November Edition: From Hilltoppers to Huskies- 50 Years of Women's Athletics at USM Presented by UCU

November Edition: From Hilltoppers to Huskies-  50 Years of Women's Athletics at USM Presented by UCU

November Edition: From Huskies to Hilltoppers Presented by UCU

With a longstanding tradition of women's athletics, some of the earliest incarnations of the University of Southern Maine supported women in sport. Starting with interclass basketball in 1918 and culminating with the official creation of women's intercollegiate athletics in 1967, for 50 years, USM, and its predecessor schools, have supported women's participation in athletics.

In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Women's Intercollegiate Athletics, the Huskies' Department of Athletics will highlight some of its top student-athletes, coaches and administrators, past and present.  In addition to the varied profiles, the USM Department of Athletics will host a celebration of its 50 Years of Women's Intercollegiate Athletics on Saturday, February 4 to coincide with the women's basketball and ice hockey games at the Costello Sports Complex.  Following the games, USM will host a special event at Spire 29 in Gorham (6:00 p.m.)

Huskies' Athletics Grows: Tennis, Volleyball and Women's Cross Country

While women's volleyball was one of the initial three (field hockey, basketball and volleyball) intercollegiate athletics at USM, women's tennis quickly followed as an option for student-athletes in the fall of 1968, and with a roster of six women the Huskies successfully went 4-0 in the team's first season.  Just over a decade later, USM supported the creation of a women's cross country team in 1980.  

All three of these teams have had sustained individual and team success over the course of their respective histories.  The first women's volleyball team (1967) was comprised of just eight women, but by the 1969 season the roster ballooned to 21 players and its playing schedule increased from the first season's three matches to a full slate of 26 contests by 1977.  Today, Huskies' volleyball is surging in new ways, making strides in its competitive abilities in the formidable Little East Conference and New England region.  In the last five years, Huskies' volleyball has achieved several firsts and/or school records including wins in a season (22, 2013), post-season play and conference and regional accolades.

With a long history, two present day student-athletes have been central to the resurgence of Huskies' volleyball: recent alumnae Demi Ruder, and junior Jess Williamson. 

Demi Ruder: Student-Athlete Leader (Women's Volleyball)

A four-year member of the volleyball team (2012-2015), Ruder was a three-year captain (2013-2015) and helped bring the Huskies from a record of 9-22 as a freshman to a school record 22 wins in 2013 along with its first bid into the LEC tournament since 2003, and its first ever trip to postseason play with a berth to the ECAC tournament in 2014.

A defensive specialist, Ruder finished as the program's all-time leader in matches played (124), games played (431), and digs (1535), and is fourth overall in service aces (213).  Ruder's leadership extended beyond her abilities on the court and in competition; during her years at USM Ruder served as president of the USM Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and actively volunteered in the community even organizing a group of student-athletes to visit residents of Gorham area retirement homes to sing Christmas carols.  Ruder's leadership and presence in the University community was recognized by not only the Department of Athletics, but by Southern Maine as a whole.

Demi Ruder after receiving the Paula D. Hodgdon Leadership Award.  Pictured with Paula Hodgdon and women's volleyball head coach Diane Newell

In 2014, Ruder was named the inaugural USM Outstanding Student-Athlete, an award that is now presented each year to the student-athlete who bests represents commitment to academics, athletics, community, career and personal development.  And as a senior during the 2015-2016 academic year, Ruder was awarded the Paula D. Hodgdon Leadership Award, presented annually to the female student-athlete who best exemplifies the qualities of Paula D. Hodgdon through her loyalty, dedication, commitment and leadership to their sport and the USM community. 

A four-time recipient of the William B. Wise Scholar Athlete award, Ruder earned her bachelor's in Social Work from Southern Maine in 2016 and is completing her Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW) at Salem State University.  Although enrolled in an accelerated program with an expected graduation with her MSW in May of 2017, Ruder has continued to excel and is concurrently interning with North Shore Medical Center. 


Jessica Williamson: At the Top (Women's Volleyball)

Quickly becoming the most decorated player in USM volleyball history, Williamson joined Ruder on the court in the 2014 season, and immediately made an impact on the offensive side of the ball.

Through three seasons with the Huskies, Williamson has been a force on the court and within the New England region.  Becoming the first USM volleyball player to earn All-Little East Conference recognition three times in her career with her selection to the 2016 first team as a junior, Williamson - who will begin her final season with the Huskies in the Fall of 2017 - has already made her mark on Southern Maine athletics and the volleyball record books.  

Named the LEC and ECAC Division III New England Rookie of the Year in 2014, Williamson's presence on the court was immediate, finishing her rookie year ranked eighth in NCAA Division III volleyball at 4.55 kills per set, while setting a school single-season record of 496 kills.  Williamson showed no signs of a sophomore slump in 2015, earning first team all-LEC honors while setting career records in attacks, kills, and kills per set.  Repeating as a first team all-conference selection in her junior year, Williamson is the all-time leader in kills (1391), kills per set (4.43) and attacks (3431) with a full season left to tack onto her impressive totals. 

