“We don’t rebuild, we reload.”
This slogan has become popular of late, especially for college programs that re-stock top-level talent through aggressive recruiting and attrition. It is not so applicable to high school sports programs, where coaches do not get to pick and choose from players all over the country, but compile the best team from returning players and incoming freshmen.
However, in the early 1990’s, the slogan was very applicable to the Springfield Catholic Lady Irish basketball teams. When a standout senior (or seniors) graduated, Catholic just plugged a talented underclassman or two into the line-up and continued to dominate. The result was five trips to the Class 2A Final Four from 1989-1994, which included three state championships, a runner-up finish, and a 3rd-place finish.
The sustained run of success began in the 1988-89 season, as the Lady Irish started the season with a 4-4 record, but then reeled off 21-straight victories to advance to the Final Four with a 26-4 mark. After dominating North Platte in the semifinals with a 75-47 win, Catholic advanced to the state championship game against Salisbury.
Despite 26 points from junior Courtney Swift and 14 points from Colleen Swift, Courtney’s sophomore younger sister, the Lady Irish lost a 50-48 heartbreaker to finish as the Class 2A state runner-up. Catholic led with two minutes left to play, but could not close the game out. In the postgame press conference, Catholic head coach Ken Hopper told the media that, “like General MacArthur, we will return.”
The 1988-89 state runner-up team, with only two seniors on the roster, was dominated by underclassmen. The roster included four juniors, three sophomores, and a talented, six-deep batch of freshmen. In fact, 46 of the 48 points scored by Catholic in the state title game were scored by players that would be returning for the 1989-90 season.
The group of returnees for the 1989-90 season included senior Courtney Swift, who Hopper described as “extremely intense, motivated, determined, aggressive, and the team leader.” Fellow senior Kim Branstetter, one of the team’s key high-energy role players, also returned. A trio of juniors also returned, including Colleen Swift, a prolific scorer and dominant presence in the paint, and Carol McLeod, who provided solid rebounding and defense and did what was needed to win.
Catholic also added a pair of talented transfers, including junior Kendra Elton at point guard. “She was one of the best point guards I ever coached, boys or girls,” said Hopper of Elton. “She was a true quarterback who made the offense go. She also played great defense.” The other transfer was sophomore sharpshooter Stephanie Thurman, an athletic scorer who was also solid on the defensive end of the floor. A pair of fellow sophomores, cat-quick guard Joleen Gray and athletic Kristen Baird, would also play key roles. A talented freshmen class was headlined by Molly Swift, who gave older sisters Courtney and Colleen a break in the post.
The Lady Irish returned to action for the 1989-90 season with the state championship game loss fueling the team’s desire to return to the Final Four and bring home the school’s second state championship, and first since 1983. Catholic began the season as the top-ranked team in Class 2A, and as the favorite to win the state title that had eluded the team in 1989.
“Losing the state championship game was a big part of the reason for our success (in 1989-90),” said Kristen Baird (Roubal). “It was a huge disappointment.”
The Lady Irish began the season with a dominating 87-17 dismantling of Seymour, and the lopsided victories continued, as Catholic racked up 21 wins in the regular season, with an average margin of victory of 36.2 points. The only two victories that were not by at least 23 points were a 93-85 win over Marionville in the regular season and a 65-60 victory over Mountain Home (Ark.) in the semifinals of the St. John’s Lady Irish Invitational.
Catholic entered District play with a 21-2 record, with both losses coming to Class 3A juggernaut Marshfield, which was in the midst of its state-record 102-game winning streak. The Lady Jays defeated Catholic 78-73 in the championship game of the Lady Irish Invitational, and again in the regular season by a 56-47 count.
The Lady Irish rolled to a District title, winning three games by an average of 40 points each. Catholic knocked off Marionville 60-53 in yet another heated match-up with the Lady Comets in the Sectional round, before beating Gainesville 70-63 in the state quarterfinals to advance to the Final Four at the Hammons Student Center on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University.
Catholic had little trouble in the state semifinals, using smothering defensive pressure to coast to a 62-28 win over North Callaway. Courtney Swift, looking to end her senior season on a high note, led the way with 26 points. The win advanced Catholic to the state championship game once again, and a match-up with Brentwood, which entered the game with a 29-3 record.
