This year, Appalachian State University is celebrating 50 years of women’s varsity sports. Appalachian student newspapers from the time show that the university had impressive and competitive female club and intramural teams for quite a few years before the women’s field hockey team in 1968 became the first-ever women’s intercollegiate sport in Black and Gold history.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the federal civil rights law Title IX required that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports at educational institutions. Appalachian State was ahead of the game and began offering women’s sports before many colleges in North Carolina.
Jan Watson, the 1968 women’s field hockey coach, said that when she started teaching at the university in 1967, the physical education program was a combined co-ed program, something that was very rare.
“The majority of programs in the United States had a men’s physical education program, and a separate one for women. Their classes were not together and their opportunities for learning weren’t the same,” says Watson.
“The university really pushed equal opportunity, especially the athletic department and physical education program,” Watson adds. “The athletic department sent out a survey to the university asking if they wanted intercollegiate women’s sports. The responses were absolutely incredible. There was no way the department could say no.”
Appalachian’s intramural and club field hockey team was one of the best female organizations on the campus at the time, so they decided to start a varsity field hockey team first.
The university gave Watson $1,200 to buy uniforms and supplies for the team, and she made it last.
The players on the team didn’t have any kind of financial help or scholarships.
“They didn’t care,” Watson says. “They were just so happy to finally have the chance to play a real, organized sport. Every time they stepped on the field, they played like they had everything to lose and gave it their all.”
Regardless of what was going on in other states and at other colleges, women’s sports and the field hockey team at Appalachian enjoyed enthusiasm from the university as well as the community.
In 1969, just one year after the beginning of the women’s field hockey team, the Watauga Democrat newspaper published an article titled, “ASU Athletic Teams Have Grown To Be Source Of Campus Pride.” In the article, the field hockey team was noted for its success and hard work.
“People from the community came to cheer on the girls at the games, support and encourage them. We weren’t worried that we would get backlash for starting something that was so uncommon at the time because we knew that Boone and Appalachian State was the most accepting place to do so,” Watson says.
By comparison, Wake Forest University, Duke and Elon University’s first female varsity teams came a few years later, in 1971. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill didn’t have a women’s varsity sport until after Title IX. NC State was even later, forming its first female intercollegiate program in 1974.
In 1977, Appalachian began to offer the field hockey team scholarships. They gave Watson $400 to disperse to the players however she wanted.
“I had four seniors at the time, and each of them deserved the scholarship. So, I split the money equally among them,” says Watson. “Three of them used the scholarship to help pay for tuition, but in a recent conversation with one of the seniors that year, I found out she used the money to buy herself a winter coat because she could never afford one before.”
Later joining Appalachian women’s sports were tennis, basketball and volleyball, and then a little down the road, cross country, track and field, softball and golf. Watson served as the tennis coach for several years before giving it up to focus solely on field hockey.
The dedication that goes into women’s athletics at Appalachian State has not changed. The women’s teams today continue to prove that they deserve to play the sport they love, just as much as any other athlete at the university.
Today, the university has the same number of women’s sports as men’s, and athletes receive support in academics and physical and mental health.
Doug Gillin, athletic director at Appalachian State, says that App State has a full-time psychologist, a full-time nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach for all athletes. In addition, improvements to women’s sports facilities are among the priorities of the ongoing “A Mountaineer Impact” capital campaign.
Gillin expressed in a recent interview that student-athletes often struggle living their busy lives day in and day out and that the Athletic Department does everything it can to support the athletes mentally, physically and financially.
“We made a commitment that was not just for today, but for the future of Appalachian.”
This year, the 50th anniversary is putting a lot of emphasis on the future of female athletics at the university.
Brittney Whiteside, senior associate athletic director at Appalachian State, takes great pride in the female athletic program.
“I have only been here for about three years now, but from what I have heard and seen, female athletics at App have really evolved over the past few decades and continues to do so. Every year, they excel in the classroom, on the field and in the community,” says Whiteside. “We are blown away by who they all are and can’t wait to see who they become.”
Athletes at the university are expected to fulfill their duty as a student first.
“The Athletic Department’s main goal isn’t to help our athletes succeed on the field, but instead, prep them for the world after college,” says Whiteside. “Being a student-athlete is really something special — I know because I am a former athlete. It’s having all academic and athletic resources at your fingertips all while being surrounded by a great community and an abundant amount of support.”
Whiteside also explained how proud she is of the women’s field hockey team. Not only do they excel on the field, but they strive for greatness in the classroom and in the community, Whiteside mentioned.
All female athletes past and present will be honored at the university’s 50th anniversary of women’s sports celebration this weekend.
“This 50th anniversary is really something special because of what our female athletic department is today. It wasn’t until recently that all student-athletes, male and female, earned a varsity letter. Most of our “Hall of Famers” don’t even have a varsity jacket, and this celebration we get to finally honor them and show them how much they are loved and appreciated,” says Whiteside.