Making history: Enduring legacies of the College’s female athletes

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Sara Hollberg, then Sara Saunders (left), poses with vice captain Lori Okerstrom (right) and head coach John Charles (center) before the inaugural season. COURTESY IMAGE / THE ALUMNI GAZETTE, SWEM SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Sara Hollberg ’82 was part of William and Mary’s women’s soccer program from when it was first introduced as a club team in 1979 to when it was named a varsity sport in 1981. She played with the team from the days when the only uniforms they could afford were hand-me-down, red and blue outfits to when they got their own school-funded green and gold kits. But decades after graduation, when asked about her favorite memory of the team, her answer isn’t a game, a goal or a particularly sweet victory. It’s how sometimes, the players would pause at practice and all flop down in the middle of the field, breathing hard, grass tickling the backs of their necks, to take a moment and appreciate how nice the clouds looked on any given day.

For the first women to play soccer at the College, the introduction of a varsity soccer program brought this kind of peace and happiness through camaraderie. Many members of that original team are still friends. Some used the skills they learned on the team to play the sport for the rest of their lives. That experience was the result of women working to make the College a trailblazer in the landscape of women’s collegiate athletics throughout the 20th century.

Women’s athletics first came to the College alongside women’s academics in 1918. During that first year of co-ed admission, a basketball team was formed by captain and secret society namesake Martha Barksdale ’22; hiking, gymnastic, dancing and tennis were also introduced. The next year, a new president helped bring in hockey and track. With 1920 came the first physical education class, as well as intramural programs in women’s track, hockey, tennis and baseball.

As women’s athletics across the United States became more commonplace, programs at the College continued to grow. Women’s teams began competition with other schools in 1921, when the tennis team first travelled to compete with Sweet Briar. In 1922, the basketball team went out of state for the first time on a northern road trip. In 1936, under the direction of a returning Barksdale, the College helped facilitate one of the first international women’s sports tournaments in history when they housed players for a women’s hockey tournament in Richmond. There, an English squad gave an all-Virginia squad — proudly featuring a set of the College’s very own players — a 20-0 drubbing.

The College would continue to be an agent for growth in women’s athletics over the years. Millie West, who would become one of the first female associate athletic directors in United States history, arrived at the school in 1959 and instigated a fierce and unrelenting promotion of women’s programs. In the 1980s, she helped facilitate an international women’s tennis tournament between the United States and Great Britain. In 1981, she saw the College’s golf team win one of the first national titles in women’s sports at the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women D-II tournament in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The 1981 women’s golf team poses with trophies form one of the first national titles in women’s sports as victors of an AIAW tournament in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

These accolades were possible, in many cases, because of women who fought to have their teams officially registered by the College. That’s what occurred in the early ’80s, when the members of the school’s newly introduced club soccer team campaigned to become a varsity squad.

The formation of the 1981 varsity soccer team was the result of two separate forces: the introduction of Title IX to American colleges in 1972 and the precipitous rise of soccer in Virginia. Nancy Podger ’81, a founding member of the original club team, played in one of the first girls’ soccer leagues in Massachusetts. Her high school fielded a varsity team her senior year. That was emblematic of a trend that would eventually make its way down the East Coast, bringing women’s soccer with it. But at the time that Podger first started college, many of her teammates had gotten no prior opportunity to learn the sport.

“I didn’t even touch a soccer ball ‘til I was 18,” Hollberg said. “But I had come from other sports, and that was sort of what created the team … very good athletes, but coming from other sports.”

“I didn’t even touch a soccer ball ‘til I was 18,” Hollberg said. “But I had come from other sports, and that was sort of what created the team … very good athletes, but coming from other sports.”

Interested team members, with backgrounds in everything from swimming to running to lacrosse, would gather for practice or pickup games on a field or the Sunken Garden. For intercollegiate competition, Podger would schedule games on her dorm’s hall phone, calling up other schools to arrange a time for the team to don their fraying red and blue uniforms and drive to Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia or James Madison. 

The effort was intensive, and other varsity programs were popping up at Virginia schools like Hollins, Radford and Randolph-Macon. So, Podger and volunteer coach Blake Peterson ’82 spent their senior year petitioning the school to make the program a varsity sport.

“There was also a rugby women’s sport club, and [the athletics department] was getting really frustrated because I guess lots of sports clubs were asking to become varsity sports,” Podger said. “And they just said to me in frustration, ‘Why don’t the two of you just combine into one club? Then we’d consider it.’”

But soccer already had everything they needed to become a legitimate squad, such as a full team of active players and other interested teams in the region. So, in the fall of 1981, during Hollberg’s senior year and just after Podger’s graduation, the team went varsity, with all the glorious trappings of uniforms, vans and equipment included inside of a pre-arranged schedule.

In a period of less than three years, the College had gone from having no women’s soccer at all to endorsing a full varsity program.

