A gender equity plan adopted in 2001 achieves its goal,
producing better athletes and teams with winning records.
By Bethany Bradsher
Kee and Charina Sumner wore the same uniform and played the same sport. But 20 years have passed since Kee represented the Pirates on the softball diamond where Sumner stars today. And there’s a world of difference in how the two women athletes were treated.
Kee, who is Sumner’s coach, came to East Carolina from Virginia on a partial scholarship and many of her teammates received only textbook money. Sumner was recruited all the way from Hawaii and was offered a full scholarship.
When Kee was a player, the women’s softball team stayed in budget hotels, sometimes five to a room, and ate on $12 a day. For their away games this season, the Lady Pirates will stay in Marriotts and Hiltons, two to a room, and receive $30 a day for meals. Kee remembers walking along the railroad tracks in downtown Greenville to get to their weightlifting facility in a warehouse on 14th Street. Today’s teams lift in the Murphy Center, considered one of the finest collegiate fitness centers in the country.
“I share lots and lots of stories from back in the day when I played,” says Kee, who is starting her 12th season as the women’s softball coach. “I want them to appreciate what they have, and appreciate those that helped build our program by playing with less.”
It’s a new day for the female athlete at East Carolina in terms of scholarships, amenities, facilities and victories. “It’s hard to compare where we were,” says Tom Morris, the women’s tennis coach and a 10-year veteran of the athletics staff. “Women’s sports are really on the rise here. And I think that’s going to continue to improve.”
It’s been an uphill climb and no one can see the summit yet. That may come when new playing facilities for sports like softball, tennis and volleyball, now on the drawing board, actually become reality. Still, in the gauge that means the most to the coaches— scholarship numbers—East Carolina is finally right where it should be.
In coach talk, the magic word is “fully funded,” which means that a sport is able to offer the maximum number of scholarships allotted to it by the NCAA. In 2001, at the urging of the NCAA, East Carolina drafted a gender equity plan and appointed a task force to make sure it was followed. That year basketball and golf were the only fully funded women’s teams. At the time, the women had a total of 63.5 scholarships overall out of a maximum allowed 99.
“We just made sure we stayed on track and improved on the schedule as more funding became available,” athletic director Terry Holland says of the gender equity plan. “Having the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA is normally viewed as essential to having an equal opportunity to be competitive.”
Today all sports teams are fully funded, which allows coaches to recruit superior players, compete with tougher opponents and amass more wins. “I don’t think it’s any mistake that we’re very close to being fully funded now, and you start to see some success in women’s programs with that,” says women’s soccer coach Rob Donnenwirth, who will use all 14 scholarships—the maximum—for the first time this fall. “That’s a big piece of the puzzle that is now there for us.”
In the past, most women’s teams were led by the coach who also headed up the men’s team. Now, the swim team and track and field are the only teams that still have just one coach and one training program for both teams.
More success, more pressure
Proof is in the numbers
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that as the number of scholarships available to women athletes rose, and coaching improved, there has been a corresponding increase in victories and other successes. Over the past three years:
♦ Both the basketball and softball teams earned bids to the NCAA tournament. The basketball team stunned Conference USA by winning the tournament and making the field of 64 in 2007, and the softball team earned its first-ever NCAA at-large bid last spring after reaching the semifinals of the C-USA tournament.
♦ The soccer team made a national name for itself last fall, becoming the first women’s team to clinch a C-USA regular season title after going 12 games without a loss in the heart of conference competition. They made it to the championship game of the C-USA tournament, where they fell to Memphis and narrowly missed an at-large bid for the NCAA field.
♦ The golf team has finished second in the conference for the past two seasons. Junior Abby Bools—the reigning C-USA Golfer of the Year—finished in the top four in all but one of the fall tournaments the team played this season. And the competition for the golf team keeps getting steeper— their first tournament of the spring season is hosted by Ohio State and features 15 of the nation’s top Division I teams, including Florida, Notre Dame, Stanford and the University of Southern California.
