CHAMPAIGN — Sarah Little never got the inside story from the source, just what she would later read in archived newspaper articles.
And yet, she became part of the bigger story when she was too young to realize the magnitude.
Her father, Roger, was a circuit court judge who in 1974 presided over a case involving an Urbana girl who wanted to participate in athletics.
“Although my dad didn’t talk about his cases at home, I was aware of the case and the ruling, but I didn’t really appreciate the impact until later,” Sarah Little said. “When I look back at what has transpired in girls’ and women’s sports over the years, I see this case and the ruling having major impact in bringing us to where we are today.”
Where we are today — as a society — is drastically different than when Little and Jani Ensrud were youngsters growing up in Champaign.
The 1970s were a time of transition. When that decade started, girls had one role whenever a high school athletic event took place. They were the cheerleaders. Their time for competing was limited to physical education classes or with friends in their neighborhoods. Varsity games were played by the boys, and there were no exceptions for local teenagers.
Role models, for teenage girls, were few and far between.
“The U.S. Open, Wimbledon, other major tennis tournaments and the Olympics were the only televised events in which I can recall seeing females participate,” Sarah Little said.
Ensrud was the youngest of three daughters. Her two sisters (who graduated in 1972 and 1974) never had the opportunity to represent their high school as athletes. The girls’ track and field program at Central was implemented when Jani Ensrud was a sophomore in the spring of 1976.
Two years later, she was a state champion, running a time in the mile that 35 years later still ranks among the top five on the all-time list of performances by area competitors.
Back to the Littles.
The case Roger Little heard involved Diane Bell, a junior high student at Urbana (which had a three-year high school) who ran in a Rantoul freshman-sophomore cross-country meet. Title IX had been signed into law (in 1972) but had yet to be fully implemented nationally.
The IHSA regarded Bell’s participation as a violation of its rule that didn’t permit females to compete in male sports. Urbana sued the IHSA.
After hearing the case, Roger Little declared that the IHSA policy of prohibiting females from participating in male sports was a violation of the “equal protection clause” of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The judge further opened the door with a decision in which he said, “Girls have the constitutional right to compete against boys in high school athletics when there is not a comparable girls’ program.”
That policy is still in effect. Area schools such as Bismarck-Henning, Blue Ridge, Hoopeston Area and Schlarman — which do not field girls’ soccer programs in the spring, for example — have females on the boys’ rosters in the fall and they are able to play throughout the regular season as well as the entire postseason IHSA tournament series.
Before graduating from Central in 1978, Sarah Little participated in all of the girls’ sports that were offered, except track.
“It conflicted with the softball season,” she said.
She was a member of the Karon Rasmussen-coached Central volleyball team that was 23-5 and placed fourth at state her senior year. Little also played tennis, volleyball and basketball.
Little, Ensrud (the setter on the state-placing volleyball team) and others were feted Saturday by Central’s C-club at its annual banquet. Besides inducting two new Hall of Famers — swimmer Ross Moore and basketball standout Allie Lindemann — the organization recognized 40 years of interscholastic competition for girls at the high school.
The stories of success extend far beyond accomplishments they made as teens on the court or playing field.
“Sports gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams,” 1981 graduate Jennie Miller Kull said. “And God has blessed me with the skills, through sports, to help young ladies pursue their dreams.
“I am dyslexic. If it wasn’t for sports, I do not think I would have been as successful in life. I feel extremely blessed to be part of this transition for women.”
For the last 16 years, Kull has been the high school volleyball head coach at St. Charles East. Her resume includes state championships in 2001 and 2008 as well as third-place state finishes in 2007 and 2011.
Cathy Stukel recalls a behind-the-scenes story from the volleyball tournament run her senior year as much as the Maroons securing the first girls’ state trophy in school history.
The volleyball finals were held Dec. 15-17, 1977, at Horton Field House in Normal.
“We were supposed to play a sectional game in Lincoln, and there was a big snowstorm the day before,” Stukel said. “The snowstorm had been bad enough (14 inches had fallen for the month by Dec. 9) where moving around town was pretty difficult.
