The 1978 Cheyenne Wells girls' team just missed winning the championship at the Denver Coliseum. The players are pictured after the game. (Front L to R) Cami Benge, Shannon Weed, Tami Roth, Kelly Ackerman, Laura Krentz, Lisa Harvie (Back L to R) Barbara Simon, Sandy Medford, Louise Simon, Kelly Gerweck, Sue Harwig, Janice Simon.

Long Time Gone and the Tigresses of Cheyenne Wells

By Betsy Barnett

March 9, 2022

The Cheyenne Wells Lady Tigers basketball team is going to State!

It’s the Big Show, it’s what hundreds of high school girls across Colorado strive for each year from November to March, and it’s the thing of big dreams for little girls who watch their role models don their letterman’s jackets, board the decorated school bus, and wave to their cheering fans as they drive off toward the big city and the challenge of playing some of the best teams in the state.

Until you’ve been there and played at that level and in that atmosphere, you just don’t have an understanding of what the Big Show is like.

The 2022 Cheyenne Wells Lady Tigers have never been there. This week they are excited to reach their goal of getting there. But they don’t know what it’s like. For the Cheyenne Wells girls’ program, it’s only the middle-aged Lady Tigresses, now in their late 50s and early 60s, who can tell this year’s team what it’s like because they are the last Cheyenne Wells girls’ team to have played at the state tournament in Denver—in 1978.

From the 1950s through the early 1970s girls’ basketball was not played in many schools across the country, including in Colorado. States like Iowa and Oklahoma had enjoyed a version of girls’ basketball throughout those decades known as six-on-six basketball. It was a game designed for girls who were considered unable to exert themselves enough to run up and down the entire court.

Six-on-six girls’ basketball was just that. Each team put six girls on the court with three of the six playing only offense, known as the shooters or forwards, and three playing only defense, known as the guards. The forwards and the guards could not cross the half court line. The forwards were the scorers, and the guards stopped the other team from scoring.

Six-on-six basketball was played clear up into the early 1990s in some states, but in Colorado the regular five-players-going-ful- court game entered the scene for girls in 1974. These female players, until 1980, were referred to as rovers as they quickly showed they could effectively run up and down the court multiple times—just like the boys.

Those early pioneers did not play with a three-point line until the 1987-1988 season in Colorado. When it was introduced with little hoopla it was considered a strange rule and so it took some time for coaches and players to actually take advantage of the new possibilities. It was said in Colorado concerning the three-point line, “Guards smiled, big men snickered, and coaches pondered.”

Girls’ basketball became prominent quickly once introduced into the small schools on the eastern Plains, particularly in the southeastern corner of Colorado. The first girls’ state tournament was held in 1976 in Denver and the Campo Warriors were the first team to be crowned as the state champions. Campo beat Prairie, 53-42, for that honor.

The Cheyenne Wells girls were there at the state tournament in 1976. They finished in fourth place.

Cheyenne Wells was there again in 1977 when they did one better and placed third at state. Campo was expected to be the state champions again that year, but Calhan upset them in the championship game, 42-31.

In 1978, the Cheyenne Wells Tigers once again entered the state tournament and this time they were sporting a 20-0 perfect season record. It would be a toss up as to whether the Campo Warriors or the the Cheyenne Wells Tigresses would win the championship title.

In a pre-tournament article that year, the Rocky Mountain News highlighted Campo’s line up, “The 5th starter on the Campo lineup is Iowa transfer Sonya Bailey. The 5’ 5 junior had some adjustments to make as Iowa still plays the six-on-six version of girls’ basketball.”

Cheyenne Wells had easily come through the sub-district tournament held in Eads that year where they defeated Plainview in the semifinals, 54-36. In that contest Sue Harwig scored 18 points, Cami Benge had 12, and Louise Simon added 6 points. The next night they defeated Karval in the sub-district championship, 57-37. Unfortunately, Karval did not have one of their starters in Kathy Johnston. In the championship game Cami Benge led with 12 points, Barb Simon added 11 points, Sue Harwig had 10 points and Sandy Medord added 8 points.

The Tigers then marched through the District Tournament defeating the Limon Badgers and Genoa Wolves for the championship. An article in the Range Ledger stated, “On Monday the Tigresses played an overall short but very quick Limon team.” They won that semifinal game 60-48. They then defeated “the high-spirited Genoa Wolves,” 59-21 to advance to the state tournament for the third year in a row.

But this time they had impressive size and great guards and the kind of bench depth that most coaches can only dream about.

The Rocky Mountain News highlighted the Cheyenne Wells Tigers in a preview of the much-anticipated 1978 girls’ state tournament, “Coach Tom Falls and his Tigers come into this week’s tournament with an unblemished 20-0 mark, and they hope to make the trip back to Cheyenne Wells with a 23-0 record. Cheyenne Wells is top ranked in the final Sidelines Coaches Poll and may be the team to beat in this tournament.”

