“Credit (for what came next) goes to our amazing coach, Mr. Glass,” said Swanson, admiringly. “He was our inspiration. “
The feeling, you could say, was mutual.
“I find in my experiences that when you explain something to girls they listen,” said Glass to Detroit Free Press sports writer Mick McCabe in 1981. “There were always a few boys who were like Ford – they had a better idea. I guess some day it may get like that for girls, too.”
Girls basketball was played in the fall in Michigan at the time. Leland’s Comets went 13-6 in 1977 under Glass’ direction, then 18-3 in daughter Laurie’s senior year, falling in the District tournament to Maple City Glen Lake. The team finished with a 19-2 record the following year, also falling to Glen Lake in the postseason.
“They were our rival” recalled Swanson. “You know rivalries. You hate them. They’re the enemy.”
“In Polakowski’s first two years, Leland didn’t do much in the state tournament,” wrote McCabe, “mostly because of (Glen Lake’s) Laura Wiesen.” Another thorn was Kim Kaiser.
“We couldn't beat Glen Lake for three years,” Glass told Chase. “We finally beat them the fourth year when we started our run. We felt back then that the winner of the Leelanau District would be the state champion. We felt we were basically playing championship games at the District level. Glen Lake won one (state) title and should have won a second in that three-year span (1977-79).”
The Leland girls won the first of three consecutive MHSAA Class D titles in December of 1980 when Glass’ daughter Rebecca, his youngest, was a senior. It was Polakowski’s junior year.
In September of 1981, Coach Glass discussed the team’s success with McCabe, and explained why he returned to coach the girls after Rebecca had graduated.
“… I don’t feel I ought to leave the girls we have back for this team,” he said. “Julie averaged three hours a day practicing basketball this summer, and I like that kind of dedication.”
Leland's 1981 team posted a 28-0 record en route to the second consecutive MHSAA Class D title.
Polakowski finished her senior season with 812 points, a new single-season scoring mark, topping the 804 points scored by Evelyn Johnson of Lansing Everett in the fall of 1978. Polakowski’s career total of 2,109 points ranked second in Michigan history behind the 2,227 scored by Jackson’s Regina Pierce.
In late December, Polakowski and 19 others were named by the Detroit Free Press as first-team all-state selections. Glass, who would guide Leland to a third consecutive title in 1982, was honored as the state’s Coach of the Year. “Perhaps the best player in the state can be found among the Class D All Staters,” wrote McCabe alluding to the presence of both Polakowski and Wiesen on the honor team.
In the spring of 1981, the Michigan High School Basketball Coaches Association had presented Sam Vincent of Lansing Eastern with the first Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award.
Similar honors were tradition in Indiana, California and other states. Now Michigan had one, to be presented to the state’s top senior male high school basketball player. Sponsored by the Detroit Free Press, the award was named after the highly-respected sports writer who had covered interscholastic athletics for the paper since 1945.
In February 1982, two months after the announcement of the girls all-state teams, the Coaches Association announced the creation of a Miss Basketball Award to be presented to the state’s top senior female high school basketball player from the recently completed season.
Sponsored by the Lansing State Journal, it was styled after the Schram award. The winner of the honor would be announced in early April. Presentation of the award would come at the Coaches Association’s third annual All-Star Festival, hosted at Michigan State University’s Jenison Fieldhouse in late June.
Besides Polakowski, five other players from around the state were nominated for the honor. It was a talented bunch. Each would play in the first Girls East-West All-Star game, hosted by the Coaches Association.
• Lori Vettes of Addison, a 5-foot-7 guard named Class C first team all-state by the Free Press.
• Allison Geatches, an all-around sports star at Harper Woods Regina. A fourth team Parade All-American, she later played college ball at the University of Detroit before heading overseas to play a year of professional basketball in Belgium. Later, she spent a season with the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female baseball team that barnstormed the United States during the mid-1990s, squaring off against male counterparts. She went on to coach softball at Macomb Community College.
• Sal DeGraw, a four-year starter, three-time team Most Valuable Player and a Class B all-state selection at Marshall. DeGraw later starred as a softball player at Alma College. Marshall fell short of an MHSAA basketball title in DeGraw’s senior year, but in 2000, now as Sal Konkle, she took the reins of the girls basketball program at her old high school. In 2016, Konkle guided Marshall to an MHSAA championship game for the first time since 1981. This time, with her daughter on the team, Marshall emerged victorious.
