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18 players, 3 courts, 125 years of tradition: Brownie vs. Spider basketball game at St. Timothy’s as spirited as ever

St. Timothy's School's Spider team captain Olivia Ibeh, left, practices with Laela Martinez for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
St. Timothy's School's Spider team captain Olivia Ibeh, left, practices with Laela Martinez for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

When Randy Stevens travels abroad for his job as the head of St. Timothy’s School, he’ll sometimes run into alumnae who’ve passed through its bucolic Stevenson campus. And, without fault, they’ll start their conversations with him the same way.

“Whether you meet someone in Shanghai, in Cape Town or in Mexico City,” Stevens said, “the very first thing they will quickly tell you is whether they’re a Brownie or a Spider.”

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For a girls boarding school not traditionally known for its athletic program, the teams represent something much larger than sports, becoming a part of students’ identities from the moment they’re assigned to one or the other upon entering school.

On Saturday, those two factions will step onto a special outdoor court near the center of campus to compete in the 125th Brownie-Spider basketball game, continuing a Thanksgiving tradition that predates the NBA by 50 years.

The nine-on-nine game is a throwback to turn-of-the-century three-court women’s basketball. Teams consist of three guards, three centers and three forwards, who each must stay on their particular third of the court. The ball must travel through all three zones on each possession, with the guards and centers (who play at midcourt) only allowed to pass, and forwards allowed to dribble just twice before they’re required to shoot.

Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Melisa Kocak, from left, Jasmine Johnson and Olivia Ibeh practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Melisa Kocak, from left, Jasmine Johnson and Olivia Ibeh practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

Baskets count as one point each in the game, which annually draws scores of parents and alumnae, many of whom sit bundled atop surrounding hillsides while sipping hot cocoa or cider for warmth.

The game, however, is only part of the story. The event brims with pageantry, from the decades-old songs and cheers sung by students during a pregame rally outside Carter House, the main building on campus; to the parade of teams onto the court, led by 19th-century mascots; to the traditional tunics worn by the players, red and brown for the Brownies and green and white for the Spiders.

“There’s loads of traditions and songs and activities that go along with it, where everyone at the school gets to participate, then it all kind of culminates with this basketball game,” said Paige Fadden, the captain of the Spiders for the 100th anniversary game in 1994 and now the director of digital strategy for corporate affairs at Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas. “And while there’s only nine kids on each team who play, the whole school has been a part of building up to this since the first day.”

The event was the brainchild of original co-headmistresses Sally and Polly Carter, known to students as Miss Sally and Miss Polly. With most boarding students unable to return home for Thanksgiving in the days before air travel, the sisters aimed to create a fun competition for those who stayed behind.

They divided students into teams of "Brownies," named after the main characters of a popular book and cartoon series by Palmer Cox, and "Spiders," an homage to the mascot of the University of Richmond, where the Carters' father had attended.

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But while the teams might have been set, that was hardly the case for the game, itself.

According to Christianna McCausland’s “St. Timothy’s School, A History from 1882-2008,” the original idea of the sisters was to build their holiday tradition around an intramural football game — a notion that turned out to be well ahead of its time for the 1890s. The first and only Brownie-Spider football game reportedly “caused such a maelstrom with the local media that the Carter sisters abolished it.”

Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Laela Martinez, center, plays against Melisa Kocak, from left, and Olivia Ibeh during practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Laela Martinez, center, plays against Melisa Kocak, from left, and Olivia Ibeh during practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

The sisters then switched the game to a recently invented sport called basketball, which had been modified at Smith College to better suit the Victorian ideals of women of the day. While women's basketball has since evolved, the rules of Brownie-Spider remain largely the same.

According to the book, the Spiders won the first game, 2-1. Apparently, a bit of the football mentality apparently remained.

“Even in their cumbersome skirts the students played so competitively that Miss Sally supposedly reminded her pupils that, ‘gentlewomen are not hoydens,’ ” referring to girls with “saucy, boisterous or carefree behavior,” McCausland wrote.

Now, more than a century later, the event continues, as spirited as ever.

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Morgan Gurley, a senior from Towson about to play in her third Brownie-Spider, said the boisterous cheers and throwback rules took some getting used to at first.

“Your first day of practice you’re like, ‘I don’t know any of these rules. Is this even a sport? What am I doing here? There are all these girls in green and white tutus singing these odd cheers around me,’” Gurley said. “It’s about embracing it and going with whatever you’re being thrown into at the moment. Girls that go with it get the most fun two weeks of their life.”

And since teams are limited to no more than four varsity players per side, the game ends up being as much about passion as athletic ability.

"We all go so hard and get so into it that, in that moment, you don’t care how scraped up your knees are going to be or if you're going to break an ankle," said Gurley, who otherwise never has played competitive basketball. "It does not matter as long as you're getting that ball."

For 1980 graduate, and proud Brownie, Nina Arnett, the game has spanned generations. Both Arnett's grandmother, Serena Miles Van Rensselaer, and mother, Stephanie Van Rensselaer Koven, served as Brownie captains, in 1929 and 1956, respectively.

Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Sophie Keeble, center, shoots over Julissa Morales, left, during practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Girls of St. Timothy's School's Spider team Sophie Keeble, center, shoots over Julissa Morales, left, during practice for the 125th annual Brownie-Spider basketball game to be played on November 23. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

"We all had the same ring from St. Tim's, we had the same Brownie pins, we did the same sorts of traditions and sang the same songs," Arnett said. "There are new songs that have been added, but the old ones, the team songs, are sung basically the same way as they were when my grandmother was there. That's all very unifying, and it brings everybody together."

Now, Arnett, a resident of Miami, is coming back to campus to take part in the alumnae game just seven months shy of her 40th reunion. Even now, the emotions of the day come flooding back.

"I remember being so overwhelmed going in," Arnett recalled. "It was just such a big deal, and I was like, `I don't know if I can even do this.' Everyone was sort of a wreck. Finally the game day came after this whole build-up. As an 18-year-old girl, it was a huge ordeal. Almost overwhelming."

Ultimately, most participants say it doesn't matter who actually wins (though, for the record, the Spiders lead the Brownies, 53-50, in games in which the outcome was recorded). Team advisors, such as 2005 Spiders team captain Tracy Campbell, spend equal amounts of time teaching the nuances of three-court basketball as making sure players adhere to the game's long-standing traditions.

Basketball skill, itself, is secondary. Those who don't make the top teams are assigned to either the nine-player "sub-teams" or a spirit "band," who each play their own games the day before.

“It’s more about spirit, team dynamic and being a leader in the school… not just about if you can play basketball,” Campbell said. “It’s a tiring, busy two weeks, but the message that Brownie-Spider sends — sort of that family rivalry — is essential to St. Tim’s and who we are.”

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The event now takes place on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a move made in the 1970s to accommodate the growing number of students flying home for the holidays. At its heart, however, the game remains the same.

“When I first came here, people would say, ‘You have to experience it to really appreciate it,’ and I think that is very true,” Stevens said. “I think the magic of Brownie-Spider is … it pulls people together, instead of dividing them. In many ways it’s the glue that kind of holds the social fabric of the place together.”

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