For a four-year period—from the 1987-88 season through the 1990-91 campaign—the Marshfield Lady Jays girls basketball team established itself as a dynasty by compiling one of the most dominating runs in the annals of Missouri high school sports. The numbers are simply phenomenal:
• A state record 102 consecutive victories
• Four-straight Class 3A state championships
• Three-straight undefeated 32-0 seasons
The Lady Jays compiled a gaudy 127-2 record during their four-year run, while obliterating the previous state record for consecutive wins (78) in the process. From Nov. 23, 1987 until Dec. 15, 1990, Marshfield never lost a game, piling up 102 consecutive victories. In Marshfield—and throughout Missouri—it is known simply as “The Streak.”
Scott Ballard oversaw the majority of “The Streak” as the head coach of the Lady Jays. Having arrived at Marshfield prior to the 1981-82 season, Ballard quickly established the Lady Jays as an up-and-coming power. “We averaged about 20 or so wins my first several years at Marshfield,” said Ballard. “We had some good teams, but we never could get past District, though.”
Ballard knew, though, that he had a talented batch of basketball players on the horizon. “We knew when they were in junior high that there were some talented players on the way,” he said. No one could have imagined just how talented, though. “It just exploded and blossomed and evolved into a unique situation,” said Ballard.
Ballard installed a frenetic, up-and-down game for the Lady Jays, which featured full court presses, fast breaks, in-your-face defensive pressure, speed, and more speed. “We pressed and made people play like their hair was on fire,” said Ballard. “And we could go eight or nine deep. Plus, we had a lot of discipline in the half court. We always had a go-to player on the inside, and a go-to player on the outside. Not a lot of teams played that way back then.” The speed game compensated for the Lady Jays’ lack of height, as no player stood taller than 5’9” at any point during “The Streak.”
“We made up for our lack of height with effort, and no one worked harder than us,” said Melody Howard (Elliott), Marshfield’s all-everything starting guard. “Our size was never our strength,” said Stephanie Nunn (Ezard), a fellow classmate of Melody Howard who also played a pivotal role for Marshfield. “We were a very small team compared to teams we played, but our strength was our speed. We would hear refs talking about not wanting to do a Marshfield game, because it was so fast up and down the floor.”
The 1987-88 season began with a 61-49 victory over Willow Springs in what would become Game 1 of “The Streak.” The wins kept piling up, with Marshfield winning tournaments at Fair Grove and Rogersville, in addition to its own Holiday Tournament. The Lady Jays rolled through the regular season undefeated, and removed the District thorn by winning that tournament, too.
By the time Marshfield arrived at the 1988 Show Me Showdown at the Hearnes Center on the campus of the University of Missouri, the Lady Jays were sporting an unblemished 30-0 record and #2 state ranking. Marshfield dispatched Festus in the state semifinal by a 62-45 count, setting up a match-up of unbeatens for the 1988 Class 3A state championship. Awaiting Marshfield in the state championship game was 32-0 St. Charles Duchesne, which had been the state’s top-ranked team in Class 3A all season.
The hard fought game was close throughout and was tied 35-35 at halftime. By game’s end, Marshfield found itself in severe foul trouble, and finished the game with two freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior on the floor. The Lady Jays were a young team to begin with, as nearly half the roster was comprised of underclassmen. “Six of those kids couldn’t drive themselves home from the ballgame, because they were under 16 years of age,” said Jack Howard, father of Melody and Julie Howard and also the Superintendent of the Marshfield Schools at the time. “That should tell you how young we were.”
With Marshfield trailing by one with five seconds remaining, Melody Howard—the Lady Jays’ All-State sophomore guard—shot a 15-footer from the right elbow. The shot missed, but Stacy Nunn (Shore)—Marshfield’s All-State junior forward—banked in a rebound put back just in front of the final buzzer to give Marshfield a thrilling 59-58 victory. The game-winning shot capped an all-time performance by Nunn, who scored 33 points and pulled down 23 rebounds in the game—none more important than the final one.
Many sportswriters across the state would call the game “the best high school basketball game ever played,” and Ballard is inclined to agree. “That was just an epic game,” he said. “It was a close game all the way through and we win it at the buzzer on a put back. Words just cannot describe the feeling. It’s a credit to the girls’ determination, resiliency and belief in what we were trying to do.”
“We were a dark horse that year, even though we were undefeated,” said Stephanie Nunn, Stacy’s younger sister and a sophomore on the 1988 state champions. “No one had ever heard of Marshfield. Duchesne was the perennial power and big name, and they thought we were ‘podunky.’ They already had their celebratory drinks on ice.” Melody Howard compares the season and game to a prominent sports film. “We were just playing hard and wanting to make a name for ourselves,” she said. “It was amazing to win it on a last second shot. It was just like ‘Hoosiers.’”
