Many eyes were on National Signing Day on Wednesday as high school seniors throughout the country signed letters of intent to play college sports. Meanwhile, over 200 people gathered at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul for the 29th annual Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day.

It was the local version of a nationwide celebration that acknowledges and commemorates those who played a part in the advancement of girls’ and women’s sports. It was emceed by Lynnette Sjoquist, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the All American Red Heads traveling professional women’s basketball team, and featured a proclamation from Gov. Mark Dayton declaring the day Girls and Women in Sports Day in the state.

“I’ve noticed girls’ and women teams are more in line with the virtues of athletics,” Dayton said. “I’ve never heard of a girls’ basketball team deflating a basketball. I’ve never heard of the league postponing any inspections after a game two weeks later.”

The ceremony honored one team and 18 individuals, including Raquel DeBeltz-Bushman, who received a Breaking Barriers Award for her work at Hutchinson Parks and Recreation. She said sports gave her a foundation in her difficult life, which included living in foster care and hanging out with the wrong crowd.

“Sports and my coaches are what kept me going,” DeBeltz-Bushman said. “If I didn’t have that, I probably would not have made it out of my 20s.”

She now serves as a Big Ten college softball umpire, a high school volleyball and basketball referee and a league director of the Crow River Fastpitch Softball Association, serving 22 communities and 1,200 athletes. DeBeltz-Bushman said she uses all those platforms to mentor women.

“A lot of them, we just hang out, and I’ve had a lot that just want to talk,” DeBeltz-Bushman said. “Because of what I’ve been through, I can recognize certain behaviors in some of them.”

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi was also honored with the Special Merit Award, serving as the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. One of her recent studies showed the percentage of women coaching women at the collegiate level has dropped from over 90 percent in 1972 to 40.2 percent in 2012-13, citing multiple factors including more visible and lucrative positions coaching women’s sports.

“We’ve gone in one generation to girls hoping there was a team, because for their grandmothers there wasn’t a team, to girls hoping they’d make the team,” LaVoi said. “That’s a big shift in pretty much one generation of no opportunity to countless opportunities, but you still have to compete to make the team.”

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