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CMU celebrates 50 years of women’s basketball

Players are game-changers

Women’s basketball at CMU marks 50 years of achievement and progress

Contact: Heather Smith


By Mary Ullmer, '84

​They came from around the country — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania — and Michigan. They were guards, forwards, centers. Ballhandlers, defenders, rebounders, shooters. Their college years were just as varied — each decade from the 1960s to the 2010s.

Homecoming weekend in October celebrated 50 years of Central Michigan University women's basketball with a welcoming reception dinner, the annual Maroon and Gold scrimmage with this year's team, and an introduction during the rain-soaked football game against Toledo.

The 50th edition of the CMU women's team opens its season by hosting Purdue at McGuirk Arena on Nov. 10. 

 

"I was on the first team, and it was an extramural team," said Marsha (Reinhardt) Thornton, who graduated in 1967. "Physical education teacher Charlotte Denman was our coach. We didn't have scholarships or uniforms … we wore pinnies."  (For those unfamiliar, a "pinnie" is a sleeveless practice jersey, often made of mesh and worn over a T-shirt, to help differentiate teams.)

Pam (Hartsig) Markel played in 1967 and said it was debatable whether that team had a coach.

"I think we had a couple of graduate assistants who were assigned to get that going," she said, laughing. "And I think they had a staffer assigned to them. They told us in our major classes that we were going to have a team, and if we were interested to come on out and try out. We wore the uniforms we had for P.E. classes: white shorts, snap-down collared shirts. We were a little embarrassed when we played some of the major universities, because they looked kind of classy. So we bought maroon sweaters with a 'C' on them and wore them when we did our warmups. But we paid for them ourselves."

The style of play in Markel's day also differed from the modern-day game.

"I saved a mimeographed paper of our stats," Markel said. "When I looked at it, I thought, 'How can all these people have zeros for points scored?' Then it dawned on me … we had offense and defense and you played one or the other, except for two people, rovers, who played full court. I was offense and played rover, too. It was kind of a loosely run rover, because if you got a little winded, you just told someone else, 'you go now.' Or if they got a breakaway, all the sudden they became the rover and you held back."

Amy Backus, class of 1979, and Linda Nash, '82, both remember practicing at Finch Fieldhose and competing for space with the men's track team.

"I remember there was a pole vaulter who would practice vaulting on the sidelines, and you'd run after a loose ball before it got over there," said Nash, now the head coach at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Can you imagine going full speed on the pole vault and having a ball roll across in front of you?"

"Ro (DiBrezzo, coach from 1976-80) had a huge battle with the track coach," said Backus, who's currently the athletic director at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "The ball would go rolling on the track, and they'd have it out."

CMU legends

The legendary Fran Koenig — who insisted she be called Fran by anyone who knew her — got the ball rolling as head coach of the first official team in 1969. As associate athletics director in charge of women's sports at CMU from 1974-89, Koenig, who died in 2000, was chiefly responsible for advancing women's sports at Central and throughout the country.

She was instrumental in bringing the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women gymnastics championships to CMU in 1977 and the AIAW women's basketball final four in 1980. The AIAW was the governing body for women's college sports until they joined the NCAA full time in 1982. Koenig served on 21 committees for the AIAW, including as national chairwoman of the ethics and eligibility committee.

That 1980 Final Four at Rose Arena consisted of eventual champion Old Dominion University, led by Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan; University of Tennessee, which had the late Pat Summitt as coach and current coach Holly Warlick as a player; Louisiana Tech University; and the University of South Carolina.

Koenig coached until 1974, when she handed the reins to another CMU legend, Marcy Weston. Weston not only coached the basketball program, she coached the volleyball team. She would later replace Koenig as associate athletics director for women's sports, then was the senior associate athletics director and finally executive associate director of athletics/sports administration until her retirement in 2015. 

"I came here to work for Fran because all the things she was, I wanted to be like," Weston said. "So she helped me, guided me, pushed me … and those were the days when you coached, you taught, you did everything. I coached volleyball and basketball. There was no off-season, there was no preseason, no conditioning. It was pure sport."

Weston coached basketball for just two seasons but remained the Chippewas' volleyball coach for 15 years. She also was a renowned women's college basketball referee, officiating NCAA women's championship games in 1982 and 1984 and serving as national coordinator of the NCAA women's basketball officiating from 1986-2005.

In 2008, she was the first woman to receive the Golden Whistle for her contributions to the betterment of officiating on a national level. In 1979, she granted volleyball player Terri (Phillion) Dulude the first full-ride scholarship to a female in CMU history.

"Marcy Weston never coached me, but she made a big impact on me," said Michigan State women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant, a guard for the Chippewas from 1987-91. "I see her almost as the Pat Summitt of administration. Pat was a matriarch and role model for so many of us, even if we didn't play for her. Marcy was that person as an administrator."

Gina Mazzolini, '78, played basketball and volleyball for Weston. Scholarships weren't awarded until her junior year, when she received $250. Her senior year, it was increased to $500.

"I never thought about playing college sports, but I tried out — we had tryouts in those days — and made varsity for both teams as a freshman," Mazzolini said.  "Marcy was my coach all four years of volleyball and my first two years of basketball. Our seasons overlapped, maybe a month. Volleyball went into November, so I'd miss maybe three or four weeks of basketball.

"Marcy dedicated her whole life to women's athletics, and she's done a pretty darn good job." 

The coaching tree

The CMU Chippewas have had nine head coaches in the history of the women's program, from Koenig's first team in 1969 (which played only five games, finishing 3-2) to current coach Sue Guevara (whose teams have won the Mid-American Conference's West Division three of the past four seasons). The women's program moved from Finch Fieldhouse to Rose (now McGuirk) Arena in 1980, seven years after it was opened.

