The old place shook to the rafters Monday night.
Known as “The Cage,” the home of the Davis High School girls basketball team has the charm of a bandbox pressure cooker. The sidelines could just as well be the walls. The floor is dense and dark, the squeaky sounds of sneakers a constant since it opened in 1961.
The Cage seats 490 but sometimes it feels like more, and it came alive when Kelsey Forrester raced downcourt for a 3-pointer that bounced high and through at the buzzer to stun storied St. Francis 53-50 in a Delta League contest.
Students rushed the floor and engulfed Forrester in a crunch of humanity. The moment resonated right into the laptop of Denise Curry across the state as a cross-generational moment of how far girls athletics have come.
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The most accomplished women’s basketball player in regional history and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Curry still gets fired up by a big shot. That it was delivered in her old gym and came a moment before players raced into the team room under her retired jersey No. 12 made it all the more sweet.
“Oh my, how cool was that show and crowd?” said Curry, retired and living in Southern California. “I love that old gym. Kelsey crossed over, never hesitated, pulled up and made it, and I loved watching the students run onto the floor. Wow.”
That sort of thing just didn’t happen when Curry played at Davis – or for girls sports anywhere in that era. Curry was a pioneering force when the gender-equity mandate of Title IX was just coming into play. She recalled wearing the same Davis uniform for basketball, field hockey and volleyball, playing in front of a smattering of parents and wondering if girls athletics would ever draw even a slimmer of the attention or athletic scholarship opportunities as the boys.
The 6-foot-1 Curry was The Bee’s first girls Player of the Year, in 1976, and her presence coincided with the rise of girls athletics at Davis and across the country. Davis won the Sac-Joaquin Section’s first two Division I championships, in 1975 and ’76. The Blue Devils haven’t won a section banner since, but the current group has the making of a contender.
Curry is the all-time scorer at UCLA, men or women. She won Olympic gold in 1984 and was the French Player of the Decade for the 1980s. Her 1984 Olympic jersey is framed inside the Davis team room, and her impact is not lost on Forrester, a 5-foot-7 senior guard averaging nearly 17 points a game.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind moment, and I’ll never forget that shot,” Forrester said, grinning. “It’s something you dream about growing up in the backyard, the clock winding down. I got that in-bounds pass and it was go time.
“The history of this program here is amazing. You look around and see and feel the greatness.”
‘She inspires us’
The Davis girls could play in the larger gym that opened in 2002 and is located an outlet pass away. But the Blue Devils prefer their quaint setting. And the word has gotten out on campus that coach Heather Highshoe’s team is an entertaining product. Friday is “Break the Record Night” against Franklin. On Monday, The Cage started to fill with students at halftime, when the boys team was down double-digits to Jesuit in the big gym.
“All that love!” is how Forrester described it.
She was greeted by a sea of high-fives on campus Tuesday morning. The first was from Dan Gonzalez, her trigonometry teacher. He is also the boys basketball coach. He noticed when students headed to the other gym.
“I could’ve sulked about our bad loss to Jesuit from (Monday) but we acknowledge the good things here,” Gonzalez said with a smile. “I made it a point to talk about what Kelsey did in our class. She never would have brought it up. One student said it was the most exciting game he’d ever seen.”
One fan who shrieked and cried with joy as Forrester’s shot fell was Cathy Speck. Her family name is synonymous with Davis. Speck’s mother, Dorothy Speck, led an effort in the early 1970s to get Davis girls better uniforms, access to the gym and coverage in the local paper, the Davis Enterprise. A mother of eight, Dorothy Speck died in 1972 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and months later, the school started the Dorothy Speck Tournament. It is the longest running girls tournament on the West Coast.
Cathy Speck was a teammate of Curry at Davis, and she embraces this team as much as her old ones. She is also battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which attacks nerve cells that control the muscles. But she never misses a home game; she’s the “team mom” who said Monday’s frantic finish, “makes me feel so alive!”
Speck earlier this season presented Highshoe, in her fourth year with the program, with a game ball from the 1976 section title team.
“We’re honored to have her, and she inspires us,” Highshoe said.
Said Speck, “My relationship with this girls program is largely because of Heather. She teaches at Emerson Junior High in town, where I frequently go to talk to students about having ALS and metastatic cancer and living fully every day. I explain that I was their age when my mom died of ALS. I try to offer advice, information and experience.”
Each October, Emerson students join community members at the “Walk to Defeat ALS” at Raley Field. Davis players often wear “TEAM SPECK” T-shirts.
“I got more involved with the team because of ALS,” Speck said. “Geez, what are the odds? A program started and honored because my mom was dying of ALS, and she noticed the inequity of boys and girls resources and support. She had plenty of other concerns, but chose this cause. I feel like I’m continuing my mom’s wishes. It’s such an honor to be here.”
Speck continued, “Heather’s done an incredible job of developing her players into upstanding, caring young adults, not just excellent athletes.”
Girls sports juggernaut
Speck said her mother is smiling down on Davis athletics. The Blue Devils are a girls sports juggernaut. The cross country team has won 14 section banners. The soccer team is state-ranked No. 1 and seeks its seventh section championship. The swimming program has 19 section titles and volleyball six.
“My mom is truly proud and delighted,” Speck said. “I can feel her spirit, and sometimes it seems like she’s sitting right next to me with a big smile on her face.”
A Davis girls basketball league title would be the program’s fourth this decade. The Blue Devils are 12-10 overall and 8-2 in the Delta League, tied for first place with St. Francis.
Forrester said she “sleeps and eats basketball. It’s my life.” A 3.5 student, she aspires to play in college. Teammate Alex Agnew is a junior wing, a 4.3 student headed to UC Davis to play lacrosse.
Curry said athletics “gave me opportunities I never could have dreamed of.” Agnew, a generation later, agreed.
“I met all of my best friends through sports,” she said. “All of my mentors are from sports. My greatest memories, too. Sports are my happy place.”