BY CHARLES CHANEY
30 years ago, then El Dorado athletic director John Blazek had an idea, so he went to the girls’ then head coach, Fran Martin, and she was all ears.
“I wanted to be proactive, never reactive,” Blazek said. “There weren’t many women’s tournaments and we were really very successful with our men’s tournament.”
Thus, Blazek started reaching schools and the Lady Cat Classic was born.
“She’s always been Lady Cat,” said Martin, who is now an assistant executive director with KSHSAA until June, when he officially retires. “We have done some special things with the boys, such as the hosts of the team, and to bring our girls three more home games. We thought we had some of the best facilities.”
Blazek had a very specific type of team he wanted in his tournament.
“We wanted to stay local and knew they might draw a crowd,” she said.
Blazek reached out and was able to get Bluestem, Wichita Collegiate and Parsons in the first Lady Cat Classic. It kicked off on January 28, nearly 30 full years to this year’s tournament with Bluestem and Parsons playing in the first contest. El Dorado and Collegiate were the prime time game.
The four schools played in a round robin tournament with Bluestem and El Dorado playing Saturday night in the de facto championship game as everyone else suffered only one loss and the Wildcats were undefeated.
One of the superstars on that Lady Cat team was Rose Hill’s current coach, Jenny Page. She led El Dorado in scoring during that tournament, posting 22, 22 and 10 points to help them sweep the tournament.
“I remember the excitement of being able to organize a tournament,” said Page. “The boys had the Bluestem Classic and they finally have a women’s tournament. We were able to accommodate it was a really big deal. So, we were excited and glad we had the opportunity.
While there were some tournaments, they were mostly for the city championship or America’s Heartland where El Dorado fit that in between the size of the school. With Lady Cat, they were able to bring similar schools and were successful in helping their already successful 1990s women’s program under Martin. During his tenure, the Lady Cats went to the state tournament in three of four years, including 1994 and 1995, the two years they won the Lady Cat Classic.
“When you’re the point guard and you play for Fran Martin, you pay the price,” Martin said. “I thought you should see everything the way I saw it and she was a great leader. We just had fabulous guys who worked so hard and because we weren’t the most talented group, they were a really hard working group and Jenny was the leader. She knew what needed to happen on the pitch and was able to get her teammates to do it. A real pleasure to coach and it’s been really nice to see her get into the coaching profession and do some of the same things with the teams as she does and shape them to be competitive.
Page admitted that Martin was picky, but they respected her for it.
“He was quite a demanding coach,” she said. “We all respected her and she knew so much about basketball. We just wanted to be the best that we could and we knew you know we weren’t going to live up to his expectations of him. She so she was hard on me, but you know I appreciated that.
Page, while just a junior, got the most out of Martin and as a coach today, understood why and even implements some of them into her coaching philosophy today.
“They always say you know you coached like you were coached,” Page said. “I feel like I expect a lot from my girls, push them to the max and obviously want them to improve and be good people on and off the pitch. A lot of the things she instilled in me by working hard and without apologies, I want to instill in my team.
Page was one of the few El Dorado girls who would continue playing collegiately after Martin. She was on back-to-back state tournament teams and actually the Golden Era of Lady Cat basketball. During her four years at El Dorado, she won 64 games, more than any other four-year in school history.
“We had had two good teams,” said Page. “We were extremely lucky. My senior year, I think we have seven or eight seniors that I’m still good friends with today. What we try to teach our kids about the memories you have that you still remember, however many years later, but it was just a good time.
With the first women’s tournament underway and instant success, Blazek wasn’t done yet.
Before the game
He sat down to form the first umpiring crew for the primarily women’s tournament. It was a rare sight in the 1990s to see a female official on the court, not to mention Blazek, who has officiated for more than 33 years, wanted to see that change. She brought three female officials who all worked at Saturday’s championship.
Meridith Grussing and Becky Endicott, who was a longtime athletics administrator at Wichita State, were two of the officials invited to attend.
“When we first started talking about it, Fran and I were together on this,” Blazek said. “There weren’t many female officials at the time, but we had a crew of three who worked every night and also worked for the league.”
Fast forward 30 years and seeing female officials on the hardwood is commonplace. I’m in the NBA and all collegiate ranks.
“I’ve always looked to everyone who has a fair opportunity,” Blazek said. “I’ve never looked at males, females, nationalities, skin colors. If you’ve worked hard, you deserve it. And those three referees knocked her out. They’ve done a great job.
“I mean we grew the next year to maybe 4-5 female referees because we can put them in hotels and they pay, we paid them well.”
The players have noticed.
“It was unheard of,” Page said. “He added to the excitement of an already exciting tournament and the feeling as a woman that you will be represented.”
For others, the time was a few years later, but it had a knock-on effect. Jaimee Bohannan, or perhaps you know her now as Jamiee Wilda, was a scoring machine for Martin and the Lady Cats. In 1997, she was selected as the MVP of the tournament and she still holds the ninth most points in the tournament, with 26 points in a game against Collegiate.
“I remember there was always a female official at our games when we would have one,” said Wilda. “Now, to be more than one of us and to give back to a sport in a different way, it’s absolutely amazing.”
Wilda will return as an officer in this year’s Lady Cat Classic. In his fourth year in charge, the El Dorado alum has seen his star rise in the officiating community and will have the opportunity to showcase it on Thursday and Friday in the tournament. He first discovered this when his son reached middle school and wanted to contribute in any way he could. So, she called her old trainer and asked her what she should do.
Martin, who is currently the Supervising Basketball Officials for KSHSAA, was fortunate to have been able to see her former scorer rise through the ranks of referees.
“He did a superb job,” Martin said of Wilda. “Jumping isn’t easy and it’s really not easy sometimes when you’re outnumbered in most matches, but she’s done a great job and she’s really improved and we keep learning for big things for her.”
The Lady Cat has seen the tournament grow from teams in close proximity to Wichita to teams from all over the state. There have been 25 different schools that have taken part in the tournament which is propelling it as one of the longest running women’s tournaments in the state.
30 year history and many more to come for the schools, Maize South, Augusta, El Dorado, Circle, Mill Valley, Gardner Edgerton, Goddard, Wichita East and Kapaun, who are in the field this year.
“I saw 30 years old on Twitter, which means I’m really old,” Blazek said. “I’m very proud that everyone was in that school to participate.”