Arizona began keeping year-to-year records of its women’s basketball teams in 1972, its softball and volleyball teams in 1974 and its tennis team in 1982. Before that?
“To a lot of people, it’s like we didn’t exist,” says Mary Hines, the UA’s 1952 Sports Woman of the Year, a swimmer, softball, tennis and volleyball player who was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. “We didn’t get any publicity and we didn’t have any money, but I loved every minute of it.”
Hines graduated from the UA 20 years before Title IX became, in 1972, a federal law that guarantees equity between men’s and women’s high school and college sports.
“When we got out of college, we basically had three career choices: be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary,” says Hines. “A lot of us became PE majors because we wanted to coach, to be involved in sports. I was a slow process with not a lot of opportunity.”
Hines made such an impact on women’s sports in Tucson, as a Wildcat athlete and then as a Hall of Fame volleyball coach at Catalina High School, that she has not been forgotten. Far from it; a week ago, she was asked to throw out the first pitch at an Arizona-Oregon softball game.
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A day earlier, Hines sat in the living room of her former UA classmate, Harriett Leece, believed to be the oldest-living Arizona women’s letter-winner. At 96, Leece is a happy face, smiling, eager to talk about what it was like to be a pioneering female athlete in a male dominion of the 1940s and 1950s.
Leece wore a EWE of EH T-shirt, a reflection on her time as a Wildcat field hockey player. She would have displayed her Arizona letter sweater, but it is on display in the UA’s Hall of Champions.
“I was four months pregnant with the first of my five children when I was a senior on the field hockey team (1947),” she says with a chuckle. “I competed in everything I could; I was practically raised on the ballfield and the tennis courts. I was too short to be any type of star athlete, but you couldn’t keep me off the field.”
Leece’s spirit and enthusiasm for her alma mater are such that a few weeks ago she attended an Arizona baseball game at Hi Corbett Field. She has also recently been in the grandstands at Hillenbrand Stadium and at McKale Center.
Hines and Leece were among those who made the road to Title IX legislation possible, athletes from the “A League of Their Own” generation who dug the foundation for today’s flourishing women’s sports enterprises at all levels.
On Tuesday, the UA announced it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX with a day-of recognition on June 23. The school will host a panel to discuss the history of Title IX and its impact on women’s sports. Among others, it is bringing 1997 NCAA softball player of the year Jenny Dalton-Hill, 2009 NCAA Woman of the Year and Olympic swimming medalist Lacey Nymeyer-John and four-time NCAA high jump champion Tanya Hughes back to their alma mater for the occasion.
Leece and Hines helped to create that path.
I asked Leece who was the best women’s athlete she has watched at Arizona. “Have you ever heard of Marie Jacks?” she asked. “I seemed like she was about 7 feet tall.”
Jacks was the UA’s first female athlete inducted into the school’s sports Hall of Fame, part of the inaugural Class of 1976, sharing the billing with Pop McKale, Button Salmon and Art Luppino, immortal names in UA sports history.
“Marie was one of the best tennis players I ever saw,” Leece says now. “Oh, she was a great golfer, too. She became a golf instructor. If someone like Marie Jacks came along now, they would create quite a following.”
Sort of like an Aari McDonald or a Jennie Finch.
“Marie didn’t get to school until she was 24 or so,” Leece remembers. “After high school, I think she worked for the post office and at an airport, saving her money so she could go to college.”
Did she earn a scholarship?
“We all paid our own way,” says Leece. “We were part of the WAA — Women’s Athletic Association. Nobody specialized in one sport; we played all of ‘em.”
After Leece married her high school sweetheart, Harold Leece, a Tucson High tennis player of note who served with the Marines Corps in the Pacific theater of World War II, she raised five children and spent more than a dozen years teaching special education students at Duffy Elementary School.
Among the scores of photographs in Leece’s midtown home is one of her fishing during a weekend at the family’s cabin in the White Mountains. She is wearing waders, holding a can of worms in one hand and a fishing pole in another.
“Mom wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she was all-in on whatever she was doing,” her daughter, Carol Ann Willingham, says. “She has had a great life.”
She also created a legacy that has carried far beyond the days she wore a “EWE of EH” T-shirt for the 1947 Wildcat field hockey team.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or [email protected] On Twitter: @ghansen711