An outstanding student as well as competitor, Williamson, a Biology major, is a two-time William B. Wise Scholar Athlete recipient and an LEC All-Academic Team honoree.

Women's Cross Country

With great interest and a relatively inexperienced squad, Huskies' cross country began its first season of intercollegiate competition in 1980, but quickly grew in competitiveness and size.  One of the top early runners Kelly Bennett joined the Huskies' squad in 1983 and by her final season, 1986, under then second-year coach George Towle, Bennett placed eighth at the regional championship and earned a coveted spot at the NCAA Division III National Championship – the first USM women's cross country runner to do so.  A year later in 1987, Donna Hubert became the second Husky to run at nationals, while the team placed a strong eight out of 32 teams at the NCAA Regional.   

In the thirty-six years of women's cross country, Southern Maine has had tremendous team and individual success with a majority of it coming under long time head coach George Towle, who has just completed his 31st season.  In his three-decade long service to Husky student-athletes, Towle guided USM to six Little East Conference Championships, two New England Alliance Championships, and eight top-ten finishes at the NCAA Division III Regional Championship – most recently in 2012.  Under his tutelage, Southern Maine has produced two All-Americans, Penny Osborne (1999) and Molly Carl (2011); six NCAA national qualifiers; two ECAC champions; and eight runners who have won a combined total of 11 LEC individual titles 

Towle's student-athletes have also excelled academically with his women's cross country team earning the Remo Riciputi Award at the 2016 William B. Wise Awards banquet, given annually to the team sport and the individual team sport with the highest collective grade-point average, marking the fifth time the team has earned the honor in the 20 year history of the award.

Jess (Short) Laurent: Running for a Cause (Women's Cross Country)

Although never the star during her four-year (1999-2002) career with the Huskies on the cross country trails, Jessica (Short) Laurent was a steady and dependable member of team.  During her junior year (2001), Laurent helped pace Southern Maine to a second place finish at the Little East Conference Championship, placing tenth overall and finishing as Southern Maine's fourth runner traversing the 5K championship course in 19:49.29.  As a senior (2002), Laurent continued her determined work again leading the Huskies to a second place finish at the LEC championship, but this time, earning All-Little East Conference honors with a top six finish.  

The sport of cross country is grueling and is often rewarded with little fan fare, so for those student-athletes it is often done out of a love of the sport, so it is no surprise that Laurent's passion for running continued well-beyond her years in a Huskies' uniform. 

After graduating from USM with two bachelor's degrees in Psychology and in Criminology, Laurent furthered her education earning a dual Master's degree in Clinical Counseling and Forensic Psychology in 2006.  With little rest in between, Laurent became both a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Sexual Abuse Counselor.  For most, Laurent's pursuit of multiple advanced degrees and licensing would be a full plate, however, during this time Laurent continued her racing career, jumping from collegiate cross country to marathon training.

With a driven ability, Laurent qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2004, and then went on to qualify six more times, running one of the most prestigious marathons in America in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010. In addition to her four Boston Marathon finishes, Laurent has completed 12 more marathons in various cities across the country.  And while the physical and time demands of competitive marathon training could seem like a stressor to some, Laurent says that marathon training and racing are a part of her daily life and her best coping strategy to deal with her high stress career.

Given her wealth of educational assets, Laurent has chosen a demanding, difficult and essential career working for a private practice that contractually works with the Department of Juvenile Justice and Social Service Agencies, providing counseling to children and adolescents who have been sexually abused. Laurent also spends her professional time educating law enforcement, court officials, schools and social service agencies about the effects of sexual trauma and how to mitigate risks.  Finally, Laurent is also been certified as an Expert Witness and spends a great deal of her time testifying in court on behalf of child victims.   

Molly Carl: First Place (Women's Cross Country)

The first USM female runner to win a major Little East Conference Cross Country award, when she was named the conference's Women's Cross Country Runner of the Year in 2012, Molly Carl was used to first. 

A talented cross-country and track student-athlete throughout her three-year career (2010-2013) at Southern Maine, Molly Carl was quickly identified as one of the top cross-country runners in the region and in the nation after her outstanding junior season (2011).  Carl's breakout season included individually winning four races, and finishing second overall at the Little East Conference championship.  Among her race wins, Carl won the 2011 Maine State Championship covering the 5000-meter Pineland course in 19 minutes, one second. The Maine State Championship was not the only championship level event that Carl excelled in during the 2011 season.  At the New England Intercollegiate Amateur Athletic Association (NEIcAAA) Cross Country Championship, which features teams from NCAA Division I, II and III teams, Carl placed an impressive 31st out of 269 finishers – running the 5,017-meter course in 18 minutes, 37 seconds, showing a 1:27 improvement from her sophomore season. 

After the LEC Championship, Carl continued her forward progression at the NCAA Division III New England Regional Championship, running down a time of 21 minutes, 42.15 seconds for the 6000-meter course and a spot in the NCAA Division III National Championship meet.  With her 11th place finish among the 353 competitors, Carl became the first USM female runner to earn a spot in the national championship since Penny Osborne accomplished the feat in 1999.  Carl seized the opportunity to race in the National Championship and raced her way to All-American honors.  Competing in an elite field of 277 finishers, Carl traversed the 6000-meter course in a time of 21:35, placing 27th overall, and was the seventh finisher among the athletes representing schools from the New England region.