The article went on to highlight the five starters for Cheyenne Wells. “Two-year all-state Sue Harwig is a ringleader of this crew. She’s carrying a 15.0 scoring norm and has been pulling down 14 rebounds as well. There will be no keying in on Harwig, though, as the slick 5-10 senior isn’t even the leading scorer for Cheyenne Wells this season. For that statistic, look to a super sophomore by the name of Cami Benge. The 5-7 speedster has also been pulling down more than seven missed shots an evening. Louise Simon has been handling the post for the Tigers. The 5-11 senior has been averaging eight points a game and, “gets the fast break started,” according to Falls. Barbara Simon works in close at one of the forward spots opposite her sister. The 5-9 junior has 6.5 and 8.0 scoring and rebounding averages respectively. The final starter is guard Laura Krentz, who has, “really come into her own in the past month,” according to Falls.”

The Tigers entered the Pomona High School gym in Arvada for the quarterfinals game against Caliche. They advanced with a 64-51 win over “the Buffaloes who were not a weak team as Tracy Nein scored 21 points.” But Sue Harwig was too much for the Buffaloes as she scored 20 points and took down 13 rebounds before the first half was over. She only played three quarters and finished with 24 points.

According to Mike Madigan, sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News, “Cheyenne Wells, the No. 1 ranked girls Class A team in the state, was in trouble Friday night. But they ended up in the finals of the state championship.”

Their trouble was in the form of foul trouble where every Tiger starter played the second half with either three or four fouls. They held on long enough to put the semifinal game with Creede into OT. Sometimes it takes the seniors to step up when the chips are down, and in this case, it was Sue Harwig.

“This is our third year here and we’ve never made it all the way yet,” said the Tigers’ standout 5-10 center. According to Madigan, “Harwig picked up her fourth foul with six minutes left in regulation but finished by scoring the go-ahead basket in the overtime for 16 points.”

Cami Benge and Laura Krentz both got nailed with their fourth foul before halftime. Barb Simon got her third foul with two minutes left in the third quarter. Sister Louise got her fourth foul with a minute to go in regulation. “But Benge scored on the opening tip of the final quarter to give Cheyenne Wells the biggest lead of the game, 34-24. The Tigers looked on their way to the finals for sure.”

Creede tried everything they could to foul out the Cheyenne Wells starters, but the Tigers were called for only two fouls in the entire second half. “The refs didn’t call the game the same the second half,” charged Creede coach Steve Quiller. “We talked about it at halftime, and we said we were going to go inside and challenge them and try to draw the fouls. But they played the whole second half with only two fouls, and that’s hard for me to believe. We played the team that’s No. 1, and I think they’re lucky to be in the finals.”

It looked like the championship would be theirs early in the game as the Tigers jumped out to a 13-point lead over Campo by the end of the first period after Sue Harwig had controlled the boards and Cami Benge scored on a break away layup at the buzzer signaling the end of the first quarter with the Tigers up, 20-7.

Campo head coach Gary Hartley stated, “I didn’t know if we were too far down or not. I was worried. But I knew if we did the things we wanted to do, we could come back.”

The Warriors knew they had to keep Harwig off the boards and so they sped up the game implementing a full-court, pressing defense that opened up the offense for some fast breaks. By halftime they only trailed Cheyenne Wells, 30-28, and in the third quarter they got the lead for good.

Campo’s Denise Kester, a 5-6 junior hit 28 points in the game scoring off the full court press that forced a number of Cheyenne Wells turnovers.

The Tigers fought back when Cami Benge stole the ball and scored a layup getting within a single point, 44-43 early in the final quarter. But then the worst thing possible happened, as Louise Simon who was key working opposite of Harwig on the boards, fouled out with 6:00 minutes left in the quarter.

“Cheyenne Wells refused to quit, and trailed by only two at 52-50 when Kelly Perkins, Kester and Debbie Wait keyed a rally which padded Campo’s lead to 60-54 with 30 seconds left. Late baskets by Tami Roth and Kelly Gerwek trimmed the final margin to two points.”

It was a disappointing loss for the 1978 Cheyenne Wells girls. Cami Benge, also the sportswriter for the Range Ledger, wrote in the final article in 1978, “Many thanks to all the people from Cheyenne Wells and other places that supported the Tigresses. It means a lot to us.”

And they have been supporting the Tigresses—now transformed to the Lady Tigers—ever since. For 44 years, the Cheyenne Wells girls basketball players have yearned, year after year, to get back to the state tournament. They have unfinished business—business that has waited quietly in the background.

Those 1978 Tigresses are paying attention now and know exactly what the 2022 Lady Tigers are going to be experiencing in just a few short days.

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