Central joined the MAC in 1981-82, the same year Laura Golden — who left to coach at the University of Illinois after three seasons — took over as coach.  Golden in 1983-84 and Donita Davenport in 1984-85 won MAC regular-season titles (there was no MAC tournament then) and were named MAC Coach of the Year.

Golden's 1983-84 squad went 18-0 in conference play and hosted a memorable first-round NCAA tournament game at Rose. The Chippewas fell to the University of Alabama, 78-70, in a game that included a controversial 12-minute shot-clock delay with CMU leading at the time.

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CMU’s 1983-84 team clinched the Mid-American Conference championship with an 18-0 season.

Many former players have gone on to become teachers, coaches and athletic directors.

In addition to Backus as Case Western's athletic director, Marie Tuite — CMU's leading scorer from 1972-74 — this year became the first female athletic director in San Jose State University history and is one of only a handful of women athletic directors among the 130 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Nikki Thompkins, '94, who works for a residential home for teen rehab, recently was named coach of the Grand Rapids Galaxy, a semi-pro team in the Women's Blue Chip Basketball League.

Lisa Zodtner, '83, followed Golden to Illinois as an assistant coach and also served as an assistant at George Washington University, Drake University and finally, Duke University, under coach Gayle Goestenkors. Zodtner, who majored in finance, now is comptroller for an auto parts firm in Durham, North Carolina.

Diane Stout-Burns, '74, taught in Harrison, Michigan, schools for 30 years, including coaching middle school basketball and softball. Patty Wiedman, '85, is a teacher in New Baltimore, Michigan. Kaihla Szunko, '11, is an athletic director at a nonprofit organization for girls in Gainesville, Florida.

Gina Mazzolini, '78, served state high school athletic associations in both Texas and Michigan for 34-plus years until retiring from the MHSAA after 23 years in 2016.

Nash is the all-time-winningest coach in Aquinas College history. Her team travels to Mount Pleasant to face the Chippewas on Nov. 30.

"The chain started with Fran Koenig, then into Marcy Weston and Ro DiBrezzo and that group," Nash said. "Then, it's kind of like the coaching and athletic directors moved to our era, and we're now carrying the torch a little bit."

Merchant started as an assistant at then Division II Oakland University before moving on as head coach at Saginaw Valley State University and Eastern Michigan University. She landed the head coaching job at Michigan State University in 2007.

"I swore I would never go into college coaching," she said. "My high school coach (at Traverse City) had gotten the job at Oakland, and it was a small Division II school at the time. He brought me on as an assistant. I'm super competitive, and it satisfied that need to stay competitive. But I fell in love with connecting, mentoring and helping players grow as people. It was sort of a stop-gap for me. I wasn't sure what I was going to do after graduation until I got the call to do basketball. I had no money. Povertyville. I was barely making it, but I was surprised at how much I loved it. "

A different game

The success of the women's program, as well as the atmosphere on Central's campus, has played a key role in attracting talent to Mount Pleasant.

"I had a friend who knew Ro DiBrezzo, who was the coach, and I went on a visit and came home and told my parents, 'I'm going to Central Michigan,' " Nash said. "It came to gut instinct. I could go visit other schools, but when you visit the CMU campus, there's something that resonates. I thought, 'This is where I need to be.' I fell in love with the campus."

Merchant was recruited by Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Eastern and Central, as well as ("a little") by Michigan State. She chose Central Michigan.

"At the time, CMU's women's program was probably the best in our state," Merchant said. "I didn't want to go out of state, because I was close to my family. I had already told my high school coach that I wasn't going too far, that I wanted to stay home. One thing about CMU, it felt like home, like my people. Dan (Majerle, who went on to star in the NBA and graduated from the same Traverse City high school) was already there, and Jeff (Majerle, Dan's brother) and I sort of followed. I really appreciated the university and the program they had."

Those on hand for homecoming and the 2017-18 team's Maroon and Gold game that morning remarked at the changes in the women's game over the years.

"Back then, when I played in the early 1990s, you played maybe one or two positions, but now you see post players launching 3-pointers," Thompkins said, laughing. "They all can bring the ball up the court, everybody's a shooter, most can handle the ball. Nobody is set at one position. It makes it harder to guard. That's why they've had so much success since Coach Guevara got here. She kind of changed up the style."

Guevara said she sees several differences in today's game, even from the time she arrived at Central 11 years ago.  

"The game is a lot faster now," Guevara said.  "It's more physical, the skill level of the players as well as their shot is up, big-time. More kids play multiple positions now. They're not just a post player. They're not just a guard. They can go inside and out. I think that it's more an exciting type of basketball. The men's game is dunk, power, dunk, power. Ours is a more pure game. It's very fundamental."

A key to Central's success, Guevara said, is the support of the university and community. She noted the move to Rose Arena and the $22.5 million CMU Events Center as part of an overhaul to Rose, including the renaming to McGuirk Arena.

"The whole building has just grown," Guevara said.  "People come in and they just say, 'Wow, this is really nice.' This is the perfect venue for basketball. It's intimate, and when this place is full the energy is unbelievable. It's a fun place to be.

"That's all about support, from the president to the AD to the community. I love this community. They're very involved in us, and we've gotten our players involved in the community. They support us, we support them. We've been able to attract some of the top kids in the state of Michigan here, and I think it's the community and this university. It's really a family type of atmosphere, and I think people are surprised when they come."

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“I love this community. They’re very involved in us, and we’ve gotten our players involved in the community. They support us, we support them.” — Sue Guevara

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