Something along the line is bound to derail a team on the way to the regional tournament, to state, the title game. Sometimes it’s a freak injury; others, an off-the-court gaffe turns into a suspension. And still others, one has a bad game against an equally talented team.
But for one season – and for the better part of four glorious seasons in a row during the 1950s – Mel Kupferschmid’s girls were darn near impossible to beat.
After two stints at coaching, one short and spectacular and the other much longer and nearly as good, Kupferschmid called it quits and retired to Sequim in 1994.
But in February, when representatives from the Iowa state basketball tournament came calling for a reunion of the 1957-58 West Central High (Maynard) team – that’s the perfect 30-0 state champs, mind you – the team’s coach couldn’t say no.
"I wouldn’t have missed that for anything," says Kupferschmid with a grin, thumbing through the newest Iowa state hoops tournament program. "Every one of our starters was there."
More than 20 years before the first professional women’s basketball league, the athletics/gender-equalizing Title IX and before Iowa prep players played five-on-five basketball like the boys, Kupferschmid’s team was unstoppable.
In following years, his other teams were understatedly good, too. In more than two decades of coaching, Kupferschmid’s teams amassed 551 wins and just 125 losses.
So it might seem a bit odd that the coach who got such excellence from his teams rarely had to push, scream or fume at his players to get them to win.
Instead, the coach they called "Koop" simply practiced his team well, conditioned them to be the best, took advantage of the talent he had and made it work.
If not for a job vacancy and a war deferment, though, someone other than Mel Kupferschmid might be calling himself a charter member of Iowa’s high school basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1949, when Iowans proving girls’ athletics could be as popular as boys’ sports, Kupferschmid got his start at Mount Union, at a time when girls played six-on-six basketball. Three girls from one team played defense only on one end while the other three looked to score in what turned out to be (in Iowa, at least) a popular form of the game.
"There was not even a thought of going to five-girl basketball (at that time)," Kupferschmid said.
After one season at Mount Union, he took over the Moravia High School program, where his second team was good enough to qualify for the state tourney. But Kupferschmid needed a deferment from the United States government to complete the season. Moravia lost in the second round and the team’s coach wound up in the service.
After serving his country for two years, Kupferschmid went right back to coaching, starting a girls’ hoops program at Fayetteville. A principal position at another school – West Central High in Maynard – caught his eye, though, plus the chance at a number of coaching positions, including baseball, football and an already solid girls’ basketball team.
"It was more for the professional advancement," he admits, but Kupferschmid jumped at the chance.
In his first year (1954-55), the Blue Devils were good but not good enough for the state playoffs, but the next year started four consecutive runs at the state championship. A state title in 1956 followed and West Central fell the next year to Garrison by a single point in the title game, despite Blue Devil Glenda Nicholson leading all state scorers with 164 points in four games.
Then, in the 1957-58 season, the improbable happened.
"We never really expected it," Kupferschmid said. "It just happened."
The perfect storm of solid shooting forwards and tough guards combined to make West Central a force that season, led by all-state forward Virginia Henniges. The Blue Devils cut a swath through their regular season opponents, beating teams by an average of 33 points per game. The defense shut opponents down to just 37.8 points per contest. Four opponents didn’t get out of the teens and three others failed to get at least 30 points.
Only twice did teams get close to snapping the string of wins: rival Eldora battled but dropped a 48-46 decision and Emerson came close in the title game that year.
Crowds at the school were swelling in the gymnasium to see the girls play as much or more so than for the boys, Kupferschmid said.
"Their dedication to the game," he said, was the difference. Kupferschmid used to recruit boys to practice against his girls team. "I thought that helped us a great deal," he said, noting the boys would help his Blue Devils learn to break the half-court press. "Some of the best teams didn’t even attempt to press us."
After a 20-0 regular season, the Blue Devils managed to get through their sectional games – by point differentials of 59, 78 and 18 points – and won district games by 44, 45 and 32 points. At the state tourney, West Central battled to double-digit wins against Argyle (by 17), Coon Rapids (by 11) and Meservey (by 17) to get to the finals.
In the title game, West Central took on Emerson, a team boasting of prolific scorer Vivian Fleming, who needed just 14 points to break the single-season tournament record for scoring. She got it with 39 points, but West Valley won the game 59-51, completing a perfect 30-0 campaign.
West Central went on to play in the 1959 championship with a streak of 58 consecutive wins, but fell in its bid for back-to-back titles, losing by 12 points to Gladbrook.
In that four-year span, West Central garnered play from four Iowa future hall-of-famers: Carolyn Nicholson (1956), Glenda Nicholson (1957), Mary Anne Roquet (1958) and Henniges (1959).
At what many would consider the apex of coaching, Kupferschmid was looking for a second career as a stockbroker.
"I didn’t have any time, any intention to get back into coaching," he said.
Sixteen years later, Kupferschmid was coaxed into taking on the Waterloo-Columbus girls’ program. By then, the mid-1970s, most of the high schools in Iowa had strong women’s programs.
Kupferschmid helped Waterloo-Columbus build a strong program, enough to earn eight state tournament berths in nine years. When several girls’ programs made the switch to five-on-five basketball in the mid-1980s, Waterloo-Columbus did too.
"We had to get the conditioning to a new level," Kupferschmid said. Timeouts became rest periods.
In 1990, all the pieces came together for Kupferschmid’s squad as they took Iowa’s five-player title (there were two tournaments at that time) with a 25-0 record. He became the first coach in Iowa to win titles at two different schools, a mark since achieved by two others.
In 1994, he finally hung up the whistle.
"I was tired," Kupferschmid admitted, chuckling. In all, his teams won 82 percent of their games and he had only two losing seasons. He even got to coach All-American Molly Tideback, who went on to become PAC-10 Freshman of the Year for UCLA.
But, in the same conversation, Kupferschmid notes that 21 of his players got scholarships for college, all but one at Waterloo-Columbus. There wasn’t the level of interest in women’s athletics, Kupferschmid said, in the 1950s, but it has grown.
And though he had plenty of success in his second stint, Kupferschmid, now 80, admits his coaching highlight was that perfect season back in 1958, with a group of girls from Maynard so gifted they went out and won the Iowa state softball championship that year, too.
"A lot of things could have derailed it," he said. But as the story turns out, nothing did derail that perfect season or Kupferschmid’s place in Iowa basketball history.