The formative days of attempting to crown a worthy collegiate champion in women’s fast-pitch softball are a strange place to visit. The American Softball Association took on the task in 1969, three years before Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act opened doors wider for women in athletics.
John F. Kennedy College from Wahoo, Neb., was the three-time champion from 1969 to 1971. The school folded after a decade of existence in 1975.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was formed in 1971 and signed on as a co-sponsor with the ASA for what was called the Women’s College World Series in 1972. It was a one-division event over the next eight years, and the final champion of that era was Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.
“Texas Woman’s was a power,” Shelly Medernach said. “We played them on our spring trip. They had the best pitcher anywhere: Kathy Arendsen. She was 6-foot-2 and the ball was on you instantly. I managed to hit a fly ball off her to right field. I was proud of that.”
Medernach is a Gophers Hall of Famer for her hitting exploits as a center fielder from 1976 to 1979. She was in a group of eight to 10 players from that era gathered with their coach, Linda Wells, last weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium to watch the Gophers defeat LSU twice to advance to softball’s College World Series for the first time.
“Except, remind people it’s the first time for the NCAA, but it’s not for the first time for the Gophers,” Wells said. “With nothing for facilities, we had some tremendous players and great teams. And we were in the College World Series … twice.”
The Gophers were in a 19-team event in Omaha in 1976 that was a mix of qualifiers and invitees, and lost two of three. The tournament was better organized, a 16-team event of regional qualifiers, in 1978, and the Gophers went 3-0 to reach the final winner’s bracket game vs. UCLA. They lost in 11 innings, then lost again to Northern Colorado to finish third.
“That UCLA game … we win that one, we’re in the championship, and then another team has to beat us twice,” Medernach said. “We were that close to being champions.”
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Wells played five sports at Southeast Missouri State: volleyball, field hockey, basketball, tennis and softball. She graduated in 1972 and came to the University of Minnesota to get a postgraduate degree in exercise physiology. Then along came Title IX, and athletic director Paul Giel and his staff were as befuddled as to what to do about women’s athletics as were most schools. Soon Wells found herself coaching basketball in 1973-74, and volleyball in 1974, and also starting the softball program in 1974.
“I was the only woman who moved into an office in the Bierman Building,” Wells said. “Herb Brooks was on one side of me, and Murray Warmath still had an office on the other side. Those men couldn’t have been nicer to me.
“I was making $9,300 and coaching three sports, and teaching phy-ed, and I thought I had it made.”
Wells took over one of the rec fields for the softball team.
“Same place as Cowles is now,” she said.
Not quite the same, though, as the boutique place where 1,300-plus crowded in to watch the Gophers complete their home-field sweep of SEC teams — first 2-0 vs. Georgia in the regional, then 2-0 vs. LSU in the super regional — to become the Big Ten outlier in Thursday’s first round of the College World Series.
“I had a 1968 Mustang, and we would tie the drag behind it and I’d drive around the field,” Wells said. “We didn’t have an outfield fence for most games, but when we hosted the state regional, we would put up a snow fence.”
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Deb Geiger’s father, Bob, was one of the Richfield people who carved out the city’s baseball and softball fields near the airport. Deb played youth baseball against the boys, then was part of a recreational softball league.
“I started at the U in the fall of 1974 and saw a posting somewhere about tryouts for softball,” she said. “So, I showed up and made the team. Facilities, manicured fields, real dugouts … we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We just wanted to play ball.
“So much has changed, obviously, but what hasn’t changed as I watched the Gophers against LSU was the desire to compete, the feeling in your heart to play. They have it, and we had it to the same degree.”
Geiger was a sophomore on the 1976 team. The Gophers beat Oregon in the first round, then lost to eventual champion Michigan State and Cal State-Sacramento to be eliminated. The fields at Omaha’s Dill Softball Complex were so drenched that the championship game was played on a football field.
Two years later, the Gophers ran off three wins in Omaha before losing 3-0 to UCLA in those 11 innings, and also a rematch with Northern Colorado.
“We had a great pitcher in Vicki Swanson, a farm girl from North Dakota … big, powerful hands,” Medernach said. “We just couldn’t get a run for her against [Lisa] Richardson, UCLA’s star pitcher.”
Wells told the Minneapolis Star’s Max Nichols: “The only players we lose are Swanson and our second baseman, Denise Erstad, and we have a good freshman for second base in Linda Arford.”
The Gophers didn’t make it to the AIAW World Series in the next three years. Then in 1982, the NCAA adopted women’s softball and the AIAW went away that summer. The Gophers wound up with more than a plucky second baseman in Linda Arford.
“My dad, Jack, built a concession stand for Linda to put behind the little grandstand,” Arford said, as she watched the Gophers last weekend.
Thus, the improvements at the softball park had started. And last weekend, it was jumping with an overflow of rabid fans, including the Gophers’ softball pioneers.
“I had such pride being there with my players, knowing we are part of the history that has led to this,” Wells said.