Sandy (Van Cleave) Little was one of the finest all-around six-on-six player of her time - 1968-1971. Her team, Montezuma, won back-to-back state titles. Her mother, Mavis Van Cleave, played at Gibson High School in the1930s.
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I grew up in Montezuma. We won the state tournament in '69 and '70, but I was born and raised in Montezuma.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Was the six on six game a tradition in your family?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Well, my mother played. Yeah, in the '36/'37 years in Gibson, Iowa and it was still a hoopy deal with the in-between their legs and everything. So, she used to go out and shoot with me.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was that like?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: It was funny. She was just a kick, actually, and she even went one time we were up at the school doing it. Carol Rugland actually came up and watched those. We didn't know he was there for a while. He hid behind the buses and we just laughed and had fun. She was a great, great lady.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: She saved basketball in respect with Montezuma. Share that story with me.
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I just remember her telling the story an awful lot that I had I was the youngest of seven and my mother always told the fact when people would ask her how did you get a basketball player out of this, and he goes well we almost didn't get a basketball player because Montezuma was having a special meeting and they were, they were loosing , every year, every year, and then they, they thought about, deciding to drop it totally and she went to the meeting and when she was there the superintendent of the school said Mavis what are you doing here? You have two cheerleaders. And she goes well I hope someday to have a basketball player because that's what, I enjoyed it and hope that Sandy will get to play. So, they, so I think she saved it. I feel like she maybe did. They kept it going anyway.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did the people at the meeting respond? How did people kind of talk about your mom?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: They just, they she was just outgoing. I mean she just felt like that girls needed something and that would have been the only thing that we had in Montezuma. We didn't have softball, didn't have volleyball and I think it finally came to the fact that they finally got the right coach to get the program started, and Mom was just there all the time, and she was just a die-hard. And she wanted to continue for the girls if it wasn't me, she was hoping for any girls to still play the game.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did you learn to play basketball? Who was it you started playing ball with?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: My brothers, actually. I had four brothers, and we had a kind of a garage that had been torn down actually outside our house, and they kept putting up the hoop cause my brother kept stuffing it all the time, and they'd take me out there. We had kids from the park and we lived just not quite a block from the park. So we'd go over there, and it's a neighborhood thing, and they'd just beat me up. They were pretty tough, actually, and also we had uncles. On the Van Cleave side, we're very good basketball players.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What were the rules from brothers to sisters?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: If you cry, you don't play. That's really what it was. If you cry, you're not playing with us anymore. So, if you can't take the beatings in basketball -- and we played a lot of football, too -- you're just not going to be out here, because we don't want a cry-baby out here. I think that's how I got tough. Playing with them was just tough. They just push me around and shove me around and it was awesome. Because you didn't do much back then. They didn't have cars that you could drive a lot, and so you just stayed home in the neighborhood and that's pretty much what we did.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Practice makes perfect. Did you follow that?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Peggy Watson and Kathy Meysner, we'd come up and we'd pretend like we were big-time basketball players, actually. Jeanette Olson was in part of that, because we were at camp with her, and we'd just pretend. We'd go: so many seconds left and Van Cleave scores or Meysner scores or Peggy Watson is on the drive and we'd just play. I mean we'd meet up there. I'm not saying that -- Carol Rugland, our coach, he pretty much said: you will do this, and he wasn't up there most the time. He wasn't up there with us, but he knew where we were at all times, and you'd try to put an hour and hour and a half in every night. That's what it took.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Where would you practice and how did the community respond to your dedication?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Where we lived, we lived a mile from town, and to get here of course we didn't have a car that ran that well, so I'd just dribble all the way up. A lot of times when I worked in the summer also -- I always had detasseled, which the kids still do now -- and after that, when you'd get home, you'd take a shower, and then you'd dribble the ball all the way up and everyone knew: there goes Sandy, it's like 11 or 12 o'clock at night. It was just the time it cooled down and then you could do it. You could practice, but it was just dedication. I mean, you knew that, that was the only sport you had, and it was kind of an outlet for us, I think, girls in that day and age. You could kind of get into your own self, and even though you were a team, you still knew you had to perform, and Rugland I think was a motivator of all of that. When he came to Montezuma for girls basketball.