“I think soccer was a wave, and it just took off,” Podger said. “Two and a half years is really fast to start a club and then become a varsity sport.”

“I think soccer was a wave, and it just took off,” Podger said. “Two and a half years is really fast to start a club and then become a varsity sport.”

The team had a lifelong impact on the women who created it. Hollberg met her husband through it, and she’s still friends with Podger. They both moved to Washington, D.C. after college and continued to play women’s and co-ed soccer in Washington leagues for years.

From afar, the two have watched the program change dramatically as soccer spread infectiously across Virginia. High schoolers learned how to dribble, deke and shoot at increasingly younger ages, meaning that athletes coming into the team were already tremendously skilled soccer players.

“The biggest change was the freshmen were so good compared to those of us who were kind of more self-taught,” Hollberg said. “That was the biggest difference. Every year, the freshmen were so much better. They were able to play it from a young age.”

The definition of a varsity team has also changed significantly since the pair’s time at the College. Some of the first women’s varsity teams were administered as part of the AIAW, which was founded in 1971. Introduced as a National Collegiate Athletic Association equivalent for women, the AIAW was key in developing women’s athletics throughout the 1970s. But it was undercut in 1981 when the NCAA decided to start promoting D-I women’s sports, a move that then-Associate Athletic Director West was an outspoken critic of.

“My personal opinion would have to be conjecture,” West told Hollberg in April of 1982, when Hollberg interviewed her for The Flat Hat. “They say they are doing it for the good of women’s sports. I tend to doubt that. They fought against Title IX and in the early years of Title IX showed no interest whatsoever in sponsoring women’s championships. So I just want to be wary of their real reasons.”

Nevertheless, the NCAA brought women’s athletics to new heights. At the College, there are now 11 women’s varsity sports to 10 men’s clubs, with the women matching men’s teams in basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis and track and field, as well as adding their own field hockey, lacrosse and volleyball squads. Athletes like Podger or Hollberg, both of whom played varsity lacrosse in addition to soccer, are unheard of — a single varsity sport is a full-time commitment, and students pledge themselves to playing at the College years before they ever step on campus.

“You have to track into a sport so quickly now … where’s the fun and the relaxation of just playing a sport, and just playing a variety of sports?” Podger said. “[Moving into the NCAA] added a lot of opportunities, but it makes it more professional than just you’re a student and you play sports.”

Even through all the changes, the varsity team still maintains connections to the original club members to whom it owes its existence. 2017 was the 35th anniversary of women’s soccer at the College. Former head coach John Daly, who was at the helm of the team from its second year until the end of the 2017 season, invited players to the celebration that dated back to the club era.

“It was good to see most of those long-ago names on the invitation list and to get to reunite with some of them in person after all these years,” Hollberg said.

By 2018, many of the barriers that Hollberg and Podger faced have been erased. The NCAA swallowed the AIAW in 1981, and the women’s and men’s athletic departments at the College merged in 1985. Women’s sports have many of the same resources, such as training rooms, that male athletes enjoy. Women, such as current soccer coach Julie Shackford ’87, now coach varsity athletics. But that doesn’t mean that the College is done making progress with women’s collegiate sport programs, as they proved with last year’s hiring of Samantha Huge as the first female director of athletics since the title was combined to cover both men’s and women’s sports.

“She’s probably the most qualified athletics director we’ve ever had,” Associate Athletics Director Peel Hawthorne ’80 said. “She’s coming in with lots of experience at several different institutions. She knows the landscape of NCAA Division I athletics probably better than any single person we’ve had in that position in a long time, maybe ever.”

The choice of a qualified candidate shouldn’t be surprising, but Huge is still a historic pick. At the end of the 2017-18 season, just 10 percent of all 356 D-I Athletic Directors were women. A female athletic director like Huge or West can be a significant force in pushing for the growth of women’s sports programs. One recent project undergone during Huge’s young tenure is the opening of the Busch Field Hockey Facility, a $2.4 million endeavor that will provide a new facility for the women’s squad.

“That’s a testament to how much women’s sports does matter,” Hawthorne said. “… The largest chunk of that philanthropy that raised the funds for that building were from women, and I think that that’s really exceptional, that it’s primarily a facility built by women, for women. That’s just remarkable.”

“That’s a testament to how much women’s sports does matter,” Hawthorne said. “… The largest chunk of that philanthropy that raised the funds for that building were from women, and I think that that’s really exceptional, that it’s primarily a facility built by women, for women. That’s just remarkable.”

Because of the fact that there are currently more women’s teams than men’s teams, and because the College is still lacking some men’s varsity programs such as lacrosse, expansion of the women’s varsity programs list is not in the immediate future for Tribe Athletics.

But that doesn’t mean it’s out of the question. Because of the work of women like these, there are will be more opportunities for new athletes to break from their practices and admire the clouds the way Hollberg did all those years ago.

“There is a potential for growth,” Hawthorne said. “That’s something we’re looking at.”