LSSU Lakers Were on a Level Playing Field When Women's Sports Programs Began

LSSU Lakers Were on a Level Playing Field When Women's Sports Programs Began

By LINDA BOUVET, LSSU Sports Information Director

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. - When Title IX was in its infancy and schools had various interpretations of compliance with the federal regulation that gave women equal opportunity to compete in college athletics, a little school in a remote part of Michigan was ahead of its time.

Lake Superior State College was one of only four schools competing for a conference title in volleyball when the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference offered its first women’s championship in 1974, a year after the LSSC volleyball and basketball programs were first established. Softball and women’s tennis teams were formed in 1974-75 and among a handful of schools competing for a GLIAC title in 1975-76.

In those days, LSSC women’s teams regularly competed against schools of all sizes and recruited multiple-sport athletes. Bigger schools had a bigger pool of students from which to draw, but this 2,000-student school up in Sault Ste. Marie essentially competed on a level playing field with the rest of the schools in Michigan.

“The first year was definitely a learning experience,” said Deb McPherson, who joined the LSSC coaching staff in 1976, which was Year Three of women’s collegiate athletics. “Most other programs were just getting going as well. We were part of the AIAW Small College Division.”

When McPherson joined the LSSC staff, Lake Superior State was about to open the Norris Center complex. What was then a state-of-the-art facility gave the college a recruiting advantage, but the Lakers initially held practices at the old Loretto High School and competed in the Fletcher Center, which now houses business offices.

“If we could get kids up here to visit, we could convince them to play here,” she said.

McPherson, like many other coaches during that era, had a physical education background. In addition to developing a new recreation management curriculum and teaching, she coached two sports and ran LSSC’s cheerleading program. Recruiting multi-sport athletes seemed to be a logical use of time and scholarships.

Margaret “Mugsy” (Olsen) Pollard ‘81, a standout pitcher who also played volleyball and basketball, Rose Pushies ‘82, a tough-minded catcher and three-sport athlete, Jane Tatu ‘82 in volleyball and softball, Jan Beare ‘79 in volleyball and basketball, Canadian National Volleyball Team member Helene Vukovich ‘82, who started out playing three sports, Shaun (Lake) Antler ’81, Linda Richards ’83 and Linda Putney ‘81 were among many successful athletes who represented LSSC in more than one sport.

Dorene (Archambault) Ingalls ‘92, who lettered in four sports for the Lakers, was the last of that era. By the time she came through what is now Lake Superior State University, everything about women’s college athletics had changed. Ten years earlier, LSSU had joined the NCAA, volleyball and basketball were fully-funded sports in Division II, and coaches expected their athletes to train during non-traditional seasons.

 Dorene (Archambault) Ingalls

“Title IX was a huge boost to women’s athletics, making sure there was equity with the men’s programs,” said Ingalls, who went on to build a wildly successful girls basketball program at LaSalle High School in St. Ignace, Mich., which has won three Class C state titles and posted two state runner-up finishes since 1999. “My era wasn’t a trail-blazing one (well except for the big hair – we did that and we did it well)! In regards to Title IX, however, we didn’t have to fight for our status. The sports teams were already in place for us and we had a great fan base (in both high school and college), so we didn’t have to struggle like the generation before us did with respect and opportunity.”

Ingalls remembers being recruited to play tennis during her senior year in order to fill an empty roster spot, and that standout basketball player Vicki Hill ’89 donned a softball uniform for one season for the same reason. Coaches rarely recruit in-house nowadays, but it still happens.

“The risk of an injury or taking time away from improvement in that particular sport are the main reasons you don’t see to many players with scholarships on Division I and Division II teams become multi-sport athletes,” she said. “The smaller the school and student body, the more opportunities one has to do this, but there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made.

“I was privileged to have the opportunity to play four intercollegiate sports at LSSU. I played basketball and softball for four years, and one year each of volleyball and tennis. The experience that I gained from being with six different coaches and being on teams of more than 100 athletes has been an integral part of my coaching experience. I attribute my coaching success to the fact that I can relate to the players and find a way to motivate them to give their all whether they are a star or a role player. I have played various roles on these teams, from a 30/30/30 player to a starter. This has allowed me to understand and relate to every player on my team and let them know what their expectations are, and how vital it is for them to embrace and take pride in knowing what they can do to help the team prosper.”

Vukovich, a Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, native, intended to study music in Canada until she was offered a scholarship from LSSC in 1976.

 Helene Vukovich

“Honestly, I think I would have been extremely bored if I could only play one sport,” said Vukovich, who is now an associate dean at George Brown College in Toronto. “It was already sufficiently stifling, when I eventually played for the Canadian National Volleyball Team, to train six hours a day for six days a week practically all year long for five years…Yes, I would likely have found it boring to play/compete for only one sports team. In high school I had played basketball, volleyball, badminton. I did track, ran cross country. I had been a downhill ski racer. I loved water skiing as a teenager. I started to windsurf in my early 20s…My current passions are kayaking and rock climbing…And I’m 54 now, so who knows what’s next!

