New Richmond's 1976 girls basketball team qualfied for initial WIAA state tournament
In the early years of WIAA girls sports programs, fans weren't sure what to make of the fledging teams that were sprouting up in each school.
In New Richmond, that changed in the winter of 1975-76. A hearty group of girls put together one of the finest stretches in Tiger girls basketball history. They won 16 straight games, qualifying for the first WIAA state championships.
The WIAA had announced its plans earlier that year for its first girls basketball state tournament at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse in Madison. With the tournament being a new feature, most girls weren't sure what they were playing for. Instead, they focused on the moment and playing as well as they possibly could in each game.
New Richmond's girls basketball team began the season splitting their first four games. Then something magical happened. They won and won and won. They reached the WIAA sectional championship, beating Ladysmith 41-39 for their 16th straight win.
The Tigers faced Clinton, a school near the Illinois border, in the first round of the state tournament. New Richmond played a menacing, always on the attack defense and that style ended up costing the Tigers at state. Their game was officiated quite tightly and the Tigers got into almost immediate foul trouble. They fell behind 16-6 in the first quarter and never fully recovered, losing 42-33 in the Class B semifinals.
The Tigers were coached that year by Polly Simpson. The starting five included Linda (Kunz) Gibson, Lisa (Drill) Cichy, Pat "Bucky" McNamara, Nancy Breymeier and Kathy Gleason.
Cichy and Breymeier were contacted to comment on their memories of that season and how athletics affected their lives.
They were in eighth grade when Title IX was approved in 1972, opening the opportunities for girls to compete in school sports. They recalled the early days of basketball in New Richmond.
"I remember our first year practicing at the elementary gym on tile floor. That's where we were relegated. It was like an ice rink. It was not a good place to practice, but we were so happy to have it," Cichy said.
Breymeier recalled the first year of basketball in junior high, when the girls were required to play the old-fashioned six-player basketball. Many of the girls had older brothers who played basketball, so they were ready for the conventional five-player format. They got to play that style once they reached high school.
The girls had a hunger to improve their skills. Many of them attended camps during the summer. When the 1975-76 season began, McNamara was the only senior on the team. She and a large group of juniors, including Breymeier and Cichy, were ready. After the 2-2 start they blazed through the rest of their schedule, earning a share of the Middle Border Conference championship. They defeated Durand, Mondovi and Ellsworth in regionals. At the sectional level they defeated Hurley 46-29 before winning the 41-39 thriller against Ladysmith that sent them to state.
Breymeier said one of her favorite memories of the sectional title game was the ride home with her parents. WIXK tape-delayed the broadcast of the game. Breymeier said the excitement she heard from the fans and the radio announcer helped her to understand how important this accomplishment was.
Both spoke about the strong support the girls team received from the community as they made their run toward the state tournament. While many New Richmond fans had planned to watch them at state, only a fraction actually made it to the game. A huge snowstorm the day of the game prevented many of the fans from getting to Madison.
New Richmond's boys basketball team had gone to state in 1972 and New Richmond was a passionate basketball community in that era. Cichy and Breymeier said that the community supported the girls team just as strongly as it had the boys team four years earlier.
"In New Richmond there was never any feeling like we were second class citizens," Cichy said. "I think New Richmond was ready for the girls programs."
Simpson received a great deal of the credit from her players for turning the girls into a state-caliber team. Simpson made defense the team's priority. The girls built upon that idea, making the fierce attacking defense the team's trademark.
"The girls were aggressive. That came from Polly," Cichy said. "Polly was very direct in her coaching style. She was a huge factor."
Cichy said Gibson was one of the key factors in New Richmond's success. At 6 feet, 3 inches, she was one of the tallest players in the area. Gibson led the Tigers in scoring, averaging 17 points per game. She also used her size to become a dominating rebounder and defender.
In the years that have passed since the 1976 season, the players on the team have come to realize how fortunate they were to play in the first girls basketball tournament in state history.
"We very much felt like we were trailblazers," Breymeier said. "It really built momentum for all the girls programs."
Breymeier said she wasn't a strong student in high school. She found out why 10 years ago when she learned she was dyslexic.
"Basketball gave me the confidence that I could do something and be really good at it," said Breymeier, who now works in investments.
"Going to state made all the difference. It completely formulated our lives," Cichy said. "It made us very confident young women. Without sports, we would not have had that."
Cichy has had a special view of the evolution of basketball. After graduating from NRHS, she played a year of college basketball at Marquette. Over the winter, her daughter, Tessa Cichy, completed an all-state basketball career at Hill-Murray (Minn.). After heavy recruitment from a number of major colleges, Cichy decided to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and play for the Badgers.
"People have said Tessa plays like a boy and we are thrilled. There's the same attitude, the same intensity," Cichy said. Cichy has an excellent perspective on this point. Her husband, Steve, was a four-year letterwinner for the University of Notre Dame football team.