Nov. 17, 2006
Caught in the moment, on the day the tennis program–the first formally recognized women’s varsity team on campus–received their Notre Dame-clad varsity practice greens, Associate Athletic Director Colonel Stevens proudly announced “the dames have truly arrived.”
Thirty years after this first women’s team entered the field of play, and 35 years after Notre Dame initially opened its door to female undergraduates, these “dames” have not only arrived but have carved their own indelible niche in the lore of Notre Dame Athletics.
Today, their journey has evolved from eliminating stereotypes and breaking gender barriers to earning All-American honors and hoisting championship trophies. But with all due respect to Charles Darwin, the evolution of women’s athletics at Notre Dame begins and ends with the student-athlete herself.
“Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame”: Creating awareness through trailblazing women from 1972 through 1976
As part of the first class of women to enroll at the University in 1972, Betsy Fallon, like many of her peers, sought participation in an organized team sport to satisfy her need to compete. When her bid to earn a place on the men’s roster failed, she formed the first women’s club team on campus–the Notre Dame Women’s Tennis Club–to play against teams at nearby colleges and universities.
A year later, Fallon’s teammate Jane Lammers founded the Women’s Athletics Association (“WAA”), a group comprised of the captains of the campus women’s club sport teams, to promote the interests of these groups of women.
Lammers, together with Fallon, worked closely with volunteer coach and university professor Dr. Carole Moore, athletic administrators in charge of club sports Rich O’Leary and Tom Kelly, among others, to persuade the administration and the athletic department to recognize women’s tennis as a varsity sport.
Although tennis was the first sport to achieve varsity status, there were numerous trailblazers, some remembered but many forgotten, that helped pave the way for participation in other sports.
Students Jody Gormley, Mary Spalding, and Linda Sisson, plunged into workouts with the men’s rowing club where coaches pushed the women into an extensive training program so that they could compete with the best in the sport.
Student Mary Lammers Vogelsang, older sister of Betsy, earned the right to workout with the men’s diving team in 1972 and 1973.
Sally Duffy, a residence hall director, devoted countless hours helping build the foundation for the club basketball team on campus. Today, Duffy belongs to the order of the Sisters of Charity, runs marathons regularly, and directs a hospital.
Student Ellen Hughes, the student-secretary of the WAA, helped guide the effort to allow women to use Notre Dame’s Burke Memorial Golf Course, which up to that time, barred women from playing.
Because of their collective interest in participating in organized team sports, and as the implications of Title IX became more apparent at colleges and universities throughout the country, the Athletic Department welcomed women’s varsity programs in 1976.
“Wake up the echoes cheering her name”: Shattering the gender barrier and enabling the development of varsity programs
Tennis and fencing became the first women’s varsity sports in 1976. Over the course of the next two decades, basketball (1977), volleyball (1980), swimming and diving (1981), cross country (1986), soccer (1989), golf (1989), softball (1989), track and field (1991), lacrosse (1996), and rowing (1998) would join the ranks. Today, Notre Dame boasts thirteen women’s sports, which is symbolically the same number of varsity offerings to men’s teams.
During that initial season of play, the University issued the first five monograms to female student-athletes Mary Shukis Behler (tennis), Jane Lammers (tennis), Chris Marciniak (fencing), Catherine Buzard Sazdanoff (fencing), and Kathy Valdiserri (fencing).
Within ten years, the fencing program would claim the University’s first national championship in a women’s sport.
“Send the volley cheer on high”: Winning national championships
Under the leadership of head coach Yves Auriol and former coach and fencing director Mike DeCicco, fencing defeated top-seeded Temple 9-3 in the title match of the NCAA Championships to claim its first championship in 1987.
A free-kick goal five minutes into the first sudden-death period after two scoreless halves and overtime periods by midfielder Cindy Daws against Portland gave the soccer program its first national championship in 1995.
Everybody’s All-American Ruth Riley sank two timeless free throws to break a 66-66 tie against Purdue with just 5.8 seconds remaining in the second half to lift the basketball program to its first title in 2001.
During an eleven-year stretch, from 1995 through 2005, women’s teams would combine to win six national titles in soccer (1995 and 2004), basketball (2001), and fencing (1995, 2004, 2005). From 1995 to 2003, Notre Dame was one of only four universities in Division I play to win national championships in three different women’s sports.
The other programs and its student-athletes have made their impact on the conference, national, and even Olympic scene, as well.
“Shake down the thunder from the sky”: Achieving success in all fields of play, as a team and as individuals
The 2005-06 season marked a banner year as Notre Dame teams earned a best-ever sixth place finish in the Division I Directors’ Cup all-sports competition. Helping lead the way as top points producers among the women’s teams were NCAA quarterfinal appearances in soccer, tennis, and volleyball, a seventh-place finish in cross-country, the softball team’s advancement to a regional final, a fourth-place finish in the NCAA combined fencing championship, as well as all-time best finishes by the University’s two most recently created women’s programs–lacrosse and rowing.
The lacrosse program engineered the largest turnaround in NCAA Division I history by rebounding from a 3-12 season to a 15-4 finish and a trip to the Final Four in 2006.
Rowing earned its first-ever NCAA Championships appearance in team competition en route to winning its third consecutive BIG EAST title in 2005-06.
Over the course of its eleven years of membership in the BIG EAST conference, women’s programs have collectively achieved unprecedented success.