One common theme throughout “The Streak” was the community support the Lady Jays from the people of Marshfield—and eventually from basketball fans all over the state. Throughout the winning streak, away games essentially became home games for the Lady Jays, as a caravan of blue followed the team all over the region. “The support and following from Marshfield was incredible,” said Ballard. “At our first state tourney game, there must have been eight or nine thousand people there from Marshfield. It was just a sea of blue.”
“It didn’t matter if there was two feet of snow or ice, we still had packed crowds,” recalled Julie Howard (Templeton), who was one of the freshmen on the floor for Marshfield at the end of the state championship game. “It didn’t matter where we went. You always hear about the sixth player being the fans. That was really true with the Marshfield fans.”
The Lady Jays returned virtually intact for the 1988-89 season, and picked up where they left off, including winning tournaments at Springfield Catholic and Rogersville, and the Marshfield Holiday Tournament for the third consecutive year. However, it was not a steamrolling exhibition, as Marshfield survived more than one close call throughout “The Streak.” In particular, the Lady Jays’ annual battles with Springfield Catholic—a perennial Class 2A power and a team Marshfield faced two to three times per year—were usually down-to-the-wire nail biters. “Catholic was always a tough game for us,” said Stephanie Nunn.
Marshfield entered the 1988-89 District Tournament at Mountain Grove undefeated, but had to survive a scare from the hosts in the championship game. The game almost did not tip-off as scheduled after a severe ice storm crippled the area. Despite the weather, virtually the entire town of Marshfield showed up to see sophomore Carrie Garrison hit a shot in the final moments to give Marshfield a one-point lead. The Lady Jays did not escape, though, until Mountain Grove missed a shot at the buzzer.
The Lady Jays advanced through the remainder of the state tournament and arrived at the 1989 Show Me Showdown at Hammons Student Center as the defending state champions—and riding a 62-game winning streak. Marshfield defeated Kansas City O’Hara handily in the semifinals by a score of 60-42, and advanced to the state championship game to face Visitation Academy, a perennial St. Louis power that had won two state championships in the previous five years.
Despite a significant height disadvantage, the Lady Jays outrebounded Visitation Academy 33-27. However, Marshfield found itself trailing by 10 points in the third quarter. Led by Melody Howard’s 16 points, though, the Lady Jays came from behind to post a 55-52 victory. “The Streak” was now at 64 games, while the state championship streak was at two.
It was a unique night at Hammons Student Center for Marshfield, as the boys basketball team also played for a state championship, though the Blue Jays lost 60-49 to Charleston to finish as runner-up. As usual, the blue caravan from Marshfield made its way down I-44. Legendary NFL player Dan Dierdorf, whose daughter played in the state championship game for Visitation Academy, recently recalled making the trek to Springfield for the title game, only to walk in the arena and find a sea of blue. “I thought it was a Marshfield home game,” he said. On his way home from the game, Jack Howard recalled seeing cars lined-up on the side of I-44 for about two miles west of the Marshfield exit. “That many people had gone to the game,” he said.
The 1989-90 team would finally be one comprised primarily of upperclassmen, and carried “The Streak” into its third season at 64 games and counting. The Lady Jays once again began notching victory after victory, and won the Springfield Catholic, Rogersville and Marshfield Holiday Tournaments for the second year in a row. However, the battles with the Lady Fightin’ Irish were heating up, as Springfield Catholic would go on to win the Class 2A state championship later that season.
Marshfield once again finished the regular season undefeated, and then marched through the state tournament to reach the Final Four at Hammons Student Center. The Lady Jays defeated a familiar foe in Visitation Academy in the semifinals, although the 52-38 win this time around was not as dramatic. Melody Howard, who would be named the 1990 Missouri Girls Player of the Year following the season after averaging almost 26 points per game, scored 16 points against Oak Grove in the state championship game to lead the Lady Jays to a convincing 61-43 victory. The win completed a perfect 32-0 season for Marshfield—its third-straight 32-0 season and third-straight state championship.
As the wins began to pile up throughout the run, the crowds who came to see the Lady Jays play began to swell to capacity and beyond. “Every away game was like the circus coming to town,” said Ballard. “Every time we went on the road, it was standing room only. They may not have been cheering for us to win, but they were there to see if this was the night that the streak ended. With all of the media attention and crowds, the mental toughness and focus of these kids that were 15, 16, 17, 18 years old…that they could handle that is simply amazing. What was even more astonishing to me—and it’s a credit to them—was how the kids handled having a camera in their face at all times. To be able to handle the pressure of the situation, and the potential distractions and the media hype is remarkable to me.”
