A League Of Their Own

The Kangaroos rushed up the court as the final seconds ticked down in basketball crazy Indiana. There was barely enough time to get down the court. Austin College’s Kamey Banks pulled up and launched a 3 pointer at the buzzer. For the win.

It was just off the mark. The Crusaders of Northwest Nazarene (Idaho) had escaped with their lives in the Sweet 16 round of the 1997 NAIA D2 Women’s Basketball Championship.

The Crusaders went on to win the 1997 National Championship in Angola, Indiana, and did so in impressive fashion. The average margin of victory for Northwest Nazarene excluding the Austin College game was an astonishing 24 points. Their biggest test, by far, had come against the Roos. AC returned to Sherman frustrated, but with their heads held high. Their national championship dreams were thwarted by mere inches. But they had come so far, both off the court and on.

It’s April 2nd, 2017. Tonight, South Carolina and Mississippi State square off for the NCAA D1 women’s basketball title in Dallas. The Bulldogs got to the finals by ending the University of Connecticut’s historic winning streak at 111 games in a row. Overseeing the NCAA D1 women’s tournament this year is Terry Gawlik, a former Austin College Kangaroo coach of women’s basketball. You are probably familiar with UConn’s record streak. But you may be less familiar with the college that held the NCAA winning streak record before UConn. And I bet you are also unaware that their streak was nearly broken………by Austin College.

Oh, but April 2nd is important for another reason. It’s Marjorie Hass’s birthday. President Hass has faithfully navigated the Austin College ship since 2009. She announced her departure on December 12th of last year, a red letter day in Austin College sports history. At the very moment we were celebrating online the 35th anniversary of AC’s national championship in football, Dr. Hass accepted the presidency of Rhodes College in Memphis.

The Class of 1992 will hold its 25th reunion this fall in Sherman, and reunion committee members Jenny King, Wayne Whitmire, Susan Raine, Jashondra Crockett, Angie Russell, and Marc Parrish have been hard at work. On behalf of the committee, thank you for your service Dr. Hass. We hope to see you at Homecoming 2017, or a future event.

This Roo Tale is dedicated to the 15th President of the oldest named & chartered school in the state of Texas. It’s the story of AC women’s basketball and the national struggle of women to have a league of their own.

Chapter 1: Arrival

Conflict abroad has a way of highlighting injustice at home. With war raging in Europe in 1918, the administration in Sherman made an historic decision to right a wrong. No longer would AC be all all-male institution; women would be allowed into the student body. The new arrivals were greeted with concern, suspicion, and outright hostility. It was brave to be a newly arrived woman Kangaroo.

While the entire college celebrated Armistice Day in November 1918, the female students began the long task of acceptance. One of the first orders of business was a petition to join the all-male literary societies. The requests were denied, even ridiculed. The women responded by forming their own literary society. Kappa Gamma Chi was created by a group of rebellious female scholars during the spring of 1919. The oldest sorority on campus will soon be celebrating its 100th birthday.

One of the Kappa original founders was a woman named Grace Eagleton. The Eagleton family was already AC royalty by WWI, and Grace added to the family legacy after her arrival. Eagleton was active in student government, yearbook, and a member of the tennis team.

And she played basketball.

The first women’s basketball team in AC history was formed in 1919. Play was limited, funds were minimal, and excessive athleticism was discouraged. The first ever coach of AC women’s basketball was a male on the football team by the name of Ewell D. Walker. The “D”? It stood for “Doak”. Ewell Walker’s son Doak Walker would later win the Heisman trophy at SMU while competing in the Cotton Bowl, which is often referred to as the “House that Doak built”.

Doris Eagleton picked up where Grace left off. Grace’s little sister was, like all Eagleton family members, an active part of Austin College life. She was also a member of the 1926 and 1927 women’s basketball teams during the Pete Cawthon era. Doris and her teammates competed in the brand new Cawthon Gymnasium, completed during the 1920s.

Chapter 2: Departure

Progress is rarely linear. Social advances can retreat if given a pretext, and the Great Depression provided. The idea of women being active was considered anathema for traditionalists, and the tough economic times in Sherman gave those in the administration, faculty, and student body just the excuse they needed to end the experiment of women’s sports. Administration declared 1931 as the last year of competition, to the anger of the Roo women athletes. The Chromascope dedication to the 1931 women’s team said it best, and was probably written by a frustrated, tireless, feisty Kappa:

“We can truthfully say that is hasn’t been what it ought to have been either from the faculty or the student body. They are entitled to every bit of support that any of the other teams have had.”

