Bean's Bearings: 50 years of Women's Athletics at USM

Bean's Bearings: 50 years of Women's Athletics at USM

From the Desk of Al Bean: 50 Years of Women's Athletics at USM

Imagine if you can, a world where young girls and women are not participating in athletics or organized sports.  It seems even strange to consider today knowing what we know about the value of athletic participation.  As we celebrate 50 years of women’s sports at USM there is much to be thankful for and so many wonderful accomplishments that are well documented.  Many of those great moments in USM history happened in championship competitions while others have resulted from the impact that so many outstanding graduates have had in their chosen profession, whether it be in education as a teacher and coach or in leadership roles across all of the professions and in public service.

 

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As I reflect upon the magnitude of the past 50 years, my mind goes back to my early days as a basketball player in the late 1960s at Mahoney Junior High School in South Portland.  The girl’s basketball team practiced before us each day but I honestly didn’t recognize the game that they were playing, it was very different.  Even then I wondered why but it seemed to change quickly when I went on to high school.  When I graduated from high school I chose to attend USM and continued as a student-athlete.  At USM, there was an undersized basketball court located on the upper level of the Warren Hill Gymnasium in Gorham.  Hill Gym was all that existed for indoor athletic and recreational facilities and it was the site of intercollegiate competition.  At some point during my time as a student-athlete at USM, I was informed that the small court on the second floor was the women’s gymnasium.  Fortunately, it was never used that way, USM’s leadership knew better than that.
 
USM believed in the value of women participating in sports long before Title IX was enacted.  With Richard A. “Doc” Costello leading the department as athletic director, he had the foresight to hire Paula Hodgdon as a full-time staff member with a joint appointment in Athletics and Education.  Part of Paula’s role, along with teaching in the College of Education, was to initiate women’s sports at USM.  It started with field hockey in the fall of 1967, followed by basketball that same winter and then expanded with lacrosse in the spring of 1972, all coached by Hodgdon, widely recognized as a pioneer in women’s sports.  Softball came next in the spring of 1975 and others have followed to build a robust, well-rounded program.  The program has now expanded to include 11 intercollegiate teams for women with an equal number of men and women participating each year.
 
In the early years the women played under the flag of the Maine Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW).  There were only opportunities for USM players at the state level in the early days; emphasis was on fair play and local participation.  As time went on, USM became dual members of the NCAA and the NAIA but chose to participate in postseason play with the NAIA through the conclusion of the 1984-85 season, when USM would send three different teams to national championship competition.  The Huskies experienced early success in the NAIA qualifying for the national championship in softball in 1983.  Coach Kathy Gregory and the USM team traveled to Kearney, Nebraska to participate in their first-ever NAIA National Championship.  The Huskies won their first three games in the national championship defeating Bloomfield twice and Wayne State before falling to IUPUI and the University of the Pacific. I was fortunate to be hired as Sports Information Director at USM in the fall of 1983, a position I would hold for 10 years.  It was a dream come true for me as a former student-athlete and alumni of the institution.  The people had been terrific and were like a second family to me and countless other students who they had touched.  I believed strongly in what they and the program did for young people and was very excited to be a part of the Huskies program as a staff member.  I had no idea how rich the experience would be for me personally and in what direction my life would go but I’m thankful every day for the opportunity that I have had to be part of this wonderful program.
 
The Huskies women’s basketball team, coached by Doc Costello (the only person know to have won 200 or more games as coach of both the men’s and women’s basketball programs), qualified for the NAIA National Championship in 1985.  The Huskies, led by all-time scoring leader Maureen Burchill (2,357 points) traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to challenge seven full-scholarship programs from across the nation.  Burchill, who was also a member of the 1983 softball team that played in the NAIA National Championship, was outstanding for the Huskies.  Unfortunately, USM fell in the first round to Southwestern Oklahoma, led by four-time All-American and three-time national player of the year, Kelli Litsch, but the Huskies were simply beginning to lay the groundwork for what would become one of the most amazing streaks in women’s basketball history at any level.
 
