25 Years in Women's Sports

From pioneers to champions, women are equal partners in athletic success

The decade that was the 1970s produced many forgettable moments in pop culture. But at St. Thomas, the late 1970s produced the beginning of something worth remembering and celebrating.

Although it seems like St. Thomas women’s athletics have been a dominant force for a century, they didn’t make their humble debut until fall 1977 when the College of St. Thomas first admitted female students.

St. Thomas female student-athletes are now beginning their second 25 years of success. Their dramatic evolution on the soccer fields, tracks, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, golf and cross country courses, pools, rinks and in the classroom was recognized during a special ceremony at 2002 Homecoming festivities.

A 16-minute video produced by St. Thomas’ Information Resources and Technology Division was shown, featuring interviews with coaches and student-athletes who have been part of this success story. That video soon can be viewed on the St. Thomas Web site.

In the 2002 fall season alone, St. Thomas women athletes had three All-Americans and one Academic All-American; had one conference MVP and one conference meet medalist; won conference team championships in three of four sports; and had a fifth-place national finish in women’s soccer, losing to the eventual NCAA champion in a shootout after a two-overtime tie.

It was a different world for that pioneer group of women back in the fall of 1977.

“When I first came here, there were a lot of us who thought we had broken into a secret society,” said JoAnn Andregg, then the volleyball coach and tennis coach. “We were coming into an institution with a rich tradition of all men, and we were given the keys to the locker room.”

Andregg, now St. Thomas’ associate athletic director, credited then-athletic director Frank Mach and several men’s coaches in the way they embraced the women’s programs.

“Frank was way ahead of his time,” Andregg said. “We could have put women’s athletics on the periphery and made it a glorified intramural program. But Frank was a competitive guy and he wanted to get the best coaches and have the best program, so we came in as full-fledged members right away. Men’s coaches, like Larry Russ in cross country and Joe Flood in golf, were asked to take the women’s teams under their wing, and both of them said yes. We were treated as equals right away, and that set the tone.”

Longtime swimming and diving coach Tom Hodgson recalls that women swimmers were welcomed by the men’s team. “There was an energy and an excitement that built out of having the two groups train together, like a family, that was just surprising and even a little bit magical,” Hodgson said.

Women’s cross country coach Joe Sweeney said it didn’t take long for St. Thomas women’s teams to excel on the conference and national scene.

“The school had been in existence for almost 100 years and had never won a national championship,” Sweeney said. “It took a women’s team (the 1980 women’s cross country team) to do it. Since then, there have been 10 St. Thomas teams that have won national championships.”

Sweeney’s teams won five national championships from 1980 to 1986. Ted Riverso coached the Tommie women’s basketball team to the 1991 NCAA championship. Those national titles account for six of the nine women’s national championships won by all MIAC institutions.

St. Thomas has a similar record of dominance on the conference scene. In the 26-year history of women’s athletics, the Tommies have won 80 of a possible 206 MIAC team championships. St. Olaf (34) and Gustavus (32) have the next most championships.

Debbie Thometz Leyden is one of the many success stories. The champion distance runner was one of the first two women entrants into the St. Thomas Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. She said the opportunity to compete in college athletics helped shape her life.

“I remember my days in college – all day you studied, went to class and did work study, then you went to practice, then you had supper and then went to the library until 11 p.m. Then you went home and went to bed. That was my schedule,” Leyden said.

“I remember one race in particular. This particular cross-country course had a few hills to it. You really have to bear down on those hills and I remember saying to myself, ‘I love this. I love this.’ A lot of people can’t understand this – you’re huffing and puffing and in some pain, but you still love the feeling.”

Sweeney recalled that Leyden was an average runner as a freshman.

“I remember when I started as women’s head coach, I figured that Debbie was one of the people who wasn’t going to be able to hack it in the front group,” the coach said. “She ended up being a national champion in track and cross country, and to this day, 20 years later, she still holds an NCAA Division III record in the 10,000 meters of 33:50, an incredible time that nobody has even come close to breaking.”

Andregg called athletics “an empowering principle” that prepares women for the challenges of their work and family careers.

“After you’ve competed in athletics and you go into the real world, you’re more self-assured, you’re more confident,” Andregg said. “You don’t have to take that step back and wait around to see how people are going to judge you.”

Tommie women’s golf coach Cathy Bremer Lombritto, another St. Thomas Athletic Hall of Famer, agreed about the value of athletics.

“You gain an understanding of how to roll with the punches and to make last-minute decisions, because those situations happen all the time in athletics,” Lombritto said. “When you get out working in your career, whether it’s in business, medical fields or in sales, you have to find a way to make it while standing on your own two feet.”

Assistant basketball coach Ellen Hanson Thompson was the captain of the 1991 NCAA champion team. “I was able to achieve what few people get to,” she explained. “It was a special team with a special group of people. I’m still connected to many of those people. I can’t imagine my life without athletics.”

Riverso, who now works as a development officer at St. Thomas, guided his basketball teams to a 15-year record of 337-80. Inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Hall of Fame in October 2002, Riverso credited athletic director Steve Fritz and Andregg for carrying on the leadership for women’s athletics.

“It’s been said that athletics is the public face of a university,” Riverso said. “If that’s true, and I believe it is, that face at St. Thomas has two sides – a male side and a female side. The thing I’m most proud of is that without interference from the government and without an edict from on high, women here throughout the last 25 years have been equal partners in this athletic program’s success. Women are part of a legacy of the finest combined athletic program of any private college in the state, and one of the top five private colleges in the nation.”

Gene McGivern is director of sports information at St. Thomas.