The Lady Irish jumped out to a 10-4 lead in the first quarter, but Brentwood closed the gap to trail 12-10 at the end of the first period. Courtney Swift scored 10 points in the quarter, including a couple of long-range three-pointers. Catholic began to pull away in the second period, and led 24-16 at halftime.
The third quarter belonged to the Lady Irish, who outscored Brentwood 22-9 in the period, with Courtney and Colleen Swift combining for 17 points in the quarter. Brentwood would get no closer than 13 points in the fourth period, as the Lady Irish cruised to the 1990 Class 2A state championship with a 53-38 victory. Catholic, which finished the season with a 28-2 record, placed four players in double figures in the victory, led by Courtney Swift’s 21 points. Colleen Swift added 12 (and 10 rebounds), while sophomore Stephanie Thurman and junior Kendra Elton scored 10 points apiece.
“I called a timeout in the last two minutes of the state championship game,” said Hopper, who was named the Class 2A Coach of the Year by the Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. “We were obviously going to win. I told the girls to look around the Hammons Center and remember that they were going to win a state championship. Relish it.” Hopper was not the only Catholic representative receiving postseason recognition, as both Courtney Swift and Colleen Swift were named by the MSSA to its 1st-Team All-State squad.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Kristen Baird. “We had worked pretty hard to get back to the state championship game. It was definitely a different emotion from the year before. We had so much talent, but as we learned the year before, talent doesn’t do it. You have to work hard. Just because you have good players doesn’t mean it is going to happen.”
Catholic lost standout Courtney Swift to graduation, but returned four starters for the 1990-91 season in seniors McLeod and Elton, and juniors Colleen Swift and Thurman. Catholic, which returned six of its top eight players in all from the state championship team, also had several talented underclassmen that had been waiting their turn to shine for the Lady Irish.
However, the state title defense did not go as planned in 1991, as Catholic was defeated in the Sectional round 39-35 by arch-nemesis Marionville, which would go on to win the 1991 Class 2A state championship. “We were playing well going into the Marionville game,” recalled Kristen Baird. “That loss was a huge disappointment.”
The season was not a total loss, though, as the highlight of the year was a victory over Marshfield. After losing to the Lady Jays’ in the season opener, Catholic ended Marshfield’s state-record 102-game winning streak with a 73-65 win over the Lady Jays in the Lady Irish Invitational. Catholic had several memorable battles with Marionville and Marshfield throughout the early 1990s. All three teams were very similar, in that each relied heavily on smothering defense with more than one go-to scorer on the offensive end.
“What I remember about Marionville is that they were always very, very good,” said Kristen Baird. “I also remember the crowds for those games. I mean, it was girls basketball and we were playing in sold-out gyms. People were being turned away. The games got so big that they had to move them to McDonald Arena.
“Marshfield was the same as Marionville,” added Baird. “We had some major battles with Marshfield. They, of course, had the Howard sisters, and we had our own sister combos. I also remember the crowds for those games. We were playing a pretty high level of basketball.”
“This was maybe the best team of the four years I coached at Catholic,” said Hopper of the 1991 team. “We had defeated the top teams in St. Louis and Kansas City on the road.” Hopper left Springfield Catholic following the 1990-91 season to become the head girls basketball coach and boys baseball coach at Central. He is currently an assistant football coach and social studies teacher at Glendale.
“What stands out the most in my memory was the heart the girls played with,” said Hopper of his four years at the helm of the Lady Irish. “I received many compliments which included statements like ‘great hustle,’ ‘what intensity,’ and ‘they play like guys.’ I remember a comment from a Marshfield fan after we had defeated them. He said, ‘those girls sure make you look good,’ which was true.”
“Coach Hopper was a good coach,” said Kristen Baird. “He was very caring and knew how to push us hard, but keep us all together. He emphasized playing as a team and good communication. Communication like a team, playing like a team, and acting like a team.”
Springfield Catholic did not have to search very far to locate Hopper’s replacement. Ronda Hubbard, who had served as an assistant coach for the 1990-91 season, was named the new head coach of the Lady Irish. It was Hubbard’s first head coaching job, which was understandable considering she was, literally, fresh out of college after playing for legendary coach Cheryl Burnett at Southwest Missouri State.