The 1986-1987-basketball season marked the first in the newly formed, six-team Little East Conference for the Huskies.  It would be Doc Costello’s last year on the bench for USM as he would retire from active coaching at the end of the season but would continue on as athletic director.  Members of the 1986-1987 team presented Costello with a cake signifying his 200th win as coach in an emotional ceremony at the conclusion of one of the home games.  The Huskies legend would finish his career on a positive note as USM swept through the Little East Conference Tournament at UMASS Dartmouth to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.   This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Little East Conference and the Huskies capturing off that initial crown.  USM went on to finish the year at 25-4 and narrowly missed a trip to the NCAA Final Four but advancing to he Elite Eight.
 
In 1987, twenty years after the inception of field hockey, the Huskies and Coach Paula Hodgdon qualified for the NCAA National Championship Tournament.  USM, led by upstart freshman and current USM head coach, Bonny Brown Denico, URI transfer Kristen Potito and a cast of very talented players put together a great run and won several big games down the stretch.  The Huskies traveled to Salem State to participate in the NCAA Regional Championship with the winner earning a ticket to the NCAA Final Four at William Smith College in Geneva, New York. 
 
Hodgdon’s Huskies came up big as they knocked off Salem State on their home turf and then Elizabethtown to punch their ticket to the NCAA Final Four.  I was fortunate to make both trips and share in the excitement of the Huskies victories and their true joy in qualifying for the Final Four.  USM represented itself well in the Final Four but lost to Division II Bloomsburg University 2-0.  Bloomsburg went on to win the national championship that year that year at William Smith.  That experience, the first by a USM team in NCAA Final Four play, set the bar for the entire program, both men and women alike.  USM was officially on the NCAA map and has only made their star larger.
 
 
That same winter, Kristen Potito became the only player in USM history to play in two NCAA Final Fours in the same year.  The Huskies, under first-year head coach, Gary Fifield, advanced to the NCAA Final Four with a 27-1 record and a strong and experienced squad. The Huskies dropped their opener to St. John Fisher and then lost the 3rd place game to UNC Greensboro in their first trip to the NCAA Final Four held in Fargo, North Dakota.  The previous year, Dick Costello’s last on the bench with the women, the Huskies finished 25-4 and participated in the NCAA Elite 8 before falling to Kean University at home. 
 
For Fifield, a Vermont native, it would be the first of five appearances in the NCAA Final Four in what would be an incredible 27-year career on the Huskies bench.  Fifield’s teams played for the national championship three times, once at home, and qualified for the NCAA National Tournament 24 times.  Fifield’s teams won 20 Little East Conference tournament championships, including 11 straight and totally dominated the conference with a 291-41 record.  Fifield and Costello combined for an amazing streak of 20 wins or more for 30 consecutive seasons.  Only the Tennessee women and the North Carolina men have enjoyed longer streaks.  USM established itself as one of the elite teams in the nation.
 
The Huskies would advance to the NCAA Final Four on four more occasions under Fifield 1998, 2000, 2005 & 2006) and would play in the national championship game three times.  Perhaps the single greatest event to ever take place at USM happened on March 21,1998 when USM was selected to serve as host for the NCAA Final Four.  What a thrill and what a magical week in the life of everyone involved with the program at the time.  We had already hosted the Little East Conference Championship, the NCAA Quarterfinals and the NCAA Sectional Championship that year.  When the NCAA representatives were leaving USM at the conclusion of the Sectional Championship they asked if we might be interested in hosting the Final Four; I was shocked but pleased and immediately said yes.
 
Here’s the interesting thing about actually awarding the championship to USM.  We had major construction taking place on both sides of the Hill Gymnasium and there was blasting going on regularly.  Active construction was under way on the field house and the ice arena at the same time.  Thirteen of our staff, including me, worked out of a trailer on the front lawn and access to Hill Gym was a little difficult.  I was in the trailer the following night for the NCAA pre-championship call along with Coach Gary Fifield.  The call was for the four participating teams and to review the details of the national championship.
 
