Benalla women’s basketball hits major milestone

By Andrew Johnston

April 21, 1960 was an important date in the history of Benalla sport.

On a Thursday night, with poor weather bashing the town, a new competition was born.

On that night, the first season of women's basketball in the town began.

Before this season began, a number of the teams involved in the competition had been playing netball, then regularly referred to as "women's basketball", though the name was rapidly dying out as netball became a more popular game across the country.

However, for the 1960 season, the competition adopted what the Benalla Standard referred to as "men's rules", as basketball, by it's more common definition, gained traction in the town.

The season began with four games on opening night.

The opening game of the round was one of the best of the season, with Dodgers getting the win against Stars 27-20.

Immediately after, Demons set the tone as the team to beat for the season, claiming a 32-4 win against the Tigers.

The Standard said the conditions directly impacted the matches.

“The bad weather did not help, of course, but as the match progressed it was obvious that all players were doing much better,” it reported.

The outdoor conditions were tough, but by June of the same year, a new opportunity had presented itself to the young competition.

On June 23, the Standard announced the move to the new PCYC hall.

“Benalla Ladies’ Basketball Association commence play in the newly completed Police and Citizen's Youth Club Hall this evening for the first time,” it read.

“The girls are very pleased to be moving inside the hall, as on these cold and foggy nights it is not too pleasant playing outside, especially since six out of 10 Thursday nights have been wet recently.”

By this point in the season Jays and Demons had established themselves as the teams to beat, both holding 6-1-1 records, with Jays just in front on percentage.

But Younger Set, which was sitting in third place and would take on Jays on that first night under the roof of the PCYC, were by no means out of the running, and looked likely to be a threat as the season continued.

By the day of the grand final, Jays were nowhere to be found, and it was Younger Set that had booked itsef a date with the Demons.

On September 29, 1960, the two teams fought out the inaugural A-grade grand final, a repeat of the second semi-final where Demons easily overran Younger Set.

But this contest was far more even, with both sides forcing a number of errors against one another and keeping the scoring close.

It was not until the final 10 minutes of the game when Demons got on their bikes, forcing multiple turnovers and scoring a number of late goals to seal victory 28-19.

H. Hunkin was the best player on the court, scoring 16 points and being named as the Demons’ best, while P. Morris, with four points, was also named in the best.

Stars were named the B-grade premiers on the same night, defeating SEC on the back of a dominant showing from Shirley Nicholson.

● Women's basketball has continued to grow since those initial days of competition.

From juniors through to Breakers, the town continues to provide an essential pathway for women to play the sport they love and continue to improve.

The game has never been faster — the skill level and scores are substantially higher now than they were in the early days.

But the success of basketball in the town is directly traced to those who adopted the game all those years ago in 1960.

But the legacy of the first players may be more ingrained on the next generation.

“They're incredibly important for getting the game started,” long-time Benalla basketball figure David Stolz said.

“But I think those players’ key involvement is in building the future. Not long after they started the competition, those players started the junior competition, and when their children were born they got their kids involved.

“They ran competitions, made uniforms, did everything to get the junior game going, so basketball really started to take off in the ‘70s in Benalla as a result.

“When you look at the current batch of players in our town, so many of them have their roots in the early players who really built basketball. They're pioneers in so many ways.”