“Jill Foley lived at Lake Park, which was basically snowed in. She didn’t know how she was going to get to school and the bus to Lincoln. We weren’t going to win without her. I can’t remember exactly who, but someone got on a snowmobile and went to Lake Park and picked Jill up.”
The rest of the story, of course, is well documented. Central won the sectional tournament and advanced to state, where the team placed fourth.
“Who knows how it would have turned out if she hadn’t been able to get to school,” Stukel said.
Stukel wasn’t finished with firsts in her life.
She enrolled at the University of Southern California, helping the Trojans to national championships in volleyball as a junior and senior.
“We won the very first women’s NCAA title in volleyball,” said Stukel, who was chosen as the Most Valuable Player of that inaugural 1980 tournament.
Interestingly, Central had a female graduate earn collegiate All-America accolades before girls’ sports were even introduced at the high school level. Swimmer Mary Paterson — a Big Ten champion as a freshman at the University of Illinois — graduated from high school in 1974, prior to the formation of girls’ athletic teams. She earned four letters at the UI but none in high school.
Central’s girls made a breakthrough quickly at the highest level individually. The Maroons produced state champions in successive years. Ensrud became the first female in state history to break the five-minute mark in the mile run in 1978. The following spring, twins Anna and Avra Jain — in their third appearance at state — teamed up to win a doubles championship in tennis as seniors.
It didn’t matter that the concept of girls participating in sports was in its infancy.
“My role models were athletes in general,” Anna Jain Bakst said. “Gender didn’t matter. From a very early age, I remember loving being physically active and playing outside.”
Avra Jain found inspiration in a tennis match that was billed as the Battle of the Sexes in September 1973.
“I remember watching the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match on television,” Avra Jain said. “That victory (for King) combined with the passage of Title IX was a game-changer for women in sports. Because of this, Anna and I received full tennis scholarships to Purdue University.”
The twins never envisioned the heights that women would reach as competitors.
“I don’t think anyone (in 1979) would have imagined women serving at over 100 mph,” Bakst said.
Jani Ensrud Whitney said it’s a misnomer to think that girls of her era weren’t physically active during their childhoods.
“We went outside and played with the neighborhood kids,” she said. “We called it playing instead of competing.”
She remembers choosing track and field as her spring sport because “I didn’t think I’d be any good at softball,” but she doesn’t recall how she became a distance specialist. She had no background in running.
“No, no, no,” she said. “I used to run after the dog in the cornfield when it’d get loose. Maybe there were people (on the Central team) who wanted to do sprints and were scared by the distance because it’s more intimidating.”
She went on to run at St. Olaf College and has completed several marathons. Whitney sees one reason why her running career took off so rapidly.
“I credit the coaches,” she said. “They were excellent. Still today, they were the best I’ve had.”
Kris Patton was the Maroons’ girls’ track and field coach, but young Ensrud spent most of her time tracking the boys.
“Dike Stirrett was so generous with his time,” Whitney said. “In the fall, there was no cross-country team for girls, but Mr. Stirrett helped me do workouts in the morning so I could do volleyball after school.”
A defining moment occurred a few weeks before the state track meet in Ensrud’s senior year. Stirrett brought a stopwatch and a group of standout middle-distance runners from the boys’ team to the UI Armory. Ensrud ran a time trial with Stirrett substituting two fresh runners for the final 880 yards.
Her unofficial mile time for the workout (which was later published in The News-Gazette) was 4:47.6.
Stirrett wanted her to recognize her capabilities because in races, Whitney said, “I was so far ahead of second I couldn’t hear them.”
The eye-opening time, she said, “gave me confidence I could do it.”
She followed up at state with a winning 4:56.62 clocking, which made Ensrud the fastest female miler in state history then.
“I was in the right place at the right time and had good coaches,” said Whitney, who has taught chemistry at Hingham (Mass.) High School since 2001.
“She was ahead of her time,” Stirrett said.
Like Miller, Little can trace her fortunes in the business world to the lessons learned while participating in sports at Central.