“I was intense…always have been, and always will be,” said Hubbard of the benefits (and detriments) of being a young coach who was not much older than the players she was coaching. “I knew the game. Those were the benefits. When you are that young, you don’t know a lot about human behavior and ‘building teams.’ As I grew, I got better at learning about personalities, learning styles, modal strengths, teaching methods, etc. But early on, it was all about X’s and O’s and winning.
“I carried myself very strong and ‘standoffish’ back then, because I was so close to their age,” added Hubbard. “It was important to me then to establish a line of respect, because I was so close to their age. I made a lot of mistakes that I grew from, but I wouldn’t have changed any of it.”
“Coach Hubbard was tougher as far as how she acted with the team, but it worked,” said Kristen Baird. “I had major respect for her, because she knew basketball and knew how to play, even though she was young. But she would have done anything for us, even if she kept up the hierarchy theme.”
“Coach Hubbard was an amazing leader,” said Teresa Baird, Kristen’s younger sister who would first play for Hubbard in the 1991-92 season. “She really pulled us together as a team. She focused heavily on defense, and that helped win us quite a few games.”
Seniors Stephanie Thurman and Kristen Baird were the elder statesmen for the Lady Irish on the 1991-92 team, as the roster contained just two juniors, four sophomores and six freshmen. The primary starting line-up featured Thurman, the leading scorer, as well as Kristen Baird, junior Molly Swift, and a pair of sophomores in defensive stopper Marty Hamilton and Jenny Swift, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer (and younger sister of Courtney, Colleen and Molly). Freshman Teresa Baird was one of the key players off the bench for the Lady Irish, but did not feel any added pressure stepping into the limelight in her first season.
“I just concentrated on going out and playing hard and doing what was asked of me,” said Teresa. “Coach Hubbard gave me the confidence that I could play with the seniors. The reputation of the program at that time was tremendous, and with all of the talent around, I could just concentrate on playing basketball.”
With the Sectional loss to Marionville fresh in their minds, the Lady Irish adopted the motto of “Back in Black” for the 1991-92 season, complete with T-shirts the team wore during warm-ups. The back of the shirts read “Go Hard or Go Home,” and the Lady Irish certainly played with that attitude in the 1991-92 season.
Thurman and Molly Swift both averaged 14 points per game in the regular season to lead a balanced attack. After a couple of early season losses, Catholic reeled off 14-straight victories and entered a late season match-up with rival Marionville sporting a 19-2 record. The game was as heated as usual between the two rivals, with the Lady Comets defeating Catholic 48-36. The Lady Irish rolled through District play once again, and advanced to the Sectional round where a familiar foe awaited.
In both 1990 and 1991, the winner of the Catholic-Marionville Sectional match-up had gone on to capture the Class 2A state championship. With Catholic entering the game at McDonald Arena with a 24-3 record and the state’s #3 ranking, and with top-ranked Marionville sporting an unbeaten record (29-0), many felt the game was the de facto state championship game. Catholic avenged the regular season loss to Marionville by snapping the Lady Comets’ 37-game winning streak with a 39-36 victory. The win sent Catholic to the state quarterfinals, where the Lady Irish trounced Richland 62-36 to advance to the Final Four at the Hearnes Center on the University of Missouri campus.
In the state semifinals against Cole Camp, Catholic led 5-4 early, but the Lady Bluebirds closed the quarter on a 7-0 run to lead 11-5. Cole Camp stretched the lead to as many as 10 in the second period and led 19-12 at halftime. The Lady Bluebirds led by eight points midway through the third quarter before Catholic mounted a charge, closing the quarter on a 13-7 run to trail by just two at 31-29 entering the final period.
Sophomore Jenny Swift scored on a lay-up to start the fourth quarter to tie the game, and Thurman’s baseline jumper gave Catholic its first lead since midway through the first quarter at 33-31. The Lady Irish defense was smothering throughout the final quarter, as the Lady Bluebirds did not score a single point until the 1:19 mark, which halted an 18-0 Catholic run to start the period.