Since Notre Dame’s first season as a member of the conference, a total of 23 women’s teams have won BIG EAST championships across all participating sports. During the 2003-04 season, a record six coaches of women’s teams were honored as BIG EAST coaches of the year–Debbie Brown (volleyball), Tim Connelly (cross country), Randy Waldrum (soccer), Caiming Xie (diving), Tracy Coyne (lacrosse), Deanna Gumph (softball), and Martin Stone (rowing). Notre Dame women earned eight straight Commissioner’s Trophies honoring the best combined women’s athletics teams in the conference before the conference stopped its practice of issuing the award in 2005.
Likewise, players have collected a myriad of individual accolades and honors.
Notre Dame women have earned All-American recognition on 178 occasions, including 22 times in 2005-06.
Ten individuals with connections to Notre Dame competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Women’s sabre Maria Zagunis (entering Notre Dame as a freshman in 2004), Kate Sobrero Markgraf (1998 graduate), Shannon Boxx (1999 graduate, and member of 1995 national championship team), Ruth Riley (2001 graduate, and a member of 2001 national championship team) each won gold metals. Also participating were Monica Gonzales (2000 graduate) for the Mexican soccer team, Christel Bouvron (2006 graduate, and first active Notre Dame student-athlete to compete in the Olympics since 1924) for the Singapore swimming team, and Peta Gaye Dowdie (worked on a volunteer basis with sprinters) for the Jamaica 4×100 relay pool.
Several have made their mark in professional careers in basketball, soccer, and volleyball. Numerous others have gone onto coaching careers on the professional and collegiate levels.
The increasing administrative commitment and financial support from the University significantly contributed to the growing success of the programs.
“What though the odds be great or small”: Receiving support from the Athletic Department
In 1987, the Athletic Department conducted an extensive assessment of funding available for its Olympic sports programs, with a focus on women’s athletics. The action taken following that initial review has been astonishing.
In 1986-87, the total operating budget for women’s sports was $880,820.50. In 2005-06, that amount reached $9.9 million–an increase of more than 1,025-percent during the 20-year span. From 1988 to 2005, the percentage of total budgeted grants-in-aid awarded to women increased from 19-percent of total grants in-aid to more than 44-percent of total grants-in-aid.
A four-year plan to provide all 26 varsity sports with the maximum number of scholarships permitted under NCAA regulations was completed in 2004-05, and ultimately added 35.5 additional scholarships to women’s varsity programs.
This commitment extends to the construction and renovation of facilities. The softball, volleyball, and basketball programs, for instance, each will each have new or refurbished homes in the near future. There are also prospective plans for facilities for the soccer, lacrosse and track and field teams.
The Robert and Marilyn Rolfs Family All-Season Golf Facility opened in the fall of 2006. The facility boasts a state-of-the-art practice and locker room complex that includes a 4,820-squarefoot indoor putting green and chipping area, six heated indoor/outdoor “tee stations,” a spacious team lounge, offices for the coaching staff, and an on-site equipment room.
This past July, the Athletic Department received a $3 million donation from Linda and Paul Demo, the mother and stepfather of former softball player Melissa Cook, for the construction of a new softball facility on the southeast corner of campus to be named Melissa Cook Stadium.
The University announced plans in October for a $25 million renovation to the Joyce Center that will feature several structural and seating upgrades to the facility as the South Dome’s arena will be renamed the Purcell Pavilion.
Within the past decade, locker room and offices facilities for several of the sports programs have been upgraded.
From the locker room to the Registrar’s Office, female student-athletes have achieved success both on the field of play and in the classroom.
“Old Notre Dame will win over all”: Excelling in the classroom with academic honors and earning careers in the field
Beginning with Margaret Lally in 1979, female student-athletes have earned Academic-All American recognition on 58 occasions.
Pursuant to the most recently released NCAA graduation rates report, Notre Dame female student-athletes graduated at a 96-percent clip under the federal rate and at 99-percent under the graduation success rate, more than 20-percentage points better than the national federal graduation rate among all Division I institutions.
In 2005-06, cross country, fencing, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, and tennis–more than half of all women’s varsity programs–registered perfect 1,000 scores in the NCAA’s second annual set of Academic Performance Rate figures.
Many former student-athletes have returned to campus to work in prominent roles within the Athletic Department.
Missy Conboy, a nineteen-year veteran of administration in the Athletic Department, has become the Department’s highest-ranking female leader as a deputy athletic director. Julie Peterson Doyle, a former volleyball player, is currently serving as the first female president of the Monogram Club. Bernadette Cafarelli, a graduate of the University who interned with the Sports Information Office as a student, is currently the Director of Sports Information and oversees all functions of the Office.
These opportunities continue to extend to recent graduates. During the course of the past year, seven former female student-athletes have joined Notre Dame coaching staffs as assistant coaches, and seven other former student-athletes and student-managers began full-time work in administrative positions that operate directly under or closely with athletics.
“While her loyal sons are marching onward to victory”: Overcoming the perceived conundrum between “sons” and “daughters” of Notre Dame
Today, women’s programs take the field of play for an academic institution whose policy was to only admit men for the first 130 years of its existence, under the shadow of a football program that is the undisputed center of all campus sports, and with the lyrics “sons of Notre Dame” forever memorialized in the University’s Victory March.
Notwithstanding these perceived obstacles, women’s programs have found a way to thrive under the leadership of its head coaches and unwavering support of its Athletic Department and University.
At the heart of every game won and lost, BIG EAST honor earned, and national champion crowned–from Betsy Fallon to Ruth Riley–is the simple desire of student-athletes to compete.
And the body of work of these student-athletes over the course of the past thirty-five years has been memorable.
They wear the gold and blue. They win. They graduate.
They–we–are Notre Dame.