He spent a lot of time; I can't imagine the time that he took away from his family and his wife and his kids because he was dedicated to the sport. He gave all there was to us kids.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Tell me a little bit more about him. What was his approach with girls your age? When did it all kind of start with basketball?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: With what I remember anyway, we had a fifth and sixth grade program that he ran down in elementary and we had two weeks of it, and he would he would run that, and he'd bring the high school kids with him, and of course, in those days that was awesome to think the high school kids were coming down there to help us little junior high little elementary/junior high kids.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How Carol brought your age group was and what he really helped do to the program.
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I would actually say he built self-confidence in all of us. I mean, he was a tough, he expected a lot from you. But he just built you up, that you were, you were a person, you could do anything you wanted to in life. And I think that's what he felt with all the girls, and he expected out of you, when he asked you to do something, you did it for him and he just had that kind of respect. Even in junior high, our coach, Jerome Stripling, he pretty much did what Rugland did. You have what you work with and the drills he wanted you to do, but even then it was fun just the girls to get together and play, but they took time. They took a lot of time, and I noticed that when I coached my daughter in seventh and eighth grade. The time is… you can't put a price on it.
If you did, you probably wouldn't want to do it any more. But I know with Carol Rugland, I mean, he spent his life. Ron Willrick was his assistant and those two just meshed together, and they mentored you as in a student also, which I think is very important because the girls needed to know that they were good in school. That was important to him, to get good grades.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: When did Carol Rugland notice your talents? What did he do to get you started?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Well, he came to all the games. He was always there in junior high. I remember we were just finishing up with junior high basketball when I was in 8th grade, and the girls were getting ready to go to the districts and the regionals, and he asked me to come up as an 8th grader to practice against the high school. I was just scared to death at that point, but he just said, I know you can do it and I know they're going to beat you up because you are only an 8th grader, but I know you're going to make it tough for them. And when we get to state tournaments, that's what they're going to need. But that was a scary part of my life. I remember that.
All those high school girls, and they pushed and shoved and threw me down. I got back up, though, and he knew I would. I had that competition in me that I was going to do it or else, and I think he saw that, way down in grade school, to be honest with you. I really do.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Tell me about your team, what was it like? A play you were maybe known for----
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Well actually, when you go back and you talk about defense, Montezuma is always known for their defense. I mean, they had pressure defense. We called it the bellybutton defense back then is what I remember. They always thought that our guards were fouling, but they were just tough. Ron Willrick, he was who coached the guards, and he just they were on you all the time. They did foot drills, constantly foot drills, and I think we were just aggressive. We had our plays up here, and the one thing I think really stood out is that nobody was the absolute star. I didn't average all the points, we all averaged with the Kathy Meysner and Peggy Watson and Rose Schultz and Brenda Haymer. We just averaged high. It wasn't like one person scored 80/90 points a game.
They'd be 30 or 40, and it was a constant that way. Rugland wanted balance, and that's what he got from all of us. It wasn't just one of us scoring all the points. He'd go over the drills and we'd just do. We did a lot of clinics back then, too, and I don't think they do as many of those anymore do they? I happen to know and I was reading some of the articles. We'd go all over doing clinics, and they'd show power moves, they call it the reverse dribble. That was, I think was one of the ones that first brought that in with two dribbles. I could do more in two dribbles than these kids now can do in ten, but he just taught you to use the space you had and drive to the basket and pass off when you didn't have the shot. He just knew the game. When he taught you, you knew the game. He spent time that wasn't just like when you would come in at 4:30 in the afternoon. We might have had an hour and a half or two hour practices, but he'd stay after with you and work on different moves and throw the ball back to you hundreds and hundreds of times.