• Denise Basford, a 5-foot-9 guard from Farmington Our Lady of Mercy, and honorary captain of the Free Press Class A all-state squad. She would go on to play at Notre Dame. A leader on the court, today she’s a lawyer and the mother of two college volleyball players.
• Kelly Belanger, a 5-foot-10 guard and forward at East Kentwood who earned Class A all-state honors. Following graduation, she would join Polakowski on the basketball court at Michigan State University. Today, she’s a professor of English at Valparaiso University and the author of Invisible Seasons – Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sports.
At least today, the absence of Wiesen from the ballot was surprising.
“Really?” said Swanson, 35 years later. “Laura was their best player. She was a better athlete than me. I thought she was great.
“Every year, Glen Lake’s boys coach Don Miller would host the Leelanau County basketball clinic,” remembered Swanson. “It had always been hosted at Glen Lake, but one year he had it come over to Leland, and then it alternated. Anyway, there we got to know each other, we got to befriend them. I got to know her, and I really liked her.”
“She was a very good player,” recalled Belanger. Wiesen went on to play at Northwestern, and then returned to Glen Lake, serving as assistant to her high school coach, Ted Swierad.
In early April, Polakowski was named the winner of the first Miss Basketball honor, but, unlike today, no vote totals were announced.
“It was a nice surprise for me,” she recalled.
In June 1982, a team of all-stars separated into squads representing the East and West sides of the state. For the first time, the All-Star Festival included a game for the girls. Before the contest, Polakowski was honored with the Miss Basketball Award.
“My jersey number was 1,” remembered Swanson. “It was kind of embarrassing.”
The West, made up of primarily Class C and D players, won 81-62, with Polakowski and Wiesen sharing the backcourt. The girls also shared top scoring honors with 17 points each. Wiesen was awarded the MVP award for the game.
Marveling at the list of candidates and recalling the all-star game, former Grand Rapids West Catholic and Aquinas College girls basketball coach – and spokesperson for the Coaches Association at the time of the first award – Patti Tibaldi spoke glowingly about the era and the efforts to honor the girls.
“I’m nostalgic for the time. Wow. It was a time of all kinds of change – wonderful, challenging times,” Tibaldi said. “These girls (from the era) were so grateful for the chance to play, so passionate. They would have run through a wall for their coaches.”
“I think I learned I was nominated from my high school coach at Regina, Diane Laffey,” said Geatches, who now lives in Florida. “I remember the (all-star) game at the fieldhouse at MSU and being in awe. We were treated very well. My mom was there. I can’t tell you how I did in the game, but I recall being really happy about getting a new pair of tennis shoes for the game. I came from a family of seven, so that was kind of a big deal.”
“I guess I learned of the award, but I don’t recall when,” said Belanger, trying to remember the event. “I did play in the all-star game. I remember we stayed in the dorms at MSU. It was a different time. Girls basketball wasn’t as celebrated as it is today, but it was fun. I remember wishing there was more. At least, I wanted more. I don’t think there was as much year-around play. There were some camps for those who could afford them.”
“The girls today have no idea what these women went through,” added Tibaldi. “And that’s a good thing. They shouldn’t have to think about being given the same opportunities. Do you know what I mean?”
Swanson graduated from MSU, then taught math and coached girls varsity basketball in Iowa. These were the days when high school teams in Iowa began the switch from 6-on-6 basketball, once the norm across the nation for girls, to the five-player game. Following her marriage to husband Steve, who has served as head coach of the University of Virginia women’s soccer team for the past 17 years, and the birth of their first child, Swanson became a stay-at-home mom and pursued life as a writer.
Today she is the author of middle grade and young adult novels, including Going for the Record.
“I might not have been the most athletic,” added Swanson, “or the best player in the state. But basketball was everything to me.
“I doubt anyone could have been more obsessed with, maybe even unbalanced by, the game than I was.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Julie Polakowski (left with Miss Basketball plaque) and Laura Wiesen (right with her MVP trophy) following the Coaches Association All-Star game. (Top middle) Larry Glass, who coached the Northwestern University men’s basketball team and later the Leland girls basketball team. (Middle) The Glass House Motel, purchased and renamed by the Glass family after its move to northern Michigan. (Bottom middle) Leland’s 1981 team finished 28-0 in winning a second straight Class D title. (Below) Polakowski, with the Miss Basketball trophy. (Photos provided by Ron Pesch.)