The Lady Irish outscored Cole Camp 23-2 in the pivotal final period (and 40-14 in the second half) to defeat the Lady Bluebirds 52-33, and advance to the 1992 Class 2A state championship game. Molly Swift’s 16 points led Catholic, with Thurman adding 13, as the Lady Irish shot better than 80% in the second half on 17-of-21 accuracy.
“That game was a testament to Coach Hubbard,” said Teresa Baird. “She was always drilling us on the importance of defense. She always told us, ‘defense is where it’s at.’ If we play good, hard defense, the points will come at the other end.”
In the state championship game against Putnam County, Catholic’s third trip to the state finals in four years, the Lady Irish led 10-4 after one before outscoring the Lady Midgets 13-3 in the second stanza to lead 23-9 at halftime. Catholic was on cruise control the rest of the way, as Putnam County would get no closer than 12 points. Catholic captured its second state championship in three years with the 50-26 victory.
The 26 points scored by Putnam County against Catholic’s aggressive, trapping man-to-man defense is the fewest points ever scored in a Class 2A final, and the second fewest points in all classes. The state championship also meant that four Swift sisters—Courtney (a 1990 graduate), Colleen (a 1991 graduate), junior Molly, and sophomore Jenny—had played for state title teams at Catholic, as well as the Baird sisters (Kristen and Teresa).
“The main feeling I remember is relief,” said Hubbard of the state title in her first year as head coach. “I was proud. I was exhilarated. I was so young and it was as exciting for me as if I were still a player.”
“It doesn’t get any better than winning a state championship in your final high school game,” said Kristen Baird, who along with Stephanie Thurman and Sherry Moriarty had played her final game for the Lady Irish. “As you get older, you appreciate just how special it was. We had set a goal and worked really hard to attain it. Plus, I got to win one with my younger sister (freshman Teresa).”
Thurman ended her standout prep career by leading the Lady Irish with 21 points. Thurman would go on to play collegiately, first at Southwest Missouri State and then at Southwest Baptist University. She would make her mark as one of the best high school coaches in the state, though, after guiding Kickapoo to a 214-38 record and a pair of state championships in nine years at the helm of the Lady Chiefs. She was named the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2005, and Missouri Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Coach of the Year in 2003, 2005, and 2010. On July 10, 2010, Stephanie (Thurman) Phillips lost her nearly three-year battle with colon cancer, passing away at the age of 36.
Once again, the Lady Irish returned a youthful line-up for the 1992-93 season, with Molly Swift the only senior on the roster. There was plenty of talent on the team, though, including juniors Jenny Swift, Jessica Hartman, and defensive stopper Marty Hamilton, as well as sophomore scorer Teresa Baird.
Just as it had done in the 1991-92 season, Catholic avenged a regular season loss to Marionville by beating the Lady Comets 35-28 in the Sectional round of the state tournament. After defeating Thayer 46-38 in the state quarterfinals, Catholic carried its 24-5 record back to the Final Four, which was once again played at the Hearnes Center.
Catholic faced Palmyra in the 1993 Class 2A state semifinals in a match-up of similar, defensive-minded teams. The Lady Irish gave up just 38 points per game for the season, while Palmyra was even stingier in surrendering just 35.5 points per contest. As expected, with both teams being a mirror image of the other, the game was a close one all the way through.
The Lady Irish led 11-10 after one, and the teams traded baskets throughout the second quarter. Palmyra pulled ahead 18-16 at the 2:49 mark of the second before Molly Swift’s lay-up tied the game at 18. A jumper by sophomore Teresa Baird and a pair of Swift free throws gave Catholic a 22-18 at halftime, as the Lady Irish closed the quarter with a 6-0 run.
The Lady Panthers closed the gap to 30-27 heading to the fourth quarter. In the final period, Palmyra cut the lead to one with 4:28 to play, but a three-point play by Teresa Baird upped the Catholic lead to 39-35 with 4:03 remaining. From there, Molly Swift nailed five crucial free throws down the stretch, as Catholic pulled away for a 49-41 victory. Swift, who picked up a black eye in the hard fought game, led the way with 18 points and nine rebounds, with Teresa Baird adding 11 points and seven boards, and junior Marty Hamilton contributing 10 points and six rebounds. Baird also added shutdown defense on Palmyra point guard Kami Shade, who entered the game averaging 12 points per game but was held scoreless by Baird.
