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Leagues of their own

Cari Rosiek remembers the Coastal Carolina University that used to be.

Rosiek, associate athletic director and senior administrator for women’s athletics, came south in the mid-‘90s to play softball for CCU. Back then, she recalled, the campus largely emptied out after 4 p.m. each day, and student athletes had to do their weight training in a cramped, highly unpleasant weight room slightly bigger than the office she currently occupies.

“There were maybe seven or eight buildings on campus,” she said. “Parking was a breeze, and S.C. 544 was still only two lanes. A lot of the facilities on campus were pretty run down, and they still had bleacher seats in Kimbel.”

Kimbel Arena, for the uninitiated, until very recently used to be the basketball and volleyball venue for CCU teams.

That, like just about everything else at the Conway campus, has changed in recent years. Changed a lot.

A campus that in Rosiek’s undergraduate days was home to about 3,000 students now boasts a student body of close to 9,500. Parking on campus is a logistical challenge that demands almost military-level navigational skills. For nearly 10 years, CCU has had its own football team, started from the ground up.

And the women softball players no longer need to train in that tiny weight room. Now, there are high class workout and training facilities, and strength-training specialists available for all the athletes on campus. The softball team won’t be piling into the vans and rustic tour buses Rosiek remembers to go to games. Now there are customized Chanticleer-logo tour buses for the university’s teams.

No more Kimbel either. On Sept. 21, the women’s volleyball team will inaugurate the gleaming new HTC Arena and Student Convocation Center with a match against Rock Hill’s Winthrop University (see sidebar for more info on that).

New arenas, gyms and buses are one thing. But in 2012, women student-athletes like Rosiek used to be also have more opportunities at CCU than ever before., a fitting milestone because this year is also the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the groundbreaking 1972 legislation that lit a fire in the long-dormant and often ignored world of women’s sports.

Under Title IX, colleges and universities that received federal funding are required to provide equal opportunities and facilities for male AND female athletes. As a result, sports such as women’s basketball, volleyball and tennis finally received the attention they had long deserved, and more young women than ever before were able to pursue dreams of both college degrees and high-level athletic competition.

Because of Title IX, little girls coming up today don’t experience the same roadblocks females interested in sports used to face.

In the 1970s and as recently as the 1980s, few young women, for instance, played soccer, and if they did, they usually had to find a place on the boy’s teams because few youth programs and even fewer schools offered soccer programs for women. Today’s college players, on the flip side, grew up with images of Brandi Chastain and other U.S. women’s soccer players celebrating their victory at the 1999 World Cup, and the players that came after them have never lived in a world where there weren’t World Cup and gold medal winning women’s players.

“You could really see the effect of the Title IX years at this year’s Olympics,” said Alan Connie, director of cross country and track and field at CCU and coach of the women’s teams. “The competitive levels among men and women were just about equal, and women actually brought home more medals than the men. You also really see it at the high school level these days. The true measure of Title IX just in track and field really can’t be measured. Before it, there really was no women’s competition between schools – it was mostly intramural. Now, when you go to regional competitions in track and field, the interest and the amount of competition is just about the same as it for men’s teams.”

Forty years of Title IX certainly changed the face of women’s sports at CCU. Their presence has grown along with the University itself. With the addition of women’s lacrosse, which officially begins competition in spring 2013, CCU actually offers nine intercollegiate sports for women as opposed to seven for men.

The women’s teams through the years have racked up an impressive assortment of Big South Championships and appearances at the NCAA championships, and coaches and current student athletes alike see nothing but room for future growth, improvement and more victories in their future. Especially in trying to capture the school’s elusive first national championship in women’s athletics.

“Even at 18, when I first came here, I felt like Coastal and its women’s programs had room for growth,” Rosiek said.

Chanticleer women on the field – a history

For context, here’s a brief timeline of women’s sports at CCU since the school was founded in 1963:

1973: Women’s basketball begins as a club sport in the wake of Title IX. In 1974, the team competed as part of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletic for Women (AIAW) since the NCAA didn’t include women’s sports yet. The team’s first intercollegiate win was recorded in 1974.

1974: Coastal officially becomes a four-year college with seven intercollegiate teams, including women’s basketball, volleyball and tennis.

1981: Chanticleer women’s softball begins play on March 19. The team played wearing basketball jerseys for the first season until real uniforms could be purchased the following year.

1986: Coastal becomes a member of the NCAA Division status (II-A) with 12 teams, including basketball, cross country, softball, tennis, volleyball and the first season of women’s golf.