Following the 1990 state championship, Ballard left Marshfield for the college ranks, becoming the head coach at Missouri Southern. He is currently the head women’s basketball coach at Winona State University in Minnesota, where he has been since 2004. Current Marshfield head coach Gary Murphy left Morrisville to replace Ballard prior to the 1990-91 season, and has been at the helm of the Lady Jays for the past 21 seasons.
“I was quite younger back then and I wasn’t afraid of anything,” said Murphy. “Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to go coach a team that had won 96 games in a row. I had a friend at Morrisville who asked me after I had taken the job at Marshfield, ‘Do you really want to be remembered as the guy who ended the streak?’ But I was excited about the opportunity and about being at a school that really cared about girls basketball.”
The Lady Jays opened the 1990-91 season by winning their first six games—including a win over rival Springfield Catholic to start the season—to run “The Streak” to 102 games. Then came another trip to the Springfield Catholic Tournament, where the defending Class 2A state champion Lady Fightin’ Irish were ready. On Dec. 15, 1990, Marshfield suffered its first defeat in nearly 46 months, losing 73-65 to Springfield Catholic to end “The Streak” at 102 games.
“You could tell they were laying in the weeds for us,” said Murphy. “As the seconds ticked down, it was like an upset at a college football game where they storm the field and tear the goal posts down. It was a win of historical significance, and it was mass hysteria out there on the court. The girls took it hard, but they were smart enough and realistic enough to know that it wasn’t going to last forever.”
“It was kind of mixed feelings,” said Julie Howard, who averaged almost 22.5 points per game that season. “We knew it would come to an end eventually, and it couldn’t have come against a better team. If we had to lose to a team, it couldn’t have been to a greater group of girls. The loss didn’t cause us to lose our confidence, though. We still knew we were going to go out and win. We just had to pull together and move on.”
Springfield Catholic would defeat Marshfield once again at the Holiday Tournament that season, but the Lady Jays rebounded from that loss to go undefeated the rest of the season. Marshfield averaged 79.22 points per game that year—which still stands as the seventh highest per game scoring average in state history—and made its seemingly annual journey back to the Final Four, which would be played at the Hearnes Center in Columbia. After beating Perryville in the semifinals by a wide margin, the Lady Jays won their fourth-straight Class 3A state championship with a dominating 61-43 victory over Visitation Academy. It marked the third-straight season in which Marshfield had faced the Vivettes in the Final Four. “It was a relief we didn’t screw it up too bad,” said Murphy. “We ended the streak, but we still won a state championship.”
There is no doubt in the minds of the members of those Lady Jay teams that they could compete against today’s teams. “Can I be honest?” asked Melody Howard when asked how her teams would fare in today’s game. “I think we’d win. There are a lot of good teams out there today, and great players, but we were a really special team.” Her sister echoed her thoughts. “We’d probably still have the same record,” said Julie Howard. “I know we’d still have a long winning streak. We were just really passionate, really competitive, and wanted to win.”
“I think we clearly would still be competitive,” said Stephanie Nunn. “Teams today are playing more at the level we were playing at back then.” Coach Ballard is also a believer. “We were dominant,” he said. “They knew how to win, and they were willing to play defense and rebound. We had go-to players, good shooters, and didn’t turn the ball over. Those girls had a heart the size of a basketball. They simply knew how to win.”
The influence that those Marshfield Lady Jay teams had on the sport of girls basketball cannot be overstated. As Marshfield began to amass wins in bunches, other teams began emulating their frenetic pace and up-tempo style of play. “When I was coaching at Morrisville, we used Marshfield as a model program,” said Murphy. “I think other schools did, too. It was about that time that Cheryl Burnett turned the SMS program around. The key to their success was a scramble defense like Marshfield’s.” Stephanie Nunn is also cognizant of the impact her teams had on the sport. “Marshfield girls basketball changed the face of basketball in Southwest Missouri,” she said. “It kind of started the basketball craze. Then you had Melody (Howard) going on to star at SMS. It just made a major impact.”
The Marshfield Lady Jays also made an impact close to home. “You could drive around Marshfield during those three years and it seemed like there was a basketball goal in every driveway,” said Ballard. “It wasn’t that way four or five years earlier. Everybody picked someone off that team as a role model.” The impact of the basketball “craze” was felt at Marshfield a few years later when the Lady Jays—comprised of players who grew up idolizing the players involved in “The Streak”—won three state championships in four years (1996, 1997, 1999), while making six trips to the Final Four from 1996-2002.
As the years pass by, the enormity of “The Streak” begins to sink in. “I was kind of thrust into it there at the end,” said Murphy. “It’s pretty incredible looking back on it. I lasted six games and Coach Ballard was able to win 96.” Ballard also has fond memories of his days on the Marshfield bench. “It was just a remarkable experience,” he said. “It was quite a joyride. To this day, it’s a highlight of my career just to have been a part of it. I’ll never forget it.”
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.