BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
The 1972-73 season was one punctuated by a number of firsts for women's basketball at Western Washington University (then Western Washington State College) as the Title IX era got underway.
In 1972, Title IX was passed, a federal mandate that guaranteed women equality with men in collegiate athletics. And, in particular, the sport of women's basketball was in its second year of being of a full court, five-player game after players had been limited to three dribbles and compartmentalized on the court.
On March 3, 1973, the Western women played for the first time at Sam Carver Gymnasium, which had been completed in 1961. Up until that time the women's games had taken place in the Physical Education Building on a court referred to as the "Little Gym" after the new Carver facility was finished.
The hard-fought game, which was attended by 1,750 fans, unheard of at that time for a women's event, was won by the Vikings when a layup by 6-foot-1 center Theresa Nafziger with 10 seconds remaining gave them a 48-46 victory over Washington State University in the championship game of the Northwest Regional Basketball Tournament.
The regional title win qualified Western for its first national appearance at the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women Tournament at Flushing, NY, (Queens College) on March 22-24. The AIAW was founded in 1971 and governed women's intercollegiate sports until it was absorbed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in the early 1980s.
"We did car washes and bake sales and got money donated," said Western coach Lynda Goodrich about how the Vikings funded their way to nationals in those days. "We had four people to a room and very little food money, but we made it happen."
At nationals, the Vikings beat East Carolina, 55-51, then lost 60-53 to Immaculata, which went on to take the AIAW national title, the second of three straight championships for a program that was depicted in the movie, "The Mighty Macs," released in 2011.
In those early days of women's sports, there was no distinction between small and large schools, no recruiting and no scholarships. Immaculata, located near Philadelphia, was a Catholic school of 400 female students. It had been founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At games, the nuns, in full garb, would bring their empty buckets with wooden dowels to create a racket. What may have been even more intimidating was that they also brought their rosaries and worked the beads while praying for Immaculata and against the competition.
"I definitely remember walking into the gym and seeing the nuns," recalled Kathy Hemion, a 5-foot-9 forward and perhaps Western's best athlete of that period. "It was a great game. I had to guard 6-foot (three-time) All-American Theresa Shank. I just remember that we were in the game the whole time."
The Vikings also had fun touring New York City, riding the subway, taking the ferry to Staten Island, going to the New York Stock Exchange, seeing the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, and attending a Broadway play. Conducting their tour was Western's Department of Physical Education, Health and Recreation chair Margaret Aiken, who taught at the school for 38 years. Aitken had gotten to know the area while obtaining her Ph.D. at Columbia University.
The day after Western's regional title win, a 13-paragraph account of the game appeared in The Bellingham Herald, the first time that a story longer than one graph had been used for a collegiate women's sports story locally. That marked a turning point for coverage of women's sports.
The Vikings finished 24-2, their only other loss that season being in their opener against the University of British Columbia, which went on to win the Canadian collegiate national championship. Western then won 24 straight before losing to U.S. title winner Immaculata.
Hemion, now 63, is retired after nearly 30 years as a special education teacher in the Tacoma public school district and 10 years of teaching and coaching at Pacific Lutheran University. She also competed in volleyball and tennis at Western, being inducted into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1982. Her two brothers, Whit and Dave, played men's basketball at Western in the late 1960s.
"There are times when I wish that I could have played just 10 years later, the opportunities I would have had," said Hemion. "But then I look at those who were before us and what they established for us to be able to do what we did, and then the same for us to establish that for the next group."
"I think I just saw us taking the opportunity that was in front of us to do whatever we could to make it the best we could and to promote it to go on."
"My memories are all good. It was a great adventure. I loved the game, I loved to play and it taught me so much about life. The teams we had then were a pretty special group of people. Here I am 40 years later and I still have contact with a lot of them."
It was the third straight year that Western and WSU had met in the regional title contest, the Cougars winning the previous two times, 44-39 in 1972 and 35-32 in 1971.
"I went to (director of athletics) Boyde Long and (men's basketball coach) Chuck Randall and said that we needed to play the game in the big gym, this was not a little gym type of game, and that we'd play it in the afternoon so that we wouldn't get in the way," recalled Goodrich.
The game was hard-fought throughout with the lead changing hands 16 times and the score tied on eight occasions.
WSU led 27-26 at halftime, 6-foot-6 center Jennifer Gray scoring 17 of her game-high 27 points in the first two quarters, and the Cougars were up 33-26 early in the third quarter.
"I just remember looking up at Jennifer Gray and saying `Oh my God,'" said Hemion.
A layup by Nafziger gave WWU a 46-44 lead with 49 seconds left in regulation. WSU tied the game at 46-all with 23 seconds remaining, setting up Nafziger's winning layup with 10 ticks on the clock.
"Late in the game, which was close and low scoring, we took the lead and the crowd erupted," Goodrich said. "I remember looking across the floor and this male student jumped out of the bleachers from two or three rows up onto the floor cheering wildly. It was at that moment I knew we (women's basketball) had arrived."
Nafziger finished with 13 points for the Vikings and Hemion had 12. Guard Wendy Hawley contributed nine points.
Nafziger received All-America honorable mention honors. Both Hemion and Hawley later went to a tryout for the Pan American Games.
The Western women never played another game in the "Little Gym."
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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