1991: Physical education professor emeritus Violet Meade becomes the first woman inducted into Coastal’ s Hall of Fame for developing then USC-Coastal Carolina College’s women’s basketball, volleyball and tennis programs, and serving as the first full-time women’s coach for the Chanticleers.

1992: Catherine Nance becomes the first woman student-athlete to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for starring in women’s basketball, volleyball and tennis from 1974-78. She was also the first woman to receive a four-year athletic scholarship to Coastal.

1997: Veteran basketball coach Alan LeForce, formerly men’s coach at East Tennessee State University, arrives at Coastal to lead the women’s basketball program.

1998: Women’s track and field is added to become the university’s 15th intercollegiate sport.

2000: Women’s soccer is added as the 16th intercollegiate sport and begins competition in the fall.

2001: Brooke Weisbrod (Class of 2001), Chanticleer basketball player, is selected NCAA Woman of the Year for South Carolina based on athletics, academic performance and community leadership.

2008: Amber Campbell (Class of 2004) becomes the first Olympian from Coastal when she competes in the hammer throw at the Beijing Summer Olympics and finishes 21st.

2010: Women’s lacrosse is added as the 17th intercollegiate sport at Coastal. (The first team reported to school for fall 2012 and will begin competition in spring 2013.)

2012: Amber Campbell qualifies to compete in the London Olympics and finishes 13th in the hammer throw. At this point, she has earned six conscecutive national titles at the 20-pound weight and says she hopes to compete in the 2016 games in Rio.

2012: Women’s lacrosse is added as the 17th intercollegiate sport at Coastal.

Basketball in the basement

If you really want some perspective about what women’s sports was like before Title XI took effect, there’s just about nobody better to ask at Coastal than women’s basketball coach LeForce, who has been at the helm in Conway for 15 years. LeForce has almost 50 years of experience in coaching, beginning with coaching high school and college men’s teams in his native Kentucky before moving on to the head coach level at College of Charleston and East Tennessee State University. When he arrived at Coastal in 1996, he became one of the few NCAA coaches to make the switch from men’s to women’s basketball. The experience, he says, was eye-opening, especially compared to LeForce’s memories of the pre-title IX women’s game.

“The first woman’s basketball game I ever remember seeing in the ‘50s or ‘60s was played downstairs in a building, and there the women didn’t even play full-court, but half-court basketball,” he said. “The play was boring and not very good because the game got no attention.”

The women’s game got so little respect that when his daughter initially expressed interest in basketball in the late ‘60s, LeForce urged her to join her school’s cheerleading squad instead. It wasn’t out of lack of respect for women athletes, he said, but simply because there was basically no existing program for the high school girls back then.

“That was my mentality back then, a lot of people’s mentality,” he said. “I never dreamed I’d coach women’s basketball, but now the game has completely changed. The women’s game has improved amazingly over the years, and basketball itself is really moving in recent years because it’s getting more exposure, both at the college level and through the Olympics.”

Now, women’s basketball fans can regularly expect to see the NCAA tournament games on ESPN and other channels, but as recently as 15 years ago, that would have been rare, LeForce said. Through Title IX, the depth and level of the college game has grown to the point where there are at least a dozen teams that regularly challenge for national championships, where in previous years only legendary programs like Stanford University and Pat Summitt’s Tennessee program ever got much attention.

At Coastal, LeForce recruits many of his players from Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia and Ohio, and has recently found increasing pools of recruits at South Carolina schools, including three top players from the strong program at Myrtle Beach High School.

LeForce said the interest in women’s basketball is also evident in the level of coaching at the high school and even middle-school levels, where many schools have coaches whose main skill is the game of basketball. In pre-title IX days and in the years immediately after the legislation, he said, many schools handed off the coaching duties for girls to volunteers or any teachers with any kind of previous basketball experience.

Parents are also showing more interest than ever before, he said, sending girls to basketball camps and classes when they’re in elementary school. Now, LeForce and other college coaches see high school recruits who have played the game since they were 7 or 8, as opposed to only a few years ago when some players had only been introduced to the game at the beginning of high school.

There’s also been one other key change in girl’s and women’s sports, he said. Fathers are heavily interested and involved in their daughters’ athletic endeavors. In the early years, he said, it was mainly only moms who brought the girls to camps and showed interest in their young girls’ sports.

“When the fathers got involved along with the moms, and the whole family became interested, that really made a big impact,” he said. “Title IX did that. And as a result, the level of players overall and the level of players we’re getting at Coastal is only going to keep getting better. The program here is growing by leaps and bounds. This place is going to explode in the future when it comes to women’s basketball.”

Running toward the future

Track athlete Erica Peake is a prime example of what Title IX did for little girls who like to run.

