Mary Jane Williams: Skill Levels of Female Student-Athletes Among Improvements Over Last 40 Years
Opportunities for female student-athletes have increased since sports for them were introduced in the early 1970s, said Mary Jane Williams of Auburn.
Thursday night, Jan. 3, Williams was recognized before the Auburn Bulldogs’ girls’ basketball game vs. Humboldt/Table Rock-Steinauer.
She was thanked for her pioneering spirit and desire to create athletic opportunities for women. The award was presented by senior Tierra Williams, who will accept an athletic scholarship to run track at the University of Nebraska in 2013-2014.
Williams taught 34 years in the Auburn Public Schools. When she first started in Auburn, Williams taught high school physical education. She mostly taught sixth grade science and seventh and eighth grade physical education.
When she came to Auburn in January 1971, Williams said immediately girls started begging for athletics. A lot of the smaller towns in the area had female sports, including Johnson and Stella, she said.
Williams majored in physical education at Wayne State College, where she received her bachelors’ degree. She said she was involved in a lot of sports. Williams said she grew up in Wayne, where there were no girls’ athletics but she participated in intramurals. She received her masters degree from Peru State College.
“I didn’t think it was fair (that girls did not have athletics). They wanted athletics for themselves. I knew where they were coming from. I wish they had had them when I was in school,” Williams said.
Simple Beginning of Girls’ Track and Field
Track and field was the first girls’ sport in the Auburn Public Schools. It was started in the spring of 1971, when the current senior high school opened. Williams recalled the sport’s simple beginnings.
“The male coaches didn’t want the girls around the boys because it would affect them,” she said.
It was not until 1975 that the girls were allowed to run on the same track as the boys.
A trail was developed around the “old skum lake” next to the park across the street to the south from the current senior high school. Williams recalled that Marvin Gerdes, principal, talked to the board of education, which allowed her to start the track program. Williams said Gerdes and Albert Austin, superintendent, were helpful in getting the team started.
“Without them, it wouldn’t have happened. We had to have a track graded and that allowed me to get the girls’ sports off the ground level,” she said.
She did not know how many girls went out for track in 1971. Williams took four girls to the inaugural girls’ state track and field meet in Grand Island: Cathy Heskett, Nancy Heskett, Julie Clark and Patti Harpham. Until 1980, there were separate state track and field meets for boys and girls.
Track meets were run on cinder tracks when the sport started in Auburn, Williams recalled.
“I remember a girl falling at Johnson. She tripped going over a hurdle. She was covered with cinders. It was terrible. We spent the rest of the meet picking out cinders,” she said.
Williams recalled the red cinder track at the former middle school, where teams practiced until the new track was built.
Pioneering Female Athlete Helpful
In the summer of 1971, Williams was among nine women who attended the Nebraska Coaches Association clinic. It was the first time women were allowed to attend the clinic, she said.
“I met Carol Frost and connected with her. She helped me organize my first year practice plans. I used her to help me figure things out,” Williams said.
Carol Moseke Frost began her track and field career long before girls’ athletic programs were accepted by the general public and/or sponsored by high schools. Frost was second in the shotput in the National Junior Olympics as a high school junior, won four National Senior Amateur Athletic Union titles in the discus, the 1968 gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Canada and was a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. Her son, Scott, quarterbacked Nebraska to the 1997 national football championship.
Volleyball, Basketball The Next Sports
Volleyball at Auburn High School started in the fall of 1971. Williams said Claudette Stevens, who was a new teacher in the Auburn Public Schools, helped her start the Bulldog volleyball program. Stevens retired from the school district in 2011. The next year, Franklin Smith was hired to start girls’ basketball, which was the first year of girls’ basketball in Nebraska high schools. Smith had coached basketball in Missouri and was familiar with the sport, she said. Williams was the girls’ basketball assistant coach.
“We didn’t do well as a team as far as wins and losses. It took time to get organized. We taught the girls the basics needed to get started,” she recalled.
Since then, Auburn Public Schools has added golf, cross country, soccer and softball for girls. In the 2011-2012 school year, about 100 girls out of 180 girls in grades seven through 12 participated in athletics.
