For years Notre Dame women’s basketball players operated in relative obscurity, but they could always play. And once, on the old courts outside Stepan Center, a couple of them offered an impromptu clinic to a skeptical local audience.
One summer night in the early 1990s, Karen Robinson ’91 and Coquese Washington ’92, ’97J.D., wandered onto the courts to call next. Among the motley high school boys playing pickup games, nobody really recognized them. Skylar Diggins, and all she represents, was not yet a glint in anybody’s eye, but Robinson and Washington were her equivalent at the time.
None of us were particularly inclined to play with either of them, so they ended up on the same team. That was a mistake. Together they proceeded to offer a lesson in gender inequality — that is to say, they proved that males could be much, much worse than females at basketball.
With Irish women’s players now on billboards around town — and Diggins as well-known nationally as any athlete on campus — their chance to hustle unsuspecting guys has long since passed. Over the past two decades, in basketball and beyond, the names and faces have become as familiar as the success they’ve produced.
On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, signed into law on June 23, 1972, here are nine important milestones in Notre Dame women’s sports history, not counting the hiring of Muffet McGraw and the birth of Ruth Riley ’01:
IX. In 2004, fencer Alicja Kryczalo ’05, ’10MBA, wins her third consecutive NCAA foil championship — the first Irish athlete to win more than two national titles since distance-runner Greg Rice ’39.
VIII. Women’s soccer wins the 1995 national championship, breaking North Carolina’s nine-year stranglehold.
VII. Beth Morgan ’97 leads the Irish women’s basketball team to the 1997 Final Four — the first of four in the next 15 years.
VI. Notre Dame defeats UConn 92-76 in a regular-season game on January 15, 2001, a defining moment that solidified the program as a national power.
V. Fencer Mariel Zagunis, an incoming freshman at the time, wins a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics — the first American in 100 years to win fencing gold. Zagunis repeated the feat in 2008. Tune in this summer to see if she can make it three in a row.
IV. Notre Dame wins the 2004 women’s soccer national title, completing a season in which the Irish scored almost as many goals (70) as its opponents’ total shot-on-goal attempts (71).
III. Molly Huddle ’07, a 10-time All-American in her Notre Dame career, sets the U.S. record in the 5,000 meters, which she still holds, in 14:44.76.
II. Notre Dame outscores its tournament competition 15-1, including a 1-0 championship victory over top-ranked Stanford, to win the 2010 women’s soccer national title.
I. Number VI would have felt hollow in retrospect without a repeat triumph over UConn in the Final Four and a 68-66 victory over Purdue to win the 2001 women’s basketball national title.
Nine moments are not enough. National championships and high-profile accomplishments crowd out decades of success in volleyball, tennis, swimming, softball and the potential of newer programs on the rise. And these include only the most recent generation, not the pioneers who endured a lack of resources and respect to generate the energy that now keeps Grace Hall’s green No. 1 lit.
The achievements of the women’s programs, of course, represent progress and the promise of more in the future. Perhaps more important at Notre Dame, they also represent a connection to a triumphant athletic tradition, a reminder that “while her loyal sons and daughters march on to victory” carries the same tune as the original.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at email@example.com.