Dona Fenske

By Chuck Schoffner 

 

 Dona Fenske opened the door to her dorm room at Parsons College on that winter day in 1971 and stared in wide-eyed amazement at the contraption standing smack dab in the middle of the floor.

   A scoreboard?

   Yep, a basketball scoreboard, its numbers glowing, its clock running, its buzzer fully operational. Whoa, she wondered, how did that get there?

   With a bit of effort, as it turned out.

   The scoreboard weighed something like 150 pounds and had been muscled into place by Larry Nixon, soon to be Dona's husband, and some of her Parsons teammates. He wanted to surprise her with a fitting gift after one of her games, and well, it certainly was appropriate. Because Dona Fenske lit up scoreboards wherever she played.

   Dona amassed 3,089 points in a six-player career at Audubon High School that has led to her induction into the IGHSAU Basketball Hall Fame. She ranks among the state's all-time leaders from that era, and her final tally would have been even higher if she had been able to shoot as a freshman, when she played in the guard court.

   "I just liked playing defense, so I ended up being a guard," Dona said. "Then they noticed I could shoot. 'You know, she's making a lot of baskets down there.' So they talked me into playing the forward end and it just clicked."

   Did it ever.

   At 5-feet-9, Dona wasn't especially tall for a post forward. But she was crafty and quick and constantly befuddled taller guards assigned to her.

   "If you left her just half a step in between two guards, she'd go between them just like that," said Bruce Adkins, Dona's coach for her last two years at Audubon. "If she went out on the floor and you were going to take her one-on-one, good luck. If you came up on her, she'd drive around you. If you backed off, she would shoot it.

   "It was just unbelievable the ways she could score."

   And score she did. Dona averaged 33.2 points a game and shot 57 percent as a sophomore, hiked her scoring average to 45.3 as a junior and averaged 52.9 points her senior season in leading Audubon to the 1969 state tournament and earning first-team all-state honors.

   It was the Wheelerettes' first trip to state in 36 years, and they were sent on their way by two of the most memorable game in Dona's career.

   In the sectional finals, she scored 88 points in a 121-106 victory over Irwin that set a state record for the most combined points in a game. Irwin's 6-3 forward, Connie Petersen, had a big game of her own that night, tossing in 61 points.

   Sectional runners-up also advanced that year, and when the district finals rolled around, it was Audubon and Irwin in a rematch. Irwin got 63 points from Connie Peterson, but again, the Rockettes couldn't stop Dona. She scored 82 in a rousing 112-85 victory for Audubon, shattering the previous state record of 71 points in a district game, a mark that had stood for 28 years.

   "State was the Sweet Sixteen then and it was a big deal," Dona said. "Back in the day, that was it -- 16 teams. There were no divisions, no 5A and 4A and 3A. That's your goal the whole time you're in high school playing ball: You want to go to the state tournament. It was my senior year and here's our opportunity. We had to do what we had to do to get there, and we did it."

   What they had to do was get the ball to Dona. She scored the first of her 35 field goals seven seconds into the game and the shots just kept falling in what became another frustrating game for Irwin coach Marv Cook and his team.

   "She could go to her right, she could go to her left, it didn't matter," Cook said. "You could play in front of her, behind her or double-team her, but she still found a way to get the ball. And once she got that ball near the basket, she was going to score."

   Dona first worked on those moves on the concrete slab in front of the family's garage. Her father, Dave Fenske, put up a basket, got her a ball and turned her loose. She spent countless hours on that court, Dad often working with her.

   "I played and I played and I played, all the time," she said. "He would stand in front of me and put his hands up and make me shoot those fadeaway jump shots all the time. We drove the neighbors nuts out on that court -- bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce."

   Adkins became Audubon's coach when Dona was a junior, his first head coaching job in a career that would span 23 years. He had been an assistant at Lake City and had seen Dona play, so he knew he was inheriting a good athlete.

   He encouraged her to work on her outside shooting, rebounded for her when she spent extra time shooting free throws and marveled at her ability to score from out on the floor as well as on the low block.

   "She was so quick," Adkins said, "that from the half-court line, she could take two long steps, two dribbles and lay it in."

   When she set up in the low post, Dona learned to take a drop step into the lane and shoot off one foot. Adkins was so impressed by that move that he taught it to his players for the rest of his career.

   "She fooled a lot of kids who were taller than she was," he said. "They wondered how she got her shot off. Well, she didn't face up to them so they could use their height."

   In Adkins' system, Dona also used the skills she learned as a guard. The Audubon forwards often pressed the opponents' guards after a rebound, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets as a result.

   "Just because you got the rebound didn't mean you were going to get it to half court," Adkins said. "She would back off from you and dare you to put the ball on the floor. Then she'd steal it from you."

   And heaven forbid that a ball rolled out of bounds without an effort to save it. Dona once crashed through a door at the end of the gym trying to keep a ball in play. At the state tournament, she slid across the scorer's table after flying out of bounds to track down a loose ball. "Hey," she said, "I saved it."

   Adkins recalled her defensive skills during an awards assembly in front of the entire school when he jokingly told the crowd, "They didn't call her Fast Hands Fenske for nothing."

   "Everybody in the audience laughed and I had no clue why," Dona said, laughing at herself. "I was so naive back then. Why is that funny? Somebody had to explain it to me."

   Audubon faced West Central in the first round of the state tournament, and coach Gene Klinge knew he'd have to come up with something to try to slow Dona. So he assumed the role of the Audubon star in practice to help his guards get ready for what they'd face in the game.

   "She was a really outstanding player," Klinge said. "We were going to have a real difficult time trying to defend her. That's probably why I played that role. I was bigger and stronger than some of the reserves we had."

   West Central "held" Dona to 37 points, but Audubon won 60-49. Her high school career ended in the next round, however. Despite her 54 points, Audubon lost to Woodbine 70-66.

   "Going to state, it doesn't get any better than that," Dona said. "That was definitely the high point. The town went nuts. They practically shut down the town and everybody came. It was amazing."

   Dona wanted to keep playing in college, but the large universities didn't offer women's basketball then, so she accepted a scholarship to Midwestern College in nearby Denison. She was named the team's outstanding freshman, but the school closed after her first season and her scholarship was transferred to Parsons in Fairfield.

   Dona received honorable mention All-America recognition at Parsons, which finished fourth in the national AAU tournament in each of the two seasons she played. By going to school in the summer, she earned her degree in just three years.

   "I wanted to get married," she said. "My parents told me I couldn't get married until I graduated, so I got on it."

   Oh, about that scoreboard. Larry was from Cantril in southeast Iowa and met Dona at a 4-H gathering when Dona was a junior in high school. Dona still laughs at his opening line: "My, you're tall." The scoreboard once hung in the Cantril gym, and when it was replaced by a new model, Larry bought it.

   "He had it all going when I walked in," Dona said. "The clock was working and he had Larry and Dona in place of Visitor and Home. The button for the ten digits didn't work, so I always won. We still have it and it still works."

   Dona and Larry live on an acreage overlooking the ocean in the town of Yachats on the Oregon coast, where they hire out as telephone cable splicers. "That's where Fast Hands Fenske comes in," she said. "I could splice circles around those men."

   Just like on the basketball court, where she played circles around anyone who tried to guard her.