Saint Mary's athletics celebrates 65 years of growth
By NOREEN GILLESPIE
Editor's Note: Saint Mary's May acceptance into the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association marks a significant milestone for the College's growing athletic
program which traces its origin back more than 65 years. The Observer explores the history and growth of Saint Mary's sports.
In 1868, Saint Mary's had no athletic program.
Yet a commitment to physical fitness was not absent, just slightly ahead of its time. In days where Saint Mary's women wore gloves to dinner and dined with esteemed faculty in Le Mans Hall's Reinbeaux Lounge, women's athletics were practically unheard of.
Each afternoon the women convened in front of Holy Cross Hall and strolled down the tree lined avenue, for what the College's handbook described as "fulfillment of daily exercise," combining "physical activity with an appreciation for beauty."
By 1927, however, a revolution was beginning.
Ready to branch out in its quest for athletic competition, the College held its first "AnTostal," holding interclass competitions in tennis, track and canoeing. This marked the first ever athletic competitions at the College, and set the stage for the next decade.
On Wednesday, October 24, 1932, Isabel Kane, director of physical culture, received an invitation for the College to send a squad of women to compete in a tri-college field hockey meet in Chicago sponsored by the Chicago Field Hockey Association.
"Team to play for Saint Mary's," and "College girls will vie in hockey match," local headlines read the weekend of Nov. 10, 1932, as the first 12 Saint Mary's athletes traveled to Chicago for their first match.
Captained by South Bend natives Anne Prikoscvits and Frances Fuller, the team played three games, losing to Lake Forest and Battle Creek, and tying Chicago University, 0-0.
"Once in a lifetime perhaps, but nonetheless true!" the girls commented to the South Bend Tribune.
While the field hockey team was the only team to participate in actual competition that year, within the next five years basketball, an equestrian team, tennis, canoeing, volleyball, track and field, archery, golf, badminton and hiking were introduced.
By 1982, the College had established a full-fledged varsity sports program. Teams included softball, swimming and diving, volleyball, gymnastics, crew and basketball.
Fifty years after the first intercollegiate competition, Saint Mary's celebrated perhaps its most successful athletic campaign at the time. Fielding seven varsity teams, the women secured a state championship in softball, six all-state player awards and seven individual state titles.
Yet as the teams' ability increased, scheduling and growth restrictions served as obstacles.
Not yet a contender for conference affiliation, Saint Mary's teams scheduled games with local Division I, II and III teams, but had no national post-season play or recruiting benefits.
An additional challenge to the program was a disintegrating relationship with Notre Dame, who was the program's main rivalry in women's sports.
"Although the rivalry is a fairly new one, the intensity is high," Mary DiStanislao, former Notre Dame women's basketball coach, said.
However, with Notre Dame no longer a Division III team, the series soon began to dissipate, leaving Saint Mary's in the dust.
"The game was more important to each team's record and pride—it was like proving who was the top kid on the block," said Coach Dallesio, former head coach of Saint Mary's basketball.
With the desire to field more varsity teams, develop a stable schedule, and acquire recruiting benefits, Saint Mary's applied for conference membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and became a full-fledged member in August 1982.
With a stable schedule and conference under its belt, Saint Mary's fielded canoeing, volleyball, track and field, softball, swimming and diving and gymnastics. Finishing the 1982-83 seasons, Saint Mary's ranked in the upper-third of the association, ranking 38 out of 490 women's intercollegiate teams in their first year in the conference.
Growing out of their shoes
By 1988, Saint Mary's was ready to grow again and joined as a member of NCAA Division III.
If the athletic teams were to continue to grow, recruiting would have to increase, something that was a struggle under the NAIA affiliation.
"It appears that more high school students and their parents and coaches are more familiar with the NCAA and perceive it as the `better' organization," a report reads. "'Better' is not necessarily correct, but the NCAA is more widely covered in the media, and is therefore, more familiar to most people."
The athletic schedule for teams in 1988 boasted a majority of Division III teams, where Saint Mary's upheld a competitive stance.
However, the College was aware of its allegiance to the association, and wished to keep ties to the association strong.
"We could still maintain a competitive schedule with some of our strong NAIA teams, and could expand these schedules and still use the competitive NAIA teams to `fill in,'" the report reads.
After three years of applications, campus debate and preliminary investigations, Saint Mary's attained full membership into the NCAA Division III for the 1991-92 season.
The next steps
Independent until 1997, Saint Mary's took its most recent step by applying for conference membership in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Undergoing a two-year provisional membership period to evaluate the College's academic and athletic compatibility with the conference, the College learned of its acceptance in May.
Citing recruiting and stability as two benefits of joining the conference, Saint Mary's seeks to build on the same goals that have motivated their former conference and association affiliations.
"[Since participating in the provisional membership], our recruitment of student-athletes has risen 30 percent over the past two years," former acting athletic director Jini Cook said.
All athletic rosters have experienced an increase in players this year, with one-third of all athletes recruited incoming freshmen.
Saint Mary's also boasted 29 MIAA student-athletes for the 1998-99 athletic seasons, proving they are competitive in the conference.
"Saint Mary's is definitely a positive addition to the conference," Cook said. "We have proved that we are real contenders in this conference. We aren't here to be anyone's doormat."
Improvements to the athletic program may rely less on recruiting and competition as it will on facilities, something joining the MIAA forces Saint Mary's to evaluate.
While boasting the best volleyball and basketball floor in the conference, installed just last September, and arguably the best soccer field, Saint Mary's still lacks a swimming pool and a track.
"The students, the administration and the prospective students are creating this demand," Cook said.
Six new tennis courts, as well as new treadmills and trainers, are on slate for this year's improvements.
"We need these things upgraded so that we can be a contender for MIAA championships down the road," Cook said.
All News Stories for Monday, September 6, 1999