Editor’s Note: This is one story of a series of local stories regarding Title IX and its impact on Henry County athletics.
The inception of scholastic sports for women was birthed with the creation of Title IX.
That piece of legislation, a 37-word sentence tucked inside an education bill signed into law 50 years ago tomorrow, helped assemble the foundation for a community of dominance in girls sports.
County schools have reached the pinnacle of girls high school sports numerous times since Title IX, but reaching the highest point of success has been a multi-decade process.
The first transition was girls competing in sanctioned athletics.
“I graduated from Napoleon (in 1969) and when I was a freshman and sophomore, basically all we had was Girls Athletic Association, which was kind of like an intramural program,” said Peg Funchion, who did not have sanctioned sports while in high school but later coached girls sports at Napoleon for 34 years. “We did volleyball, basketball, but it was kind of like after school and it was just between ourselves.”
Funchion’s last two years of high school, a makeshift travel program was created for girls sports, which included a few games competing against area schools like Liberty Center, Archbold and Wauseon.
“So that was kind of the beginning,” Funchion added.
Three years after Funchion graduated from Napoleon, Title IX was passed and legitimately-sanctioned girls sports entered the preps scene. She saw an opportunity to be at the forefront of girls athletics and helped develop the program that won the 2021 state title.
She volunteered with Napoleon’s volleyball and girls basketball programs her second year out of college and helped create the school’s first junior varsity girls basketball team. This allowed the Lady Cats to roster more players and use the second team as a feeder program into the varsity roster — a commonality at high schools today.
“We never made cuts or anything. Between varsity and JV, we might have 16, 17 kids. It was a new experience and they were excited to actually get to compete,” Funchion said.
But boys sports were still a priority at the time. Practice time in the gym centered around boys sports and girls’ games were at less desirable times.
“Some of our games would be early, 4:30, 5 o’clock, so basically when you traveled, you basically just had the parents,” Funchion said. “But the guys would come and watch. And if you put a quality product out there, they’re going to come. Like in volleyball, when we went to regionals, we would have some very good crowds and I think they were all-in-all, supportive, because I think they realized, oh, why can’t girls be doing this.
“Then scholarships became available because when participation grew in high school, then that gave opportunities for colleges to get involved. ... It was a positive experience and it just kept growing and opened more doors for coaches and for players.”
Unlike the inconvenience of practices and games, equipment and the help afforded to the girls programs quickly became a priority.
“I would honestly say that once we got our foot in the door, that all the athletic directors were always very fair to the girls programs,” Funchion said. “They wanted to promote the girls programs, so I have no qualms about that. ... I can honestly say, everything I asked for, I was not told no very often.”
State tournaments in Ohio for girls sports began in 1975 with track and field, volleyball and basketball, while tennis, swimming, cross country and softball were all added by 1978. And with the growing popularity of girls athletics, county programs grew alongside Napoleon.
Led by Cindy Rosselet, who averaged 22 points per game in her senior season, Holgate’s girls basketball team was the state runner-up in 1978-79.
The precedent of success was set a few years later, as Liberty Center’s Mary Reighard became the first county female athlete to win an individual state championship with her three consecutive Division A titles in discus from 1984-86. She also won shot put titles in ‘85 and ‘86.
Patrick Henry’s girls basketball team, joined by Holgate, made the state final four in 2001 and was later state runner-up in 2005.
And the Lady Patriots were trailblazers in creating a girls golf program in northwest Ohio.
“We were one of the first schools in the area that adopted a girls golf team. When it first started out, we would have one girl here or there under the direction of Linda Hummer. She came on board and really got our girls golf program started,” said Ben George, who had been the athletics director at PH for the past six years before stepping down at the end of this past school year.
“To my knowledge, we were one of the first schools that had had a full schedule for girls. Whereas before maybe a girl was playing on the boys team if they could. In the NWOAL, as a league, we advocated for speeding up the process of adopting girls golf as a sport and making it a part of our league competition because we felt it was important to do those things.”
Liberty Center continued its girls track and field success, which has stretched to the current day after it competed in a plethora of events at this year’s state meet, since Reighard’s individual title. The Lady Tigers were state runner-up in 1989 and were top-two in cross country in the state across a four-year stretch from 2010-13.
Brittany Atkinson won individual cross country titles twice in that span and was runner-up in the other two years, spearheading an LC program that won three-straight state championships.
Rosselet ignited girls success in the county and Holgate added to her achievements when its girls basketball program had two state runner-up finishes in a three-year span from 2001-03.
Napoleon, the biggest school in the county, first competed at a girls state tournament when Kay McKnight won the 1985 Division AA state title in discus, but that success has been sustained to the present day.
JoEllen Walker and Gina Prieto finished second in the state in 1990 as doubles partners in girls tennis before the Lady Cats’ water polo team won four consecutive state championships from 1996-99 and again in 2019.
Napoleon’s girls cross country team became the first county girls team to win an OHSAA state championship with its 2003 title, while Sami Zuch won a pair of individual swimming titles in 2008 and 2010 and teamed with Chandler Ashbaugh, Makenzie Garringer and Erika Vocke to win a relay title in 2010. The girls bowling team had consecutive runner-up finishes in 2015 and ‘16 and was second again this past season as hundreds of fans stuffed a Columbus bowling alley.
The Lady Cats’ girls basketball team, which was developed by Funchion and others, had an unbeaten season ended prematurely as the state tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but returned the following year to win the state championship, led by Division II player of the year Taylor Strock.
The girls athletes of today have allowed the past to live out some of the dreams it was denied.
“My family is a basketball family,” said Strock, who now plays college basketball at Cedarville. “It’s what bonds the whole family. When we all talk about playing, my grandma can’t relate. She was a cheerleader and wasn’t able to play basketball.
“I am so thankful for the people that came before us. I can’t imagine my life without the game of basketball.”
Caely Ressler, who was a teammate of Strock on the state championship team and now plays collegiately at Baldwin Wallace, has also bonded with her grandmother because of athletics.
“She comes to all my games,” said Ressler. “It’s cool to see how she kind of lives it through her grandkids, and how she supports us.”
The precedent of women in sports was set years prior, but the sustained success that has developed in decades of competition has constructed a culture that will continue the ascent toward the equality that Title IX aimed to create.
“I think the level of playing competition grew,” said Funchion, who retired from coaching in 2008, in regard to the changes she saw in her tenure. “The opportunities that athletes found that they could maybe pursue in college. And basically starting a tradition and instilling upon them that it means something. Playing for Napoleon means something. I think the program just keeps building, and when you get success like the state championship teams — it just kept building and building and you have kids that I coached who have daughters that were on the state team. It’s just there.”
Northwest Signal sports editor Jeff Ratliff contributed to this report.