Ron Willrick, the assistant coach, he was just an awesome defensive person, and he'd go against us. I mean he'd get in there and I'd go against him a lot, and we also brought the boys in. They brought the boys in to practice. We got in there, and so either the boys were kind of not used to that two dribble, but they did it, and they'd kind of goof up every so often, but just made us tougher I think, and I think now that's what Ankeny does. I know I heard them talking about they'd bring in the boys to play against. I think that's what it takes when you're going to play five on five now especially.
But three on three we did it back then.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Why were you a good sport? What was the shot that was your best shot or what was it about your playing?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Rugland taught me a fade away jump shot and a lot of time when you were a post player, when you played against most of these teams, when they called you a post player, you're supposed to stay down there. Well, I just never stayed down there. He taught you that you have to have other moves. You just can't turn around and shoot. And he'd bring me out and I could drive against you, and I could do a fade away jump shot on the right side against you. I remember one night I was nine for nine out there, and everyone was right from the right side, just the fade away jump shot. They just weren't used to it.
I remember some of the teams, Helen Grewball from Benton Community. I remember her yelling back to coach. She goes, “I never guarded anyone like this.” She's supposed to stay down there. And he taught you different moves and to be aggressive down there. I could go in and I could come out and I think that was our strong point of the game.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was your high school basketball career? How did your team do and what are some of the highest moments?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: When we started games in junior high, we got to play eight games each year. We were undefeated in seventh and eighth grade, and then I came up a freshman here and we lost two games that year. One of them in the regular season and one in the state tournaments when we got to get there. The next two years, of course, we were undefeated, and we started to make a string of that. 89 games is what we went in a row, and I think that's still standing. And then of course our last year we got beat 103 to 105 by Mediapolis, my senior year. Which would have been our 90th game. It would have been kind of fun if we could have kept that going for the kids, but it happens. It just taught you what life was about.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was it like going to Vets and being one of the girls playing ball?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Oh, it was awesome. I mean, you practiced in the summer, but when you got there, it's just indescribable how people -- the community here in Montezuma, they were just awesome people. They backed you 100 percent, and then they followed you to Vets auditorium and looking back through some of my scrapbooks here just a few days ago, it's just like you see the crowd. It talks about that in some of the articles; the town is empty. You could probably come here and rob the town, because there was no one here. But then when you get to Vets, of course at that time we got to stay in hotels, and of course we never got to do that. Never got to travel much, and so you get there on the big bus and you go there and it's just awesome. We got eat at Bishops everyday and that was a neat place to eat. All you can eat.
I gained weight at that time I think. But then we were pretty skinny kids, but it was just a fun time and then they always had the banquet. They just had a banquet before all the teams got to go. Wayne Cooley, he was the master of ceremonies. They had several people speak at the banquet, and that was just a neat banquet. I mean they had every kid there, and now every kid got to be there. And then after you won the championship, they just put on a feast. All your parents got to come, and it was just a neat thing. Wayne Cooley knew how to put that pride in the girls. He really did and made it a showcase, is what he did.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How would you describe the experience of winning? How did that make you feel?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: It was kind of neat. You didn't have the classes then. You didn't have 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A schools. To see that map up there, with the lights flashing, you just keep looking and you wanted to represent your town. That was what it all about. You wanted to put Montezuma on the map and that's what you wanted to do. The pride of the town was just there, and Carol Rugland and Ron Willrick ,they taught you what it was like to win. It’s fun to win. That's what you needed to remember and Rugland and Willrick could motivate us. That's what it was about, that winning was fun, and that we could, we could succeed in life through that. I think he prepared girls for it.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did your community treat you when you returned home?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: That was just awesome. That one year, I think in '70, they brought a tour bus. They met us in Des Moines; we didn't even know that was happening. We had a tour bus waiting and so as they'd leave Vets, they'd just start picking you. The community would just start picking you up on the road. I can't even tell you how many miles the train of automobiles was, and they just followed you in with the police and the fire department. And then when you get into the gym, they'd follow you in, when we'd have the roses. That was always a neat thing, that Wayne Cooley would always present the winning team with a big basket of roses. You'd carry those in beside your trophy. And this gym was packed, I mean, totally packed. Everybody came out to welcome you home. It was just a community deal, and you wanted to win for you community. Montezuma was really involved in the basketball program. And I think that's what kept us going.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Was your mom your number one fan?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Oh, yes, Mom was. And the funny thing is sometimes when you'd practice, you'd say you worked all day, Sandy, do you really think you need to go up there and do that? And she'd go: "oh, yeah, you probably do." But she was my number one. She was just swell. Not only my number one fan, she was my number one friend besides. Mom and I were really close. I was the youngest, and my dad died two months after I was born. We had my brothers and sisters, but we were really close, and she was just my mentor. She was a hard working lady. Oh man, she worked hard all of her life, and she struggled but she always kept us going. She got what we needed, and she worked um-teen jobs. She always worked the telephone office every Monday night. I think it was 28 years that she did that, and then she worked at Ben Franklin's, five and ten cents store there in Montezuma and they were really great people to let her off for games and things, but yeah, she was a neat lady. She really was. I miss her.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did Title 9 affect you?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: Well, I honestly think that we should have all of things that the boys have, to be honest with you. I don't think that should be pick and choose.
