Women and sports in Monroe County: ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’

Pictured are those who served on the panel for the Hometown Teams program “Women and Sports Before and After Title IX” at the Waterloo VFW on Thursday, from left, Toni Smith, Margaret McCarty, Vicki Koerber (moderator), Darlene Kohler, Joan Tepen, Dawn Olson, Heather Minnick and Larry Henson. The panelists signed a commemorative Hometown (Corey Saathoff photo)

Monroe County is currently home to many great girls high school sports programs.

The Columbia High School cheerleading and softball programs immediately come to mind, as does the Valmeyer High School volleyball program and other sports teams from Waterloo and Gibault in recent years.

But just a little more than 40 years ago, the thought of organized girls high school sports being so successful today seemed improbable.

The struggles some young women and coaches faced to get to the way it is today were discussed during a program presented Thursday night at the Waterloo VFW as part of the ongoing “Hometown Teams” Smithsonian traveling sports history exhibit on display at the Monroe County History Museum in Waterloo.

Enacted by the federal government in 1972, Title IX has been a major influence in increasing athletic opportunities for young women in informal recreational sports as well as in competitive athletic programs.

A panel consisting of legendary local coaching and sports figures discussed the effects Title IX had on their lives and engaged in heartfelt dialogue about life both before and during Title IX implementation and immediately after.

Prior to Title IX, female student-athletes were limited to participating in Girls Athletic Association intramural sports, retired Columbia High School track, volleyball and archery coach Margaret McCarty told the audience. McCarty, who coached until 1994, was inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame in 2001.

“For GAA, we had ‘play days’ with other schools that met one night a week to play intramural games for two hours,” McCarty said. “We’d mix up our players for each side because we couldn’t play school vs. school. That was against the rules.”

In 1973, CHS implemented girls track in the spring and archery in the fall. McCarty said her first track team consisted of 25 members.

“Our first track meet was districts,” she recalled. “And we didn’t have a track. It was very difficult.”

The following year, 60 girls came out for track, she said.

“We had a couple of makeshift hurdles and a tape measure. That was it,” McCarty said.

McCarty’s track teams went on to win conference titles in 1979, 1981 and 1989, and she had at least one girl qualify for state every year she coached except for four. She also coached a state champion in the 200 meter low hurdles in 1982.

The CHS volleyball team started up in 1979 with McCarty at the helm.

“Our girls had to buy their own shorts and T-shirts and tape numbers on their backs,” she said.

Another legendary coach participated in the panel discussion. Toni Smith, who started the volleyball program at Valmeyer in the early 1970s and also coached girls field hockey and track, echoed McCarty’s sentiments when reflecting back on the early days of Title IX.

Smith said administrators would tell her the gym was booked after school, so her teams would sometimes practice at 5 a.m. before morning classes.

“It was just kids who wanted to play, loved to play,” Smith said.

Finding other teams to play against was also a challenge.

“We did have a hard time finding other schools that played field hockey, which is why we went as far as Wood River, Pinckneyville and over in Missouri to Cor Jesu,” she said.

Funding for these girls sports teams was another road block early on. The coaches didn’t get paid, and there were no uniforms, she said.

“But I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Smith said. “I didn’t care. I enjoyed coaching the girls.”

In fact, some of her earliest players were in attendance Thursday night.

Waterloo High School coaching legend Larry Henson offered a unique perspective as the only male member of Thursday’s panel. A WHS Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, Henson not only coached boys basketball, tennis and cross country, but also coached girls basketball and tennis for many years.

“I had four girls myself, so I was all for it,” Henson said. “Change doesn’t come easy. Women’s sports now is big time.”

Looking back, Henson wondered aloud why it took so long to establish an even playing field for young women when it came to high school sports.

“They were shut out,” he said. “But they finally got there.”

Local softball great and former Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic School softball coach Darlene (Kreher) Kohler also served on the panel. She grew up playing GAA sports prior to Title IX, graduating from Gibault in 1973.

“Yeah, there’s some regrets,” she said.

Kohler was so passionate about softball that she marked off all the days on a calendar she could play during the summer.  She went on to an established softball career that included MVP awards for the Pacers and other teams.

Fortunately, Joan (Kennedy) Tepen had a chance to participate in sports while at Gibault. She was a junior when Title IX went into effect.

In fact, Tepen became the first female at Gibault to earn an athletic scholarship to attend college and played at Saint Louis University. She went on to coach softball and volleyball for Gibault and SPPCS, and is a member of the Gibault Sports Hall of Fame.

She credited the parents of female student-athletes, and also Sister Mary Bernard, for getting some of the girls sports programs off and running at Gibault.

“(The parents) wanted their daughters to play and gave us the chance to do that,” Tepen said. “Sister Bernard was determined that we were going to have a team, even if she was going to have to be the coach.”

As a coach, Tepen said her goal was to have the girls take sports seriously and do it competitively.

“I wanted them to see it the way the boys played it,” she said.

Two of Waterloo High School’s most accomplished athletes, Dawn (Reynolds) Olson and Heather (Wetzel) Minnick, also served on the panel.

Olson, who excelled as a swimmer and track and field star, is a member of the WHS Athletic Hall of Fame. She said her participation in sports opened doors to a successful future, giving her confidence and offering the opportunity to see new places and people.

Olson held the swim record in the 50-yard freestyle at Eastern Illinois University for 20 years.

“It’s allowed me to do a whole lot of things in this world,” she said.

Olson especially loved the team experience.

“There was nothing like being with the team,” she said.

Minnick, a 2004 WHS grad and past state track qualifier, was the youngest member of the panel. She was amazed by the stories told by others who shared their stories Thursday night.

“We’ve come a long way from just being recreationally active to athletically competitive,” she said.

Minnick also agreed with Olson’s assessment that participation in sports is a positive thing for young women.

“Having athletics as a female builds character and strength, both mentally and physically,” she said. “I owe a lot to those who paved the way for girls sports to be where they are today.”

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