Peake, a senior majoring in exercise and sports management, got interested in running while she was still an elementary school student in Spartanburg. One of her sisters attended a track camp and participated on a team at her school, and Peake said she “started nagging her parents to get me involved too.”

As a result, Peake became a sprinter and developed enough skill to compete first at S.C. State University in Orangeburg, and then for Coastal after she transferred because S.C. State didn’t offer her major. She now specializes in the 200 meters and said she would love to find a way to continue running professionally after graduation in 2013.

Athletes such as Peake represent the progress not only of women’s track and field in general, but the sport’s progress at Coastal. Connie, who started coaching cross country at Coastal in 1986 and women’s outdoor track in 1997 , remembers when the school didn’t even have a track where runners could train. In the early years, he often took athletes to practice on a field at a Conway elementary school. He had to recruit his first women’s cross country team by “going around campus to find somebody who could run three miles,” he said. That first women’s team consisted mainly of tennis and volleyball players who signed up, and came in dead last.

Things have changed dramatically since then. Coastal, of course, now has its own track and field facility, even though it’s not big enough to support the crowds attracted when Coastal hosts Big South competitions (Those events move to Doug Shaw Stadium in Myrtle Beach) .Connie’s teams have won 12 Big South Conference championships in cross country, and both the cross country and women’s track teams have seen multiple athletes appear at the NCAA championships and win Big South championships. The team has also produced Coastal’s first Olympian, the aforementioned Campbell (class of 2000), who competed in the hammer throw at the Beijing and London Olympics and still serves as a volunteer track coach at Coastal.

Because of an increased focus on track and field and cross country, and an increased number of scholarships, Connie is able to recruit runners not only from around the Southeast, but internationally. Like other coaches, he’s seen a huge increase in the depth of women’s track and field, and Coastal now has competitors in every event.

Uncertain futures

Senior Cacia Pierre is the embodiment of what many people think a student athlete should be. The senior softball player, who originally hails from Washington State, has become a major presence on Coastal’s squad even after overcoming injuries and other difficulties during her freshman year. She also had a 3.8 GPA in her health promotion major, and juggles sports and classes with a time-conusming internship working with area high school athletes.

Pierre is confident when discussing her role as a Coastal student, but her demeanor changes when asked about her future in the sport she loves once she gets her diploma. The smile fades quickly, and the normally bubbly student comes close to tears when discussing how much she will miss Coastal and her teammates once she graduates.

Despite the strides women’s athletics has made since Title IX, many women athletes like Pierre still face one unfortunate fact. After their college careers end, there often isn’t much left for them to do competitively because many women’s sports don’t have the post-graduation opportunities open to men. A top-level college baseball player, for instance, can look ahead hopefully to a career in professional ball - as the minor league arms of Major League baseball reach into almost every city - even Myrtle Beach. For softball players, however, there are a few struggling professional teams and not much else to look forward to, especially since women’s softball is no longer an Olympic sport.

“I’d love to continue playing after I graduate, but I’ve also just learned to enjoy everything I have right now, because time really flies,” Pierre said.

Head softball coach Kelley Green, who came to Coastal after 10 years of coaching at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, said the limited post-college opportunities are a harsh reality for softball players and many other women’s athletes in general. Among female college athletes, tennis and basketball players have the best opportunity to continue professionally. Golfers, if good enough, can try for the LPGA, although competition and attention to women’s golf has decreased in recent years. Volleyball players can always try for the Olympics, and there are spotty professional opportunities for them, as well. But most women athletes, no matter their skill, will see the pinnacle of their careers during college, because Title IX aside, the pro opportunities for women still don’t come close to those available for men.

“They put all their time into this one thing for years, and then when they become seniors, they become emotional because they realize it’s about to come to an end,” Greene said. “It’s difficult to become a ‘normal’ person after you spend so many years being passionate about something. That’s still a struggle facing just about all women’s sports.”

Along with limited professional opportunities, Coastal’s women’s sports programs also still struggle in some cases with a lack of attention. Women’s sports, unfortunately, still don’t get the fan support that high visibility sports like football and men’s basketball get, but that’s something athletes hope will change as the level of competition continues to grow. Meanwhile, the women will be out there every day practicing, training and working hard to develop not only their sports but their tradition at Coastal Carolina University.

The pride they feel is crystallized with one remark from student golfer, Brittany Henderson, a native of Ontario who traveled to the NCAA Women’s Championships in Texas last year with the women’s golf team.

“The trip to Nationals was just a special experience,” she said. “It meant something to see Coastal’s flag lined up out there with other schools like Alabama and Auburn, to know we were out there showing what Coastal has to offer.”