The thing I hear now that's really irritating to me, when you ask for money to go do something for girls basketball, girls volleyball or whatever. We hear a lot of times in these small communities, you don't pull in as much money as the football team does and things like that. But the one thing they never come out and tell you is how much is that football team costs to maintain. And girls need this, they need the basketball, the volleyball, the track, and I think it just prepares them for life. The fairness, it should be there. It shouldn't be in the backseat waiting, or standing there and watch the boys play football or play basketball and get baseball and things. It needed to be. It really did. It's what we needed, and I wish we would have had more of it. They finally got track when I was a senior.
They could have eliminated that for me, but I would have loved to have softball or something like that. Now the kids have to choose, because it's getting so competitive that these small towns are having a little hard time keeping up with the big towns, because they can't pick and choose in these small communities, you need these kids in every sport. They can't make it without it. I notice it's falling down now in some of the smaller towns, and that to me is sad. Now I think while we were raising our daughter is that, as long as you're in sports, we don't want you to get a job. We want you to be able to enjoy this time. My daughter's name is Dakota, and she's kind of realizing that when she's getting older friends, they tell her, you enjoy this time. This is the best time of your life in high school, because it changes when you get out.
You just don't have that community backing. And so we try to tell her, and I think she's realizing it more and more as she's getting older here, that she needs to enjoy this, and that's what we're hoping that she can do. We hope that she can go on from here and play in softball, we hope. Because she loves the sport that much.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Why are you proud to be part of something that was way ahead of the nation as far as for girls with basketball?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I don't understand really, when it came down to it, why didn't they have it in the bigger schools back then? We went and did clinics an awful lot of times, and I never did understand why the big schools didn't pick it up until later. I don't know if it was because of the rules changing, but I know those girls. When we do the clinics, they were just in awe of us to be able to get out there and do this and have the community and have our teams go to the state tournaments. And for sure that Wayne Cooley did make the difference. I mean, he dedicated his life to that and for us girls, and I think that's why we've gone as far as we have. Because he gave his time and he knew we were worth it. He knew we could do it, and I think that's what Wayne Cooley was all about, too.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Talking about Revenue-
Sandy Van Cleave Little: You bet. I mean this community, along with Montezuma, they packed it. In every place we went, the community followed. Every gym that we went to, they followed, and then when they went to Vets Auditorium, it was sold out. I remember people talking about that they couldn't get tickets to get in. Now that doesn't happen anymore. That’s kind of sad, that's gone. But they had to wait in line, and at some of these schools, I remember my mom would go. They'd go three hours early to wait in line in winter, cold, to wait in line to get into those games. Because it was packed. They just followed; the community was the biggest involvement. And I notice now when we when we go to the state tournament to watch of course, because where my daughter goes, they are, they haven't got lucky enough to get that far. They have in softball but not in basketball, but then the little towns are still there. I tell you they just pack ‘em, they just still follow their teams.
