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File photo In a 1974 game, Willmar's first girls team in 42 years. Nancy Groen of Central Christian of Prinsburg stretches for the ball watched by Willmar's only senior and team MVP Mary Wild (51) and junior Chris Otto (25).

Willmar Notebook: 40 years ago, female athletes caught a break

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Occasionally, it is well to remember that the playing field was not always level and give thanks that it got righted -- one free-throw at a time.

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Carol Gilbertson would have been a heckuva athlete in high school but she never got the chance. She graduated from Milan High School in 1965.

She participated on the Vikettes pom-pom squad and relished that one day a year at the equivalent of a Play Day for high school girls.

"We'd get together with the girls from the other high schools nearby, like Appleton, Montevideo and probably Madison, and we'd play basketball and other games and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven," she recalled this week.

The rest of the time, the boys had all the fun.

Carol told me this week in a phone visit it just didn't occur to her that girls were being cheated.

"I've looked back from time to time at those years and it frustrates me that we didn't do something about it while we were in school," she said.

But a movement was underfoot. Interscholastic programs for girls were forming in the late 1960s, notably in Illinois and Colorado.

Gilbertson went away to St. Olaf College in the fall of '65, joining her boyfriend, Rick Maursetter (Montevideo '64), at the Northfield campus.

"It was the same deal pretty much," Carol said. "No intercollegiate sports, but I do remember having some kind of gymnastics competition with Carleton College and that I tried vaulting."

But Minnesota was ahead of the curve. The Minnesota State High School League hired Eden Prairie teacher Dorothy McIntyre in 1970 "To assist schools in developing girls' sports programs."

The move predated Title IV in 1972. This summer marked the 40th anniversary of the legislation whose aim it was to equalize opportunities for females in all aspects of public education.

Rick and Carol, a P.E. teacher, were married at the end of 1969. Both were new teachers here, Rick in his second year and assisting in boys basketball.

Willmar varsity records show swimming and gymnastics (4 on the roster) underway in 1969, both listing Judy Aagesen as the coach.

Elaine Engle guided programs at the junior high that would be the building blocks for varsity programs later and she would launch, at the request of the administration, varsity golf for girls in 1973. Debbie Bahe coached the first basketball team in the fall of 1974. She and Aagesen switched sports the next year with Aagesen going from volleyball to basketball. Bahe would lead the volleyball program through the 1988 season before cancer took her life.

Since Carol was at the senior high building on Southwest Seventh Street, she took command of the gymnastics team which had been unsanctioned in both 1970 and 1971 but was kept breathing by Carol Wegner as a club sport then joined with Carol as an assistant. That first season, 1972-73, 45 girls turned out grades 9-12 indicating a stored-up energy to participle in a sport, any sport.

This is how she remembers practice in 1972 with boys basketball dominating the gym:

Mats were placed in the front hallway to practice tumbling; vaulting was around the corner in the cafeteria hallway and the beam stood in the industrial arts wing which is behind the stage area. The uneven parallel bars were on the stage where the apparatus could be anchored. All had to be broken down and stored each evening.

"The best day was when the basketball team was playing away and the wrestling team had a home meet," she said. "The wrestling mat would be rolled out after school and we got to use it for a little while."

Girls were also getting a chance in track and field, though Carol thought they just wore their gym outfits those early years. The task of chalking the cinder track around the first Hodapp Field, now the soccer field, fell to boys coach Bob Lehman and Carol.

Girls sports were an instant success. With classes well over 300, there were many natural athletes itching to wear a uniform and represent their school. Gymnastics, golf, softball and tennis enjoyed instant success in the new Central Lake Conference and in post-season. Girls basketball really took off in the mid-80s. University of Kansas women's basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson had graduated in 1981, the school's first girl to score one thousand points and also the first to win an individual state championship (discus).

Carol taught for 34 years. She looks back on those early years full of obstacles and recalls the upside: "Those were fun times. The girls were just so thrilled to have opportunities."

Trailblazer

Judy Aagesen taught, coached and raised seven children - five of them girls. In 1952, two years before she graduated from Fargo Shanley, she won the North Dakota women's open singles title in tennis.

But she never lettered in high school. Just like Minnesota, the girls role was to cheer the boys on to victory.

"Really, we didn't know anything different," she told me this week.

But knowing Judy, who can be pugnacious, it's hard to believe back then that she didn't -- to quote a rock lyric, -- "Fight for your right to party" on court and field.

She sure did later.

She sued the Willmar school board for equal pay for female coaches ... and won.

It didn't only impact women but it applied to men coaching a girls sports.

"When that decision came down, you suddenly saw a lot of men applying for openings to coach girls sports, like tennis and basketball," she said.

She remembers taking a course at St. Cloud State to reactivate her coaching certificate back in the 1970s. "I walked into the classroom and there were 39 men and myself. They asked 'What will you coach?' And I said basketball and immediately their attitude was 'Not in my gym.'"

Aagesen said she ended up getting fired as head hoops coach. "So, I went in and quit tennis because I was so mad about that," she said, chuckling now at the memory. She shifted to the college where she coached women's tennis in the 1980s.

Her impact those early years did not go unnoticed. She was inducted into the Cardinal Pride HOF in 2009.

Conflicts

Danube native Roger "Shorty" Schroeder coached boys basketball at Appleton and Litchfield before coming to Willmar to coach under Russ Adamson, already something of a legendary figure, in 1965.

When Adamson stepped down to become athletic director in 1971, Schroeder took over.

Title IV was a huge inconvenience for the coaches when it came to gym possession.

Today he admits, "We were wrong. We thought we owned the gym."

"It's a good thing we coaches weren't in charge," said Shorty. "Russ made sure things moved forward. He was probably fairer than I would have been."

Ironically, given his early distain for new programs, Schroeder would have three daughters who would take advantage of the new opportunities. He even had a second coaching career as the Cardinals girls head coach, taking two teams to the state tournament.

In those early years, girls basketball games were low scoring, almost like the first basket wins. But it wasn't from a lack of athletes; they just needed court time to gain the skills.

And those coaches the first decade knew their stuff and helped accelerate the sport's advancement. Schroeder singled out Brad Atchison at Clara City, Mike Dreier at New London-Spicer, Terry Culhane down at Tracy-Milroy, Willmar's Lynn Peterson and a little later Wendy Kohler at Alexandria.

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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