Early in the call, the Chair of the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Committee announced that USM had been awarded the opportunity to serve as host.  I pointed to Gary and gave him the thumbs up and he jumped as high as I have ever seen him inside the middle of the doublewide trailer.  It was incredible and a chance to play in the NCAA Final Four in front of your home crowd.  Now we had just four days to get ready for the biggest on-campus event of our lives.  The challenges were there but we were thrilled and looking forward to it for our players, fans and alumni – this would be big time.
 
Tickets for the Final Four went on sale Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. and we limited the number of tickets that each person could buy.  Hill Gymnasium had a seating capacity of 1500 and we thought we could put another 300-400 seats at both ends of the facility without causing major issues with the fire department.  It was a mob scene on Wednesday and all tickets for both nights were sold out in less than an hour; it was going to be a full house and a great environment for the players on all teams.
 
The Huskies were riding a 20-game winning streak going into the Final Four and would be matched up against a tough team from Mt. Union in game one.   The Huskies played well and dispatched Mt. Union 79-66 setting the stage for the national championship game at home against Washington University, who had defeated Rowan University to move to the final.  The national championship game was a spectacle to behold.  The overflow crowd of 2400+ people packed the Hill Gymnasium.  It was incredible, with every possible space taken up by bodies wanting to watch the game.  The local Fox affiliate, WPXT, was on hand to broadcast the game live and there was media from all over the country along one side of the court and at both end lines.  You couldn’t hear and you couldn’t move, it was truly amazing.  When our team came out of the tunnel onto the floor their faces lit up like fireworks on the 4th of July.  The ovation, the size of the crowd and the noise level simply blew them away.  They were fired up and ready to bring home the ultimate prize on their home court.  It was an incredible game and one of the greatest experiences a student-athlete could ever have.  Those who played in that game will never forget the atmosphere and the joy of that experience.  When they get together they still talk about it to this day.  The Huskies would eventually fall to Mt. Union in a hard fought 77-69 game.  It was both devastating and amazing all wrapped into one – I know I will never forget that experience.
 
Fifield’s Huskies would have a rematch in the national championship with Washington University in 2000, this time at Western Connecticut State University.  That 2000 Washington University team included two of the five greatest players in the history of NCAA Division III women’s basketball.  USM had overcome great odds to get back to the national championship but lost to a better team.  In 2006 they would return to the national championship, this time at historic Springfield College, the birthplace of basketball.  This was an epic battle before a packed house as the Huskies took on Hope College of Michigan in the championship game.  The Huskies were lead by Ashley Marble, the most honored player in the history of USM sports.  Marble was a special player and won every award possible during her career, both athletic and academic.  Hope finally got past the Huskies in a hard fought game but it was another amazing experience for our USM student-athletes. 
 
There are so many memories and magic moments during the span of 50 great years of women’s sports.  There are individual moments of triumph and significant team accomplishments that often overshadow single game performances, as it should be.  The 2004 softball season is one I will never forget.  USM was flat-out very good but at-large bids in the NCAA were significantly limited due to the new Automatic Qualifier guidelines, just four if I recall.  If you were going to advance it had to be by winning your conference.  The 2004 Little East Conference championship was held at Keene State College and it was, without question, one for the ages.  I do not believe we will ever see a tournament match the excitement, twists and turns and gutty performances of that particular championship.
 