After coaching at the high school level several years, Williams took time off to raise her children and then returned to coaching at the middle school in 1979, coaching the same sports.
She said the timing was right to start girls’ athletics in the Auburn Public Schools, because Title IX was on the horizon.
“I was a new teacher and willing to do it. It all happened,” Williams said.
Title IX, approved in 1972, created equal opportunities for females in athletics. It made it illegal for a person to be excluded from athletics because of gender. Its components are: effective accommodations, financial assistance and equivalent of other benefits.
Enjoyed Changes, Improvements
Williams said female athletics have improved in many areas over the past 40 plus years.
“We have come so far in the last 40 years. It’s been really fun to see the changes and improvements,” she said.
Equipment, the skill level and ability of female athletes, girls participating in sports at earlier ages and the weight room have contributed to the improvements, Williams said.
“We now have practice facilities, a beautiful high school stadium and track and electronic timers. That makes a difference,” she said.
“The skill level is higher because girls have so many opportunities. We have better youth programs. That’s important. There is a cooperative now between men’s and women’s sports. We had to fight for space in the beginning. Now, they help each other out,” Williams said.
Fan support has also increased, she said.
“There used to be small numbers in the stands. All the parents were there. They supported their kids to the hilt. It grew quickly. Everyone became interested,” Williams said.
The Bulldog girls’ basketball and volleyball teams have each made one state tournament appearance. The girls’ basketball team lost to eventual state champion Lexington in 1987. The volleyball team went 1-1 in 1994, defeating Wayne and losing to runner-up Columbus Scotus. The Bulldog girls won the 1985 Class B state cross country championship. Other sports have had high placings in recent years. Auburn has had individual state medalists in various sports. A number of female student-athletes were inducted into the Auburn High School Hall of Fame. A number of female student-athletes have competed in sports in college.
“I tried to teach a great number of sports and individual sports. I told the kids, now they don’t matter to you but they may be involved the rest of your life. I taught sports they probably wouldn’t use but it helped them understand the sports world a little bit better and broadened their horizons,” Williams said.
Other sports Williams recalled teaching included golf, tennis, badminton, bowling, archery and gymnastics.
“We played football in the fall. It helped them understand when they watch it a little bit of what’s going on,” she said.
Auburn Graduate in High School Sports Hall of Fame
Theresa Stelling Gosnell, 1990 Auburn graduate, was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. She is among 346 athletes, coaches and/or contributors honored since 1994.
“She was an awesome runner. She was not a big gal, she was pretty slight but boy could she run. When she got to college, the weight programs helped,” Williams said.
Stelling, who started her high school career at Wakefield before coming to Auburn, won four all-class gold medals in the 1600 and three in the 3200. She set the Class C state track meet record in the 1600 and the Class B state track meet record in the 3200. In 1989 Stelling was Class B state cross country champion.
After her graduation from Auburn, Stelling competed in cross country and track and field at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). She lettered four times in each sport. Stelling earned Academic All-Big Eight and Academic All-American honors in cross country. In track and field, she was a four-time NCAA Division I All-American, placing as high as fifth at the national outdoor meet in the 5000. In 1994, Stelling was UNL Female Athlete of the Year.
A recent Auburn graduate who has experienced success at the collegiate level is Ashley Wheeler, 2011 graduate, who plays volleyball at Midland University. She has received second and first team All-Conference honors, respectively, her first two seasons.
“She’s really a hard worker. She worked hard, had a great work ethic and was very coachable,” Williams said of Wheeler.
Success of Women’s Sports Inspirational
The success of women’s teams such as the Nebraska Husker volleyball and women’s basketball teams has also inspired female athletes, Williams said.
“A lot of students are able to get scholarships because of our athletic endeavors. It’s nice Peru State College is so close. A lot of girls played volleyball and basketball there,” she said.
Williams said she is a great fan of women’s volleyball and women’s basketball. She recalled taking junior high girls to the University of Nebraska to watch the volleyball team play.
“It was inspirational for them,” Williams said.
“It’s great to recognize Title IX and how things have grown over the years. It’s made a big change in our sports world clear up to the Olympics,” she said.