“For most of my professional career, I have been a project manager,” said Little, who lives near Milwaukee. “I don’t believe I would have been as successful if I hadn’t learned the value of team by competing in sports as a teenager.
“I learned the value of setting goals and working hard to accomplish those goals. Even learning to deal with defeat or failure has been helpful.”
Becky Beach, a 1974 Central graduate, was part of the groundbreaking first high school girls’ basketball team that was formed in her senior season.
“We only played five games, but five games was better than zero,” said Beach, who has been the assistant golf professional at Lincolnshire Fields since 1984. “My teammates could give some of today’s athletes a run for their money in a game of H-O-R-S-E.”
Her brief prep career was still enough for Beach to gain some recognition. Illinois offered her a scholarship to play basketball and golf.
Besides learning the importance of teamwork, Beach derived another benefit from her time in athletics.
“Sports helped me overcome most of my shyness,” she said.
On the other end of the spectrum from Beach is Allie Lindemann, a 2006 graduate and one of this year’s Central High School Hall of Fame honorees. Lindemann was raised in an era when girls’ sports were as prevalent as ones for boys.
“Both my mother and grandmother have talked about not having the many opportunities that I was presented as a kid,” Lindemann said. “They often talk about wishing they had the same opportunities that I had.
“It is very hard to imagine what it would have been like growing up without sports. From a very young age, I always participated, and I still do. I always had women athletes to look up to, both on the collegiate and professional levels. These women were my role models and ultimately inspired me to become a collegiate athlete and now a college coach.
“Sports have made me the person I am today.”
Lindemann is in her first year as a women’s basketball assistant coach at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.
Stukel marvels at the transformation of girls’ sports in the past four decades.
“It is amazing to see the depth and breadth of female athletes today,” she said. “There have always been great athletes, but today, with their access to specialized training and select teams as early as 9 or 10, the level of skills and physicality is off the charts.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
In the 1970s, when girls began competing in athletics at area high schools, Champaign Central was one of the statewide leaders in multiple sports:
FIRST IHSA TEAM TROPHIES
SCHOOL SPORT YEAR PLACE COACH
Hoopeston-East Lynn Bowling 1973-74 Second Eileen Vines
Champaign Central Volleyball 1977-78 Fourth Karon Rasmussen
Unity Volleyball 1977-78 Fourth Liz Osborn
St. Joseph-Ogden Track and field 1977-78 Second Becky McKee
Champaign Central Tennis 1978-79 Second JoAnn Busch
Mahomet-Seymour Track and field 1978-79 First Bob Handlin
Unity Volleyball 1978-79 Second Liz Osborn
FIRST INDIVIDUAL IHSA STATE CHAMPIONS
ATHLETE SCHOOL YEAR SPORT/EVENT TIME
Lori Delap Ford Central 1976-77 Track, Mile 5:00.9
Patty Carrell Watseka 1976-77 Track, 2-mile 10:41.3
Marianne Dickerson St. Joseph-Ogden 1977-78 Track, 880 2:17.06
Jani Ensrud Champaign Central 1977-78 Track, Mile 4:56.62
Aimee Sawlaw Monticello 1977-78 Track, Shot 42-6
FIRST RELAY OR DOUBLES IHSA STATE CHAMPIONS
ATHLETES SCHOOL YEAR SPORT/EVENT TIME/RECORD
Anna Jain/Avra Jain Champaign Central 1978-79 Tennis/Doubles N-A
B. Byers, S. Farley, S. Johnson, V. Young Mahomet-Seymour 1978-79 Track/880 relay 1:45.7
B. Byers, S. Farley, S. Johnson, V. Young Mahomet-Seymour 1978-79 Track/880 medley relay 1:51.4
FIRST AREA LETTER WINNER TO EARN COLLEGIATE ALL-AMERICA HONORS
ATHLETE HIGH SCHOOL YEAR SPORT/POSITION
Cathy Stukel Champaign Central 1978 Volleyball/Setter
— Earned first-team All-America honors four consecutive years at USC, starting in 1978