“Dad often would say to me ‘If you want to be successful, choose one thing and do it better than anyone.’ And clearly I rebelled against that notion.”

Pollard, who was the first female from Cheboygan, Mich., to earn an athletic scholarship, was recruited by LSSC to play basketball and softball, and she walked onto the volleyball team. Juggling three sports and a nursing curriculum was overwhelming, so she dropped back to her two main passions after her freshman year.

  "Mugsy" Olsen

“It was quite an experience,” she said. “Nursing was hard, but talk about support. Deb and Gunile (former basketball coach Gunile Myers) were more than just coaches. You could talk to them. I looked up to Deb and Gunile a lot. To this day, all of my other buddies feel the same way. They were tough when they needed to be tough. But they could come down to your level and help you move forward.”

“The coaches at LSSC were amazing women to play for,” Vukovich said. “They were wonderful leaders, people who knew when to lead and when to follow, and when to get out of the way. Empowering, approachable, highly-dedicated and so willing to learn from their players. I think I was simply very lucky to be there at a time when it was a bit chaotic and messy and fun, and not overly proceduralized with mega-governance and rules. It was easy to put in a suggestion and find out pretty much the same day if someone was going to act on it. I guess that’s the advantage of being in the pioneer ‘pole’ position. Opportunity and creativity abound, and you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time, and that you individually can make a lot of things happen. If you happen to be a bit willing to take the initiative, you find that there really aren’t that many obstacles.”

The only obstacles McPherson remembers were lack of money and having to drive to and from all games. As the Lakers built a reputation as a volleyball power, former director of athletics Bud Cooper found ways to get them to high-level tournaments. In those days, there was no NCAA-funded tournament for women. Teams that advanced to national championships paid their own way.

“After that second year, we went to the State of Michigan AIAW Tournament and we won,” McPherson said of the 1978 Laker volleyball season. “We scheduled our conference games, but we went to tournaments where we were playing Division I teams. After that third year, we were beating them…The only DI team in Michigan that we didn’t beat was Central. Once the AIAW dissolved, everything changed.”

“I must have been oblivious to it,” Vukovich recalled. “I was likely more focused on preparing for an accounting exam or dealing with a paper, or scheduling myself to do the extra training I had to do in order to be ready for National Team training camp, or helping my parents with their business, or even setting aside time to babysit for my friend Annie’s kids. I probably thought that Michigan State was just another one of those large institutions, and that LSSC had every right to be playing against them. It was just another gym, another team, another big game that we could win if we really put our hearts and minds to it…My feeling is that we ‘put our shoulders to the wheel’ and didn’t really pay much attention to what people said about us. Actions spoke much louder than words. And we had a huge amount of fun. I really remember the laughs and the crazy antics and the parties and occasionally being asked to drive the bus, especially in terrible weather crossing the Mackinac Bridge in a snowstorm. That was my specialty…Can you imagine that happening today?”

Pollard remembers the Lakers holding their own against all of the bigger schools, except one.

“In basketball I remember we struggled a bit with Michigan State,” she said. “Going into that arena…we didn’t have a real tall team. I was the shortest guard at 5-2, and their shortest guard was 5-6 or 5-7. When they boxed you out, they’d knock you right off the floor. When you’d go up to drive, it was like hitting a brick wall.”

Olson and Pushies were the Lakers’ wall of defense in softball. Olson was a .300 hitter who pitched the Lakers to winning records in 1979 and ’80 (LSSU softball has recorded four winning seasons since 1975). The other half of her battery included Pushies, who was occasionally called upon to catch for local men’s fastpitch teams.

Cooper, who later established a golf tournament in his name to raise money for Laker women’s athletics, supported the women’s teams when it wasn’t popular to do so. McPherson and her players will always remember him entering the gym during the 1978 SMAIAW state championship.

“We were in the final four,” McPherson recalled. “He drove all the way down to Spring Arbor to watch that. The kids felt good about it. I felt good about it. Jane Tatu said, ‘Deb, Mr. Cooper’s face is all red.’ He never coached volleyball, but he was always coaching coaches. He was the least of my worries.”

LSSC also won the SMAIAW state title in 1980, and reached the Midwest AIAW regional finals in ’78 and ’80. McPherson’s 1981 team was 42-9 and still holds the record for most volleyball wins by a Laker team. That squad, however, was denied the opportunity for post-season play due to LSSC’s conversion from AIAW to NCAA – a common occurrence during the transformation of women’s college athletics.

McPherson stepped down as LSSC’s softball coach following the 1986 season. The Lakers’ recruiting philosophy changed around that time as Lake Superior State volleyball and basketball became fully-funded NCAA Division II sports (meaning they achieved the full allotment of scholarships) in 1987. She retired from coaching after 17 seasons with LSSU volleyball. She currently chairs the LSSU School of Recreation Studies and Exercise Science.

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