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Breaking ground for girls sports

It's 40 years since interscholastic girls sports wedged their way into the male-dominant arena.

The going was slow -- a little gymnastics and some swimming late in the 1960s; tennis, basketball and volleyball in the mid-'70s and, still later, cross country. Now, in fall alone, a girl may choose from the following activities menu: tennis, swimming, volleyball, soccer, cross country and dance line.

Judy Aagesen came here in 1964 with her husband, Jim. She had graduated in 1954 from Shanley High School in Fargo where she had "a couple of dates" with Rudy Maris, Roger's older brother. She found an opening for her athletic ability on the tennis court, winning a state doubles title in 1952.

At Willmar, she found athletic outlets for females numerous in the city recreation program, but the school was limited to cheerleading and Girls Athletic Association activities.

She taught physical education and health. Jim was an assistant football coach.

When the school board threw support to inter-school competition for girls, Judy was a natural to work with the programs. She wasn't the only woman keenly interested in kicking open the door to the gymnasium at the end of the school day. But she was the oldest and, admittedly, the most obstinate.

"There was Elaine Engle, Carol Maursetter, Carol Wegner, the late Deb Bahe," said Judy this week.

Judy, who was inducted into the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame on Oct. 2, would go on to coach five different sports in the '70s: gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, basketball and tennis.

She was sensitive to the inequities in extra-curriculars.

Tennis and swimming weren't a problem since the seasons did not conflict. Her volleyball team - "Auggies Doggies" - was assigned to theater stage at the old high school on Minnesota Avenue (now WEAC). "It was very hard for the girls to practice there and then play their matches at the high school," said Judy. "The distances and backgrounds were so different."

She also noticed that the basketball team only got a half-court to practice while the boys got the entire gym for their practices. And there was the matter of equal pay.

She remembers coaching both the varsity and B-squad while earning less than the boys B-Squad coach.

She filed a grievance on behalf "of all women coaches" for equal benefits, retroactive. It was successful but she also lost her teaching job soon afterward. "I won the war but lost the battle," she cracks today. She said she can't say one led directly to another but implies the timing was suspicious.

There was another downside. With pay equalized, men began applying for the girls-coaching jobs. That made it more competitive for women to land a head-coaching job.

Judy, who had her 55th class reunion last year, displays no bitterness over those long-ago battles.

"You know, if the roles would have been reversed and I had the gym, I probably would have said 'Here come the (men). We've had the gym since Day 1.' " Get lost!

When she lost her basketball post, she quit tennis.

"I guess it was my pride," she said. "I was mad. I figured, if I'm not good enough to coach basketball, then I'm not good enough for tennis."

She soon got a call from Mel Lewis at the college, who wanted her to take over the college tennis program. She stayed until 1992, when she retired from coaching.

The pioneers of girls sports had community support, to be sure. Lewis was one. The college athletic director and football coach had daughters gifted athletically. Dr. A.M. McCarthy, an influential community member and long-time volunteer trainer for Cardinals athletic teams, had five daughters. And there was her husband, Jim. The Aagesen's had five daughters as well as two sons.

At the halftime ceremony on a cold and damp night, Judy was escorted by 17 of her 20 grandchildren. Six of her children were there; missing were Jim, who died of a heart attack in 1996 and son, Billy, a popular Special Olympics athlete who died three months later of pneumonia.

"I'm so grateful for the honor," she said. "There was a lady escorting me after Pep Fest and she wondered how I was able to coach, teach and raise seven children, plus three dogs? I had to laugh. You just did it."

Her enthusiasm for the school and community is as fresh as it was in the early days.

"I remember seeing the (Arkansas) Redheads in Fargo - kind of a the women's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. I couldn't believe how skilled they were. That inspired me. There were so many girls who never had the chance to realize how good they really could be, if they had organized sports. Now look, they can go on and play in college and get scholarships or even go pro if they're good enough."

Name that team

The new Willmar franchise in the Northwoods League is holding a naming contest with the winner receiving two lifetime season tickets. Suggest a name at Other Northwoods nicknames can be viewed at The contest winner will be announced in early November.

Best of CLC

Willmar's No. 3 doubles team of Abby Kack and Alex Linbo were recognized as Performers of the Week for Central Lakes Tennis Doubles. The pair finished 9-4 after winning a three-setter in a playoff match with Hutchinson.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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