Women’s College World Series: Title IX, Arizona State wins 50 years later

To watch college softball this month is to be frequently reminded of two milestones: it’s the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that paved the way for women’s sports, and it’s the 40th anniversary of the Women’s College World Series.

The first is simple. But the latter is a bit more complicated. It is indeed the 40th anniversary of the NCAA-sanctioned Women’s College World Series, but the tournament has roots beyond that. There was postseason college softball under the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which ran women’s varsity sports before the NCAA, and there was even more before this. The first tournament to be called the Women’s College World Series was held in Omaha in the 1960s, and the sport’s first dynasty came from the Patriettes of John F. Kennedy College (Wahoo, Neb.), who won three championships in ’69 to ’71. There is a deeper and richer history here than is officially recognized by the NCAA.

Which means, yes, it’s the 40th anniversary of this official WCWS release. But it’s also the 50th anniversary of a team that won the WCWS in the weeks immediately leading up to title IX – Arizona State, which narrowly failed in 1971 and battled to win it all in 1972. , followed by a second championship in ’73.

“It was a fire in our belly,” Arizona State pitcher Paula Miller Noel now says. “It was a passion for the sport. At the time, nothing else seemed to matter – there was nothing more important than being back at the College World Series.

Noel, like many of her teammates, is struck by how much the tournament has changed. Arizona State players had to fundraise to pay their own way to Omaha. (WCWS originally stood near the home of the men’s College World Series; it moved to its current location of Oklahoma City in 1990.) The Sun Devils raised funds through exhibition games and sales of pastries. Although they practiced often, they did so mostly on city grounds, as there was no dedicated space for them on campus. When they made their first trip to WCWS in 1971, they stayed in the basement of a local who offered to house them and took their post-game showers at a nearby high school. When they returned in 1972, they were able to find a hotel, which made them feel like a success. The scholarships and funding that would come with Title IX was a distant idea to them. But some aspects of the modern tournament still feel deeply familiar: they were fiercely competitive and all they wanted was to win.

Arizona State’s core team also played for a local club called the Sun City Saints. It was known as one of the strongest teams in the Amateur Softball Association, and when a critical mass of its youth enrolled in ASU, they decided to focus on the softball program as well. the low.

“Our success was because a lot of ASU was on the Sun City Saints,” says shortstop Ginger Kurtz. “I think we had this cohesion because we played together.”

It was their success with the Saints in part that convinced them they could triumph in their first WCWS in 1971. They shut out their first two opponents with double-digit wins. But then they met defending champion John F. Kennedy College and lost 7–6. ASU therefore went through the losing group and prepared for a semi-final rematch with JFK – only to lose again, 5–3. This meant that JFK would win his third consecutive title.

This meant that ASU’s return to Omaha in 1972 was personal. The WCWS may have been a young tournament. But there was already drama, rivalries, tension – so much of everything that makes it what it is today.

“What really sticks with me is just that burning desire,” Noel says. ” That was all. And, you know, I’m watching Oklahoma today, and they seem pretty unstoppable – it’s just a look in a young woman’s eyes and the way she walks the field. There’s just something about it. And I think we definitely had that.

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However, ASU would not get a rematch with JFK: the school had been disqualified from the tournament for the type of athletic scholarships it was offering. (With the launch of the AIAW and the NCAA still years away from opening up to women, there was no structure to provide scholarships or other benefits to female athletes.) But the Sun Devils will find a new enemy in 1972: Nihon University of Tokyo.

The selection criteria for the WCWS were much looser than they are today. If a team could pay their way to Omaha, demonstrated some basic skill in the regular season, and didn’t break any of the rules, they could play. Nihon University had the best softball program in Japan and was planning an exhibition tour across the United States for the summer of 1972: What better way to kick it off than by playing in the Women’s College World Series? After all, there was no explicit indication that participating teams had to come from a college in the United States. So it’s off to Omaha.

“Talk about discipline! said Kurtz, remembering the strength of the Japanese team on the fundamentals.

Both teams made it through the first laps. It was obvious that they were the two best programs of the tournament, and when they first met in the semi-finals, it was confirmed: a pitching duel between Noel and the ace of Nihon Yruiko Tagashira ended in a 2-1 victory for the Sun Devils. . They met for the championship. The opener was another pitching showcase, but this time it went Nihon’s way: 1-0. That left it all until the final game – and this one was different.

Arizona State 8, Nihon 5, in 11 innings.

“It was so exciting,” second baseman Lee Ann Easley recalled of when the endgame was taped. “We knew we had a very good team.”

ASU would return to Omaha and win again in 1973. But it was this title – their first – that particularly stuck in their minds 50 years later.

“Really, I just came back to Phoenix with the trophy,” center Judy Hoke said. “These are the things you always remember.”

Three weeks later, Title IX became law. The ground would soon shift beneath their feet and remake women’s sport. Their history is not in the records maintained by the NCAA. But it’s also the history of college softball.

“It’s come so far,” Noel said. “I’d like to think my generation – us in 72 and 73 – was helping to lead the way.”

More college softball coverage:

• Everything you need to know before the Women’s College World Series
• New WCWS format allows for strong end to tournament