That support would wait another half-century, but it would come.

In her memoir, Katherine Switzer recalled that her high school coach discouraged women from participating in athletic activity because an “excessive number of jump balls could displace the uterus.” Fairy tales like this were frequently used to discourage participation, but Switzer would have none of it.

The Boston marathon had been an all-male affair for 70 years, and there was no reason to believe this would not continue in 1967 when a K. V. Switzer discretely registered to run. Well into the 26 miles, race official Jock Semple attempted to physically remove Switzer from the race. But he was thwarted by Switzer’s boyfriend, who sent Semple flying and to the ground with one big block. Switzer completed the marathon with a time around 4:20. The only debate about Boston Athletic Association director Will Cloney response to Switzer’s participation was whether it was more pejorative or misogynist. “If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.”

But the women would not be denied. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement was demanding autonomy in the areas of law, finance, health, and career; collegiate athletics was right around the corner. At around the time that Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets during the battle of the sexes tennis match in the Astrodome, Congress passed Title IX. Title IX required equitable funding of all collegiate activities regardless of gender, and its impact was greatest on athletics.

Before 1971, only about 2% of all collegiate athletic budgets were spent on women. Parity in funding changed the landscape dramatically. In colleges around the country, women’s teams were created, funded, and provided with scholarship opportunities. Volleyball, softball, tennis, golf, and basketball were suddenly alive once again for females.

Chapter 3: Rebirth

Austin College women also had a secret weapon in Sherman fighting on their behalf. For nearly a quarter century, the face of AC women’s physical education was Gene Grinnell Day. As the political environment nationally began to change, Day began to promote the creation of women’s teams at AC. She had help from Hollywood.

As a famous Texas Governor once said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except in high heels and backwards.” Rogers was also a women’s movement icon and friend of Austin College. She participated in theatre at Ida Green, 1972 Commencement, and was a member of the Board of Trustees in the 1970s. She was also an athlete.

Rogers’s sport was tennis, and she competed in mixed doubles at the US national championships at Forest Hills in New York. When Austin College wanted to dedicated the newly constructed Russell Tennis Stadium in 1974, Ginger Rogers was invited to play the first match. Rogers and trustee Ira Anderson squared off against Gene Day and Professor Frank Edwards.

By 1978, women’s basketball was back. Cindy Glaser Bankston competed on one of the first women’s teams since the 1920s. By the early 1990s, Jenifer Roberts, Andrea Apple (daughter of Jerry Apple), Claire Brennan, Tanya Garvey, Vanessa Johnson, Jennifer Kyle Hernandez, Kim Jacoby, and Maggie Roe were all suiting up for the crimson and gold. In 1992, the Roos chalked up the first ever winning season for AC women’s basketball.

Maggie Roe led the NAIA in scoring in 1992, and was second in the nation in rebounding. For her efforts, she was named TIAA Conference MVP and selected as an NAIA 2nd team All-American. Roe’s dominance continued in 1993. She was ranked 2nd nationally in both points scored and rebounds, and again won Conference MVP and All-American honors. Roe had scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma, but eventually settled on AC for its academic reputation and the positive atmosphere of D3 competition.

And the best was yet to come.

Chapter 4: March Madness

Marisa Hesse, Natasha Rodgers, Christie Holler, Rachel McNamara, Natasha Lampkin, Polly Thomason, Coshari Gardner, Riann Emch, Amy Skull, Kamey Banks, Allison McKinney, Jay Anna Harris, Kelly Grekstas, and other Roos took Austin College to the stratosphere over the three-year period from 1997 to 1999.

The 1997 squad rolled through the American Southwest Conference (ASC) play. But so did fellow conference rival University of the Ozarks (AR). By the end of the season, both schools were tied in conference and stood at 22-3. A one game playoff in Oklahoma would decide the conference championship. AC posted a dominating 24-point win over the Eagles, with Rodgers, Hesse, and two others hitting double figures. For the first time, the Kangaroos were conference champions. An invitation to the NAIA D2 playoffs in Angola, IN was their reward.

The first round matchup with St. Ambrose (IA) was a thrilling Kangaroo win. Down 5 late, Austin rallied to take the lead and then held off a furious comeback by the Bees to force overtime. In the extra period, AC took charge and secured an 80-76 overtime victory to advance to the NAIA D2 Sweet 16. Head Coach Robin Potera and Assistants Buck Buchanan and Shane Allison, however, were hungry for more.

