sports played at the schools, and hoopsters were always held in high regard. "There was an elite status attached to the basketball players back then," Oster says. "A chauffeur drove us to the games."
Basketball was a new game when it penetrated the halls of the two schools in the mid-1890s. According to an early edition of Bryn Mawr's student newspaper, the Bryn Mawrtyr, the school's athletes became enamored of the sport after sneaking into a local YMCA and watching the boys play it.
At St. Timothy's, basketball dates to 1896. Co-headmasters (and sisters) Polly and Sally Carter were looking for an activity to keep boarders busy during the Thanksgiving break. They divvied up the girls into two teams--named, for no reason anyone can remember, "Brownie" and "Spider"--and the court into three areas, such that three forwards and three guards from each team covered the opposite ends while three centers roamed the middle. The Brownie vs. Spider game became a lasting tradition, and over the years girls have continued to don 19th-century tunics and play by the old-school rules--much to the dismay of some students.
"They made us play it," groans Katherine Gust, a 1964 St. Tim's graduate. "It was profoundly distasteful and archaic."
The game does make one concession to modern basketball: Dribbling is allowed--but only by forwards, and even then only twice each time they touch the ball. Everyone else must get rid of the ball without putting it on the floor. Centers roam the middle like free safeties in football, tenaciously deflecting and intercepting passes, often making contact with their opponent. And, St. Timothy's coach John Bonn says, "every pass is contested."
The style emphasizes the original core of the game: passing, defense, moving without the ball. Even when the old rules ruled, they weren't easy to follow. "I remember the old rules," Oster says, shaking her head. "We stayed in our boxes back then." (Imagine the trouble today's players, weaned on highlight films of Sheryl Swoopes and Kobe Bryant, have in adapting.)
Meredith Boren, who's worked in various capacities at St. Timothy's for 34 years, has fonder memories, recalling the intra-school game as a respite from fast-approaching adulthood. "In this cynical world, Brownie vs. Spider allows a little bit of the girl to come out," she says. "Girls grow up fast these days, and this game represents something not so desperate."
Beyond the basic rules, almost everything about the intra-school game--from the selection of the players to the cheers, songs, and ceremonial dinners--is shrouded in secrecy.
"I can't tell you anything about it. It's possy"--positively secret--Boren says. "If I told you, I'd be excommunicated." (Possy or not, the school did allow a reporter to witness this year's contest, held earlier this month and won by Spider for the first time in seven years.)
As for the St. Timothy's/Bryn Mawr rivalry, credit goes to Edith Hamilton, the latter school's first formally appointed headmaster (hired in 1896, she ran the school for 26 years) and author of the definitive textbook Mythology. Hamilton arranged for the first game to be played between the two schools, on Nov. 25, 1901 on an outdoor "field" at the Garrett Estate in Catonsville, home of the family of Bryn Mawr co-founder Elizabeth Garrett.
According to the Bryn Mawrtyr's account, the grounds were wet (sawdust was scattered in a vain attempt to dry the playing surface), and twice steady rain threatened to postpone the game. The goal had no backboard, the ball was made of leather, and the girls were uniformed in long, heavy corduroy skirts, wool blouses, high-collared dickeys, and heavy black stockings. Boys were not admitted, and a tiny black kitten named "Satan" served as Bryn Mawr's mascot, prancing about in a white sweater embossed with bms. Soggy and primitive as the conditions sound, the school newspaper described the match as an exhilarating display of athletic prowess. "Our players . . . were at first somewhat demoralized by the splendid guarding of their opponents and rather lost control of the play," the December 1901 edition reads. "The first goal was a very pretty long distance throw made by Mary Brady, and of course greatly encouraged our team."
Bryn Mawr won the nail-biter 8-7--a score one would see after a few minutes of today's game, but understandable given the sawdust surface, boardless basket, and neck-to-toe uniforms. Afterward the girls gathered for tea and Kossuth cake, a chocolate-covered spongelike delicacy named after Louis Kossuth, a Hungarian general who visited Baltimore in the late 1800s, after a life of freedom-fighting that led to his country's independence in 1849. (There is also a street in Highlandtown named after Kossuth.) Like the game itself, the post-game festivities have endured, and to this day the girls covet the same engraved silver cup Bryn Mawr took home in 1901. The tradition of presenting a game ball to the winning squad, however, went by the wayside during World War II, when materials such as leather were being conserved.
