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GIRLS BASKETBALL: As Title IX progress marches on, Lumberjacks continue drive to forge their own path

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The Bemidji High School girls basketball team breaks it down to end a timeout in a Dec. 28 game against Eagan. Thanks to the efforts from the program's pioneers, this year's team is poised to compete for a section championship. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- At its inception, the Bemidji High School girls basketball program was starting from scratch.

Backed by the new Title IX law -- which ensures equal privileges under any federally funded education program, regardless of gender -- the “Jackettes” first picked up basketballs in 1973. Few, if any, players had previous experience, and the team wore makeshift uniforms with numbers taped or sewn on.

Nearly 50 years later, today’s Lumberjacks are building on that very foundation.

“I think they opened the door tremendously,” senior forward Taylor Wade said. “If they wouldn’t have fought so hard for equal rights for us, we wouldn’t be here playing sports right now. None of us would.”

Wednesday is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, which celebrates the achievements of females in athletics. For BHS, simply fielding its first team became a breakthrough far more valuable than any on-court accomplishment.

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“I get to play the sports I love,” senior guard Ashley Hofstad said. “This is something I really love, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity if they hadn’t fought so hard for it.”

But Bemidji also wants to further the legacy. The Jacks are 14-5, are jockeying for playoff positioning and have their eyes set on the state tournament. BHS believes it has the pieces to make it happen.

“We’re really digging in and focusing every practice for the next game,” senior guard Lindsey Hildenbrand said. “We’re getting ready for sections so we can go in there hard and not be scared. … We know that we are good, and we can accomplish more than we ever thought we could.”

The latest of five Bemidji teams to reach the state tournament was the acclaimed 2009-10 squad, which went 25-2 behind star center and program all-time scoring leader Kayla Hirt. Though this year’s linchpins were still waiting in the wings back then, the varsity players of their youth sparked something within them.

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Lumberjack junior Emma Huberty (center) addresses the Bemidji Bombers youth basketball players prior to Thursday's tipoff against Duluth East at the BHS Gymnasium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“That was me, I don’t know how many years ago, to line up and give the older girls high-fives,” Wade said. “I was in awe at that point because I thought those girls were so amazing. That also inspired me, and I try to inspire younger girls because I know how amazing I thought that was when I was little.”

“I really looked up to the older girls,” Hofstad added. “I thought it was so cool. Them saying hi to me was such a big deal, so I always try to make sure I say hi to (younger girls) and ask them about their day, how they’re doing and everything. Maybe I can inspire them a little bit one day.”

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‘A bigger deal’

Girls basketball in Bemidji began as a fall sport for two seasons, alleviating pressure on gymnasiums as the boys team took center stage during the winter.

Nancy Schnickels’ inaugural squad went 2-7, documented by below-the-fold blurbs buried beneath the daily bowling scores. But as the program gained momentum, so did its exposure.

BHS grabbed headlines with an 11-3 record in year two, and the arrival of longtime coach Jim Wahl in year three truly turned the team into an area contender.

Wahl guided the program to its first three section championships (1986, 1994 and 2000) before Bob Luoma did so in 2001 and Rick Kehoe in 2010. Over multiple eras, Bemidji has watched its girls make history on the hardwood.

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Bemidji senior Taylor Wade (20) shoots a layup in the second half of a Jan. 30 win over Duluth East at the BHS Gymnasium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Obviously I think women’s sports are more appreciated now,” Hildenbrand said. “… (We’re) able to play whatever sports we want and not be seen as lower than the boys.”

The latest chapter is yet to unfold, but the Lumberjacks have the power to author the newest storybook ending themselves.

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“I’m really excited,” Hofstad said. “The girls are just so fun to be around. They’ve become my family. Going to state would just be so exciting.”

And, if they pull it off, the trailblazers from yesteryear will likely be watching.

“Basketball is a bigger deal here now,” Wade said. “Starting with so little… they would really see how all the hard work they put in paid off for other generations.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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