Carl continued her outstanding efforts in her final season (2012) and became the first Husky runner to qualify for two national championship races when she placed sixth at the New England Regional Championship and was the highest-placing individual qualifier from the New England. For her efforts, Carl was recognized by the Little East as the Runner of the Year. 

Equally as successful in the classroom, Carl was a two-time recipients of the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USFTCCCA) All-Academic Team honor.   To earn the honor, a student-athlete must have a cumulative grade point average of 3.30 and must have place in the top 35 at their respective regional championship.   Carl earned her degree in Geography-Anthropology with distinction from Southern Maine  


Women's Tennis

Although women's tennis was one of the first added sports to the Huskies' intercollegiate sports roster, the program was cut after the 1979 season and did not regain varsity status again until 1995.  During its early seasons, USM tennis – in the UMPG era – had several outstanding players including Katy Downing and Andrea Fisher, who both went undefeated in their five matches in 1970.  Hilda Hinds, a four-year player and early standout for the women's tennis program from 1972-1976, represented her team at both the state tournament and the New England Regional Championship each year, and Terri Burke, the number one singles player during one of the team's final seasons (1977), won all but one of her matches.  Roster numbers dwindled as USM did not have competitive facilities of its neighboring schools and tennis facilities, both indoor and outdoor, were beginning to influence the college choices made by student-athletes leading to the program's final season in 1980.

One of the earlier versions of Champ the Husky

Lesya Stasiv-Mavor: Husky Hall of Famer & Tennis' Return (Women's Tennis)

The first women's tennis player inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame, Lesya Stasiv-Mavor, was a dominant force in the intercollegiate tennis world at Southern Maine from 1992-1996.  However, her accomplishments and accolades are even more impressive and well-earned when considering that for the first three years of her career, Stasiv-Mavor did not have a women's tennis team to call home, but instead played her intercollegiate tennis as a member of the men's tennis team. 

Dropped from the women's intercollegiate offerings in 1980, women's tennis returned to the fold in 1995 for Stasiv-Mavor's final season.  However, Stasiv-Mavor's three seasons with the men's tennis team were nothing short of outstanding.

Stasiv-Mavor was not only a member of the Huskies' men's tennis team, but she won the Little East Conference championship at no.1 singles. And during the 1995 season as a member of the women's tennis team, Stasiv-Mavor earned first team All-Little East Conference at number one singles, and was a four-year recipient of the William B. Wise Scholar Athlete Award (1992-1996) earning her Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration in 1996.


April Cohen: Real Estate, Running, Community Engagement, Philanthropy, etc. (Women's Tennis)

A two-year captain, three-time All-Little East Conference selection and a two-time Little East Conference champion, April Cohen was member of the Huskies' women's tennis team from 2000-2002.  She served as the team's co-captain in 2001 and 2002, helping guide the Huskies to their second Little East Conference in three years (2002, 2000).

Cohen was a member of the team in 2000 when they capture the LEC crown and in 2002. Cohen was a first-team All-Little East Conference player at third singles, capturing the singles flight championship.  As a junior in 2001, Cohen was a second team sixth singles player and part of USM's second team first doubles tandem with teammate Jewell Iannetta. 

2002 Womens' Tennis Captains: Emily Jose, Sarah McLean and April Cohen

As a captain, full-time student-athlete and a History major with a Political Science minor, Cohen added to her busy schedule working in a before and after school program at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, Maine, a job where she developed her passion for community involvement and continued after her graduation from Southern Maine in 2003.  While still at the Reiche Before/After School program, Cohen also coordinated a Teen Program.

In 2005, Cohen earned her real estate license and became a full-time realtor in 2007, and in the last three years she has been in the top 10 in sales volume at The Maine Real Estate Network, a company with more than 500 agents.  With a thriving and time-consuming real estate business, Cohen has continued to keep herself immersed in the local community.  She has been president of the SoPo/CE Buy Local since 2013, and has been a member of the organizational committee for South Portland's Knightville Street Fest since 2014, the Buy Local Fest since 2013, and Winterfest since 2015.

Cohen has found her position as a member of the South Portland business community to be a vessel for community involvement, organizing blanket drives, food drives and a Ken and Barbie drive for the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital.   Since 2011, Cohen has sponsored a South Portland t-ball team because, "It was seriously my favorite sport when I was five and I believe every kid should play."  In addition to sponsoring the team each season, Cohen treats the players to an ice cream treat at Red's at season's end.   A former student-athlete at South Portland HS, Cohen also has been an avid sponsor of the high school athletics program. 

Cohen has also remained personally involved in athletics finding a passion in the running and endurance sports community.  An avid runner, Cohen has run several half marathons and completed the 2014 New York City Marathon, and has competed in the Maine Tri for a Cure (a sprint triathlon) four times (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013).  She is presently training for her first half iron-distance triathlon Ironman Maine 70.3 to be held this August.


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