The Huskies opened the tournament by beating Eastern Connecticut State 2-1 in 20 innings.  It was the most gut-wrenching and exciting softball game I have ever seen.  They came back later that same day to defeat host Keene State 2-0 in 11 innings.  Coach Bonny Brown Denico’s squad lost 3-2 the following day to Western Connecticut State in the winner’s bracket and then prepared for the championship round the following day.  With one loss going in, it would be a tough road for the Huskies to earn the championship.  The Huskies had to take on Keene State again to advance to the championship.  USM won another thriller 2-1 but it took 16 innings this time to get it done.   USM fell in the championship to Western 6-3 with an exhausted team and an over-extended pitching staff.  USM Husky Hall of Famers Melissa Henderson and Katie Mainville Nicholls were amazing in the circle for the Huskies and earned the respect of everyone who was witness to the greatest softball tournament I have ever seen.  USM was an NCAA team but would not receive an NCAA bid; they finished 33-11 with a trip to the ECAC Tournament as their prize – what an amazing weekend of softball. 
 
In recent years, track has taken center stage as Coach George Towle’s indoor teams have won 16 consecutive Little East Conference and New England Alliance championships while the outdoor team has captured 17 consecutive Little East Conference titles.  In 2015-2016 Peyton Dostie became the Huskies first female national champion, winning the pentathlon at the NCAA Indoor National Championship.  In 2014 – 2015, Dostie earned All-American honors in the 400-meter hurdles finishing second at the outdoor meet.  In addition to Dostie, there has been countless NCAA national qualifiers and many tremendous performers in the sport of track.
 
As we continue to support and build our women’s athletic programs into the future, we honor the greatest traditions of the past and stay true to the ideals that have made this program great.  Our team members are students first and they continue to have higher graduation and retention rates than the overall student body at the University.  Athletics is considered one of the strongest learning communities at the University.  We continue to be active in the community and give back whenever and wherever possible.  USM’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee has won 12 national awards for community service work and has received countless campus and University awards.  We are very proud of our student-athletes, the outstanding work they do and the way they represent us every single day, in the classroom, in competition and in the community.
 
In recent years, we have continued to work on our physical plant to improve the overall experience for our student-athletes.  In addition to the construction of the field house, connector and ice arena in 1998, Hannaford Field, USM’s first synthetic field, was built five years ago.  Hannaford Field is home to five teams for the Huskies including field hockey, women’s soccer and lacrosse.   Currently, we are completing construction on a fantastic 2.2 million dollar softball stadium.  Scheduled to open in April, this will give the Huskies one of the finest playing facilities in New England at any level.
 
To help us continue the tradition of excellence that is USM Athletics, Richard and Melissa Costello left the Athletic Department the largest bequest in the history of the University.  The USM legends left 1.67 million dollars to renovate and upgrade the sports complex that carries their names.  They took so much pride in their work, cared so deeply for the students and the University and made a gift of a lifetime to help us support and move our program to the next level.  We will continue our efforts to build support and financial resources to improve the programs and ensure equity. 
 
Fifty years have passed and there have been great memories, awesome achievements and much to be proud of for all of us.  I have been fortunate to have seen so many of these great moments and accomplishments in my 38 years as sports information director, assistant baseball coach, assistant athletic director and director of athletics.  As I let my mind wonder through the years and memories I think of so many special moments and incredible people that have graced our program.  I think of the amazing commitment and tireless efforts of so many talented coaches and staff.  I also think of the incredible work that our student-athletes have gone on to do and are still doing in their professional lives and with their families and communities.
 
The invaluable lessons of character, commitment, leadership, teamwork, discipline, dedication and sacrifice continue to be building blocks for our student-athletes as they grow and develop as young student-athletes and mature and move on into their personal and professional lives.  Participation in intercollegiate athletics is to be enjoyable but also a tool and a carrot and an integral part of the overall student experience.  There are countless examples of people that carry the USM banner and the Husky logo with them every single day and they are leaders and among the very best at what they do.  My congratulations to all of our women and the great effort they have put forth and the outstanding work they have done and continue to do.  May their efforts and accomplishments continue and be a source of pride and strength for everyone – I couldn’t be prouder than to serve as USM’s Director of Athletics for the past 24 years.  Here’s hoping for 50 more great years!