I guess I liked the fact that all the kids could come out, and if they couldn't shoot, they could still be a guard. And I think now - I notice my daughter playing, I got to play five on five also, is that it's limiting some kids now. I enjoyed playing both. I can't say that I didn't. I didn't play five on five as long as I did with six on six, but it's a lot. I watch that game and it's kind of like oh my. They could have just thrown that ball down to mid court and we would have got this game going a lot faster than this. And they dribble and dribble and dribble and dribble. It's lost something. I think they liked the scoring, the fans did, and we averaged a hundred points a game. Now it's lucky you're getting games at 26 and 27 and 32 points. I think they should come back with it, to be honest with you. I think the crowd still likes the six on six and you get a lot more kids involved.
That's what these small towns are having trouble with. They're not getting the kids involved, and now they're also starting AAU really earlier than what we started it and that's limiting kids. I think you eliminate kids, because I remember when Kathy M___ didn’t even come out in junior high. She didn't come out until she was a freshman and she was an awesome little player. She just worked and worked at it, but nowadays with AAU, you're eliminating a lot of kids. You pick your teams earlier, and then these other kids that are there thinking well they've already got two years of AAU so, I'm not even going to go out. It's kind of sad, but I think they need to monitor AAU a little bit more. I think it's just taken over and it's eliminating kids that need to still come out and be active in their school events.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What would you say to comments that six on six is slow or boring?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I think it was a fast-paced game. I think it was much faster than five on five is. I don't even see how they can compare that. In my mom's day of course they had the old rover, which to me was very unusual. You've seen it, of course, when they have the old elderly ladies still do that. Now that was kind of strange to me, but I think six on six was a much faster paced game. I think you could get that ball down there quicker. Because if you look at five on five, most of it's done half court. You get some teams that are really good pressers and full court pressers, but on the whole they just let you dribble down and you start at half court again, so I'm not sure what you're gaining by that, to be honest with you.
And sometimes I think it's always okay to have six on six for girls. It was okay. It was a fun fast game, I think.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How would you describe those days playing basketball for high school?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: A lot of pride there. I think back then I was kind of a quiet person and that to me I could come out. I could be aggressive. Of course, playing against my brother, that made you aggressive, but you could be aggressive. You could still be a team and Rugland brought us all together as team. Nowadays it seems like, living through my daughter, it's like they have to have these ____ every game cause they think that's what bring a team together. I think the coach is what brings the team together. I think we were friends on and off the court. Nowadays I see some things that happen and I'm thinking: how can you people say that to each other, you kids? And how does a coach stand by and let you say that to each other?
They just don't seem as tight, some of the teams. Now there are probably some teams out there, and I'm kind of going by what I'm seeing around the community, but we were just nice to each other. It was fun to play and we didn't have this pick-and-choose -- don't throw it to Sandy, because she's going to out-score me. We didn't have that. Rugland taught us to win, and I think with my daughter there, I think sometimes it's okay to lose. You need to, and I don't know if I was just that much of a scrapper because I came from a poor family, but we were close. My family was very, very close. My mom, she just did everything for us. I think she went to bed at night thinking of us and when she got up the next morning of how she was going to get that fifty cents so that we could go on that trip. I think Rugland just brought us together. He just taught. He knew how to teach a team.
Sandy Van Cleave Little: And so did Ron Willrick. They just knew they could teach us to be friends and to be competitive at the same time but be a nice competitive. You can be that way and not be mean and push and shove. We had teams we played against that did push and shove and called names and things like that, but I never remember calling anybody a name when they pushed or shoved me. I'd just get back up and you'd go again. I just like that competition and that's what he taught us, competition.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Other fondest memories-
Sandy Van Cleave Little: That last game always stands in your mind that you've played, but with Mediapolis we got to go to camps, that was a big thing that kids got to do. We did teams camps and we'd raise money to do that. That was my first episode as a freshman in high school. That was a neat thing. We went to Illinois, to a camp there, but the team raised money. We sold banners, and a lot of the community would just donate to the cause, too, and a lot of the businesses around. To me the camps were just a fun thing, and being from the small community and getting to go to Illinois or Wahoo, NE, they had a camp there that they went to, and that was just a fun thing. I mean, how neat that the community would pull behind and Rugland would help us raise the money. Out of pocket expense, we never had to do that.