“They came to play. They didn’t bow down to us.”, said Crusader senior Erica Walton. NW Nazarene was fortunate to advance, and they knew it. Kamey Banks’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was off, but it was “close enough for everyone in the Tri-State University’s Hershey Hall to gasp.” AC left the tournament with newly won respect. The Crusaders left as NAIA D2 champions days later. But the Roos were young, and most would be back the following year.

In 1998, Austin College made the transition from NAIA to NCAA, and the Roos picked up where they had left off. The 1998 team was 21-7 and ASC champions once again. Austin College received an invitation to the NCAA D3 National Tournament, and beat Southwestern (TX) 69-51 at home to advance. The Roos then traveled to Randolph-Macon (VA) and upset the Yellow Jackets 64-52 in Ashland. For a second year in a row, Austin College had reached the Sweet 16 of a national tournament. This time, it was the big NCAA dance. Their next opponent? The #1 team in the nation.

In addition to the top ranking, Wisconsin-Oshkosh boasted a 25-1 record. They played stifling defense, and were picked by most sports writers to go all the way. The Titans prevailed that evening in Virginia by a score of 57-44 in front of nearly 1,500 enthusiastic fans in Bridgewater, VA. It was another frustrating tournament loss for the Roos. But what an iconic moment it was. The NCAA tournament. The Sweet 16. 1,500 fans. The #1 team in the nation.

It was not to be for Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Titans lost in the elite 8 round to the WashU Bears of St. Louis, MO. WashU then ran the table and won the 1998 NCAA D3 national championship. But they weren’t done yet; their wins kept piling up. The 1999 Bears went 30-0 and repeated as national champions. The 2000 Bears went 30-0 and repeated again. Finally, after 81 straight wins, WashU tasted defeat on January 12, 2001. It didn’t have much of an impact; the Bears won the 2001 NCAA D3 national championship anyway, their 4th in a row.

Chapter 5:  The Streak

The WashU streak garnered national attention as it approached UCLA’s record 88-game streak under John Wooden in the early 1970s. Wooden even mentioned the streak in press interviews as the Bears crept closer to UCLA; he expressed admiration for the pressure WashU was having to endure night after night. Although the Bears fell just short of Wooden’s mark, their 81-game streak remained tops in women’s basketball until it was broken by UConn.

But that WashU streak was lucky to survive in 1998-1999. The Roos were headed to St. Louis.

WashU hosted the Washington University Invitational in late November, and Austin College was invited. The Bears and Roos both advanced to the title game, and squared off on November 29th at the WashU Field House. AC came out firing on all cylinders. McNamara and Hesse were both on their way to double figures, and the Roos hit the locker room at halftime with a lead. The defending national champions and their fans were in silence. Was the streak about to end at home of all places, in the finals of their own tournament?

The Bears regrouped, and battled back. Back and forth the lead changes went until finally, at the end, WashU began to slightly pull away. Final score: WashU 87, Austin College 80. The Bears were arguably aided by some questionable home town cooking. According to Thomason, “my dad never blames officials, but he swears we lost that game because the officials weren’t going to let us win.”

The 1999 team hit 20 wins for the third time in three years. AC finished with a 20-7 record and was once again invited to the NCAA D3 National Tournament. The Roos advanced in the round of 64 by defeating a 23-4 Randolph-Macon (VA) team again, but fell in the round of 32 to Depauw (IN), 67-62. Nobody would top WashU in 1999 though; the Bears took their second of four D3 national championships in a row.

Over the course of the 81-game winning streak for WashU, the average margin of victory for the Bears was 25 points. Only five teams got closer than the 7-point deficit of Bears/Roos game in St. Louis. All five of those games were on the road, away from the friendly confines of WashU Field House. Nobody came closer to ending the “streak” on the Bears home court than the Austin College Kangaroos.

Doris Eagleton was probably beaming.

The veteran of AC women’s basketball in the 1920s and little sister of the first women’s basketball player was in Sherman in 1999 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Austin College’s founding. Yes, Doris Eagleton would graduate and marry fellow Roo George Landolt, who himself would become a well-known member of the faculty at AC. By the 150th anniversary, Doris was well into her 90s.

While her activities with President Oscar Page were overwhelmingly academic and historic, she was likely marveling at just how far the women had come. Her squad in 1927 struggled to survive in an environment of administration and student hostility. 70 years later, that same team of women Roos were just a 3 pointer away from a national championship.

Good luck in Memphis President Haas.  And Go Roos.