Women Who Win: The Proud Legacy of Stevens Women’s Athletics

1/6/2012

The year was 1971. War raged in Vietnam and peace protests were escalating at home. The United States was abandoning the gold standard. And in Hoboken, NJ, for the first time in its 100 year history, the Stevens Institute of Technology opened its doors to women. 

From the moment the first female students stepped foot on campus, women’s sports became an integral part of the college’s character. There were no varsity sports for women during those first few years but, that didn’t stop making their mark on the fields and courts. At first, they joined the fencing club, sparring with both competitors of both genders. The club sport continued until the 1974-75 season, when Stevens fielded its first women’s varsity athletics team – in natural progression, fencing. 

Only three years after women were first admitted to Stevens and only two years after President Richard Nixon signed the historic Title IX legislation – which guaranteed women the same educational opportunities as men, including in college sports – Michi Wada, Melinda Ellis, Sue Polowy, Teresa Burnett, Lorraine Sheehan, Jackie Coleman and Anna Lynch made Stevens history as its first female varsity athletes. On November 19th, 1974, they began the university’s women’s varsity athletics legacy in grand fashion. In a sport that involves foils, touches and bouts, the brand new Stevens women’s varsity fencing team defeated state rival Princeton University. And while that victory one of the few highlights of that season – Stevens finished with a 3-5 record – those first seven lady Ducks had the satisfaction of knowing they were a part of something much bigger.

Although across America women were only beginning to make a major impact in youth, college and professional sports, the reaction on the Stevens campus to its first women’s team was wholehearted acceptance, pride and excitement.

“Women at Stevens always were able to be smart and be engineers and still be interesting,” said Linda Vollkommer, the original varsity women’s fencing coach. “Right from the beginning until today, I felt that the women were treated equally. We had a lot of recognition being the first team. We were respected and it wasn’t tough.”

Vollkommer should know. She is the only coach the team has ever known, continuing to train the Ducks today in her 38th year at Stevens. (She was a part of another piece of women’s history at the school – fencing counted as a physical education course, so she was technically also the first tenured female professor at Stevens).

Women’s athletics at Stevens have grown by leaps and bounds since that first match in 1974 and even more since club fencing in 1971.

In 1982, the fencing team became the university’s first to qualify for the NCAA finals.

In 1988, before women’s basketball was established at Stevens, Allison Hendricks became the first – and only – women to play on a Stevens men’s team. At the time, she was the only woman in the nation on a men’s team and only the second woman ever to do it.

Russell Rogers, the current athletic director, has seen the women’s athletics program grow immensely in his 17 years at Stevens.

“In the mid-1990s, we had athletics but there were fewer teams,” he said. “There was less focus on sports in general. There were less resources, staffing, facilities and equipment. We also didn’t have the ability to schedule better competition.”

All of that has changed significantly over the years. Currently, Stevens has 13 women’s varsity sports, most with a winning legacy. The total record for women’s sports at Stevens throughout history is 1,792-988-19 draws. There have been a total of 53 conference championships and 67 All Americans.

2011 was an especially exceptional year for the women’s sports program. Laura Barito became the first athlete – male or female – to win an NCAA championship. In fact, she won two – one for swimming and one for track – and earned the unprecedented honor of being named the NCAA’s Woman of the Year, the first ever Division III athlete to do so.

“It’s been really enjoyable watching our athletic program gain momentum and seeing a lot of exciting progress, a lot of firsts – in some ways, creating new histories,” Rogers said.

Rogers thinks there that there is something special about female athletes at Stevens. They tend to enter college well-prepared and in the know, with the ability to juggle academics, sports and other activities with ease. Not surprisingly, they often go on to extremely successful careers after graduation.

“They are some of the most mature, driven, hardest working, dedicated individuals I’ve ever known – not just among fellow college students, but across the board,” he said. “There’s a certain drive and determination to the Stevens female athlete that is unique.”

Keep up with the latest and greatest from this year’s women’s athletics programs at http://www.stevensducks.com/sports/womens/.

For full coverage of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Stevens becoming fully coeducational, visit Women at Stevens.