But "The Game," as it's come to be known among students at both schools, hasn't endured without major challenges over the years. In the years after its invention, basketball was widely considered too barbaric for females. On the heels of a 1907 Illinois High School Athletic Association report decrying the sport as "unladylike" ("[T]he costumes are too circusy for girls, and . . . the record of blackened eyes, scratched countenances, and bruised limbs . . . is an argument against the game as far as the lassies are concerned"), girls' basketball was banned in that state, and schools nationwide followed suit. But St. Timothy's and Bryn Mawr played on, determined not to deprive their young women of an activity available to their male counterparts. (Illinois eventually came around, lifting its ban in 1910.)
"Look at the Taliban. This is what you get when you marginalize half of your society," Bryn Mawr's Dagold says. "The more women are franchised the more progress you make."
Since winning the inaugural game, Bryn Mawr has maintained the advantage, leading the series 53-43 (with three ties)--thanks, in part, to the fact that for the first 20 or so years of the rivalry St. Tim's didn't have a gymnasium where its girls could practice. St. Timothy's did enjoy periods of dominance, winning throughout the World War II years and the early '60s. (Its most memorable victory was a 64-18 rout in 1951 that prompted Bryn Mawr players to issue an apology to their classmates.) But Bryn Mawr's edge sharpened in the late 1980s, when basketball took a back burner to other sports at St. Tim's.
Both schools had long put a priority on lacrosse and field hockey; when Title IX laws mandating gender equity in intercollegiate sports trickled down to high schools, St. Timothy's plowed much of the resulting additional resources into those teams. Bryn Mawr decided to spread the wealth around, beefing up its soccer and basketball programs.
Those divergent emphases have shown. St. Timothy's came within a game of winning this year's lacrosse title in the A Conference of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland (IAAM, the statewide governing body for girls' private-school sports), and made it to last year's field-hockey finals. By contrast, in basketball St. Timothy's competes in IAAM's lower-ranking C Division. Bryn Mawr, playing A Conference hoops, has developed some major talent--1994 alum Kisha Ford went on to star at Georgia Tech and now plays for the WNBA's Miami Sol--and three years ago the school hired Jim "Snuffy" Smith, who coached NCAA Division 1 men's basketball at Virginia Commonwealth University, to pilot its basketball team. Smith has guided the Mawrtians to a 40-32 record and was named girls' basketball coach of the year by The Sun in 2000.
This year's Bryn Mawr squad has three returning starters, girls keenly aware that they're building on a legacy. "I admire and respect those first players," says senior forward Laurie Sherry, who leads the A Conference in rebounding and is fifth in scoring. "They made this game possible."
Whatever the difference in the teams' competitive levels, though, both are passionate competitors, and both Smith and his St. Timothy's counterpart, 20-year veteran Bonn, want very much to win The Game. Smith even attempts to pry strategic information from a spectator who attended Brownie vs. Spider: "Who does he have over there? How many can play?"
Fortunately for Smith's team, Friday's game, unlike Brownie/Spider, will be played by today's rules. The Mawrtians play a modern , uptempo game marked by presses and traps. In recognition of this year's milestone, St. Timothy's suggested playing three-court, but Smith and Bryn Mawr athletics chief Detorie demurred.There will be a demonstration of the three-court game as part of the Nov. 30 festivities, and Bryn Mawr officials say they may consider making the switch for next year's game.
Regardless of how it's played and who wins, Smith contends the game itself transcends winning, losing, and local rivalries. Women's basketball has grown tremendously in the past decade, with the advent of the WNBA and regular TV coverage of women's college games. Baltimore, long a hotbed for boys' basketball, is nurturing female prospects like Kisha Ford as well. Today's successes can be traced straight back to that wet November day in 1901 at the Garrett Estate, and two schools' determination since to keep on playing. "This," Smith says of the anniversary game, "is an important event in the emerging chronology of women's sports."
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