Now I notice it's out of pocket expense. It happens a lot when I send my daughter to these camps. And we don't do team camps, either. Maybe some of the communities do. We don't -- it's kind of like if your parents, the finances and the time to take you -- that's what happens, but Rugland would get a carload and the whole team would go if they could, but you never had to take it of your pocket. The team would raise money and I think that's what made it a team.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What did the game and the girls mean to these small rural areas?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: It was pride, for one, community pride. We were all friends. I mean they all knew us kids and they protected us kids and you knew if you were out after hours that your coach would find out. It wasn't a mean find out. You just kind of knew not to press that. That you had a curfew, and of course in our days that Rugland actually would call our homes, and you'd better be there. Now I don't think you can do that anymore with things, but the community just took care of us. They had the pride of it and they just took care of the kids is what it amounted to. It's just not only your parents; the community really took care of us. It was just that pride of backing us, I think.
Yeah, you worked, and in those days you got to work in your community. You didn't travel. A lot of people didn't have to travel to Des Moines to have a job. You were on the road two hours a day and things like that. Most of it was done right here. You had the businesses and the community around, and they could they could back your athletic events and come to them. You're right, because it was a community. That's what it was.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did you feel when you heard six on six was going to end?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I was sad. I really was. I remember when Rugland would go to these clinics, and I could get some static from this, but I remember him saying that when the big schools get in, it will be the ruination of girls six on six basketball. I think he had the inside of what he had, was what it was. He could look ahead and know that because we'd go to these schools and they'd ask questions, like, why aren't you playing five on five? Why don't we just play five on five? But one of his comments was when the big schools get in this, it's going to be the ruination of girls basketball as we know it. And it's just changed. I moved back at that time. I moved back to Iowa in 1988 and bought a business back here. Also because my mother was ill and I wanted to be close to her. At that time they were still playing six on six, but a few years later of course it changed.
And I understand why they did it. I really do. But I'm not sure we're still getting the athletic scholarships. I think that's what they were hoping to get for more girls, but if you go to these small communities, you're lucky if every five years that one or two kids get an athletic scholarship still. So, I'm not sure that changed, and I still think if they played six on six, you can still change over. You really can. It's still a sport that you can change over to and maybe forwards change quicker than guards did, possibly but not all. In five on five you don't have all shooters either. So, I just think it's missed, and I wish they could figure out some way to still bring it back and see what the community thinks about it. It'll probably never happen, I'm sure.
It was a fun time. It was just a fun game, a fast game. Yeah, I was really upset. I knew it was going to happen. I got to play a few years afterwards in five on five. So, I knew it was going to happen, but I was kind of sad when it did.
Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was lost with losing six on six?
Sandy Van Cleave Little: I think finesse. I think the finesse of the game was just that girls could do more with two on two dribbles. You could spin, you could hesitate. You got a hesitation dribble in there, and the finesse. I think they had a lot of finesse to the game, to be honest with you, and I think it's missed. Now I think it's just power. The taller the bigger the power, they can throw it up to a six five girl and that's a lot of that anymore. In my days, Wishmeyer was one of the taller people from Mediapolis, but in my days, I was five nine and half, and that was tall back then. And you just couldn't throw it up to a girl back underneath the basket and let them shoot it. You had to have some finesse. To get that ball, especially with two dribbles, and to give and go. A real popular deal. Still is now, but its real popularity’s just, I think the finesse is gone out of it, to be honest with you.
I think it's great that you're doing the documentary on this. That's just awesome, to bring this to these younger girls and to maybe see a little bit of what six on six was all about and what the players have done and from there. I think it's great that you still keep it alive.