Catholic faced a familiar foe in the 1993 Class 2A state championship game in Cole Camp, which the Lady Irish had dominated in the second half of the state semifinals the year before. The Lady Bluebirds entered the game with a 28-2 record, with both losses coming in the Lady Irish Invitational in mid-December. Cole Camp had not lost since.
Once again, the game started close early, as Catholic led 12-10 after the first quarter of play. Catholic led by four midway through the second period, but Molly Swift’s five points keyed a 6-1 run to close the quarter, giving the Lady Irish a 22-13 lead at halftime.
This time, it was Cole Camp staging the third quarter rally, as the Lady Bluebirds closed the gap to 26-24 heading to the fourth quarter. However, Teresa Baird’s jumper and lay-up, followed by junior Jenny Swift’s right side jumper upped the lead to 32-24 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
The lead swelled to 12 at the 2:25 mark, and Catholic went on to post a 40-31 victory and capture its second-straight Class 2A state championship—and third in four years. The Lady Irish used a balanced attack in the state title game. Teresa Baird led the attack with 13 points, with Molly Swift and sophomore Ragan O’Reilly adding 10 points apiece. The Lady Irish defense forced 16 turnovers and held Cole Camp to half its scoring average. Marty Hamilton held Cole Camp senior star Shelley Walden to just six points—nine below her average. Swift and Baird garnered 1st-Team All-State recognition following the season.
With the back-to-back state championships, Hubbard became the youngest coach in state history to win two-straight state titles. It is a record that still stands. “To win back-to-back state championships in high school is quite a feat, and I was really proud of our team,” said Hubbard, who also notched her second-straight Class 2A Coach of the Year honor. As for the record, “It’s an honor. I am very proud, especially, of the fact it still stands. Records are broken all the time. For me, it’s always been about the players I coach. Did I help them become better, stronger young women? If so, I feel successful.”
“What an amazing feeling it was to win back-to-back state championships,” said Teresa Baird. “We were a talented group of players, but Coach Hubbard was fundamental in us winning. Other teams may have had more talent, or may have been taller or faster, but Coach Hubbard did a great job of getting us to be selfless players. She coached us to play together as a team.”
Springfield Catholic posted a 17-7 regular record in 1993-94, which included a pair of losses in the Lady Irish Invitational to Marshfield and Rolla, as well as a pair of losses in the Bass Pro Lady Classic to Christ the King (Middle Village, NY) and Kickapoo. However, adversity struck the team just prior to Districts, as senior Jenny Swift (the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer) was lost to injury. The Lady Irish captured yet another District championship, though, and defeated Lamar and Newburg in the Sectional and quarterfinal rounds, respectively, to advance back to the Final Four for the third-straight season.
In the state semifinals, senior Marty Hamilton went down early in the first quarter with a dislocated elbow. The Lady Irish fell into a 14-3 hole to Eskridge after the first period and did not recover, as Catholic’s bid for a third-straight state championship was thwarted in the 54-39 loss. Teresa Baird led the team with 21 points, while Marty Hamilton battled through the injury to score 10 points. Catholic rebounded to defeat Brookfield in the third-place game 41-38 behind Baird’s 29 points and nine rebounds.
It has been nearly 20 years since the Lady Irish’s run of state championship success. Aside from a fourth-place finish in 2005, Catholic has not returned to the Final Four since that run in the early 1990’s. Looking back on those teams, it is easy for the former coaches and players to get nostalgic.
“I remember the players the most,” said Hubbard, who has been an Associate Head Coach for the Missouri Southern State women’s basketball team the past 12 years. “They were awesome. They were hard working and coachable. They had a lot of pride in their school and they were a joy to coach. Looking back, I am really grateful to have coached those kids. They taught me as much as I taught them.”
“We were a close-knit school with small classes,” said Kristen Baird. “There were so many families that were athletic, just talented athletes. There were some very good basketball players. It makes the team really close when you have that family atmosphere, and with more than one group of sisters playing together, it made us that much closer.”
Kristen’s sister, Teresa, echoed the familial element involved with those teams. “There were so many sister combos, plus the familial relationship of the school in general,” said Teresa. “It definitely helped bond the team together.”
Originally published in the January-February 2012 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.