♦ The women’s swimmers finished the 2007– 08 season 7-1 in dual meets. The tennis team has compiled four consecutive winning seasons, including a 17-6 mark in 2008.
When the administration throws its support behind women’s sports with full funding, the coaches feel the need to set higher goals, Kee says. “When someone is putting that much money and care into your student athletes, then with that comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure. You want to win.”
And more victories by the women’s teams is translating into greater fan support of the rabid kind usually reserved for the “big three” of football, baseball and men’s basketball. “When we’re getting closer to these postseason invites and that kind of thing,” Kee says, “I think that’s when the regular fan notices us.”
When the women’s soccer team started to climb the C-USA ladder last fall, the message boards on several Pirate fan sites were heavy with positive comments from fans who normally only follow football. Bodies in the bleachers are also a tangible gauge. “Every year that I’ve been here attendance has been up,” said basketball coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener. “The year before I got here we averaged 191 [fans per game in Minges], and this season it was 2,500. I think people are realizing that it’s a pretty good game.”
The softball team benefits from close proximity to the baseball stadium. At times during the season, men’s baseball fans will stick around after that game ends to watch the women play. Kee remembers one of the first times that happened, in 2006, when the Lady Pirates were in extra innings against UNC Chapel Hill. “I bet they were 25 people deep along our sideline, just heckling [the Tar Heels]. You see a little bit more rowdy crowds, and I think that’s a good thing. People are getting a little bit more passionate about it.”
Junior tennis player Brooke Walter says she’s seen public awareness and fan support—as well as the team’s expectations of itself—rise every year. “Last year we were nationally ranked for the first time in years, so that got some people’s attention.”
Smart players, smart students
Female athletes at ECU historically have excelled in the classroom, and that tradition is continuing even as the teams win more games. The volleyball, golf, soccer and softball teams all were honored by their coaching associations in the past year for their high cumulative team GPAs. In April the tennis team was the only sports program at ECU to receive a special NCAA honor for compiling a team GPA in the top 10 percent nationally. The softball team was recognized by C-USA in July for having the highest GPA of its sport among conference members The men’s basketball, men’s golf and men’s tennis programs also were at the top of their sports academically.
While most women’s teams have achieved parity with the men in scholarships, coaching and equipment, they still largely lag behind in one major area—facilities. But that is changing with a plan adopted by the university that will see major enhancements to women’s sports facilities over the next two or three years: East Carolina has committed to a new women’s softball stadium; a new track and field facility; and a new auxiliary gym at Minges Coliseum that will house practice courts for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the volleyball team. Also on the list are 12 new tennis courts, a women’s soccer field and practice facility, a women’s sports field house and a sports medicine facility. Funding for the new facilities is coming out of the student activity fee.
When Rick Kobe started coaching the swim team in 1982, he had exactly one-half of a scholarship for a female swimmer. Today he is fully funded at 14, but his swimmers— both male and female—are still using the natatorium that was built in 1968. Kobe can promote an array of benefits to recruits who are considering ECU—decades of winning records, the team’s camaraderie, dedicated coaches—but he still occasionally loses swimmers to schools with superior facilities.
Baldwin-Tener is competing in recruiting against schools that have three different dedicated gyms—one each for men’s basketball, women’s basketball and volleyball. ECU has one gym for all three sports, a facility that’s used by physical education classes in the mornings. The volleyball coaching staff can schedule up to 20 hours of practice a week according to the NCAA, but the team never comes close to that number because they have to share the gym with so many others.
“We need a practice facility, and I think everyone knows that,” Baldwin-Tener said. “It’s a huge factor right now in recruiting.”
No one denies that women’s sports have come a long way since 1932, when President Robert H. Wright refused a request for an organized girls’ basketball on the grounds that such “boisterous activity” would be unladylike for the young women who attended ECTC. Funding is up, success in many seasons is surpassing that in the men’s arenas, and talented recruits are choosing to be Pirates by the dozen. Once the physical accommodations catch up to the talent and motivation among the Lady Pirates, ECU’s evolution to a friendly place for female athletes will be complete.