The Daily Nole

Sunday Centerpiece: Celebrating 50 Years of FSU Women’s Athletics

Phil Kelly/FSU athletics

As Florida State’s women’s track and field team completed the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a top-10 finish earlier this month, the athletic year came to an end for FSU women’s programs.

This past athletic year, the university and athletic department celebrated 50 years of women’s sports. This year, FSU had hoped to raise $5 million for women’s athletics. It wound up exceeding that total by nearly 50 percent.

50 YEARS OF WOMEN’S ATHLETICS
“Being a student-athlete at Florida State was to this day, the best decision I have ever made in my life,” said Ellie Cooper, an FSU softball infielder from 2014-17 and member of two Women’s College World Series teams. “The opportunity to represent this university and the Seminole Tribe allowed me to grow into the woman that I am today and it will continue to guide me and shape me for the rest of my life. I cannot imagine a world where women do not have athletic opportunities, but I am not naive enough to know how grateful I am for the opportunities provided to me while being a student-athlete.”

The first FSU women’s program to take the court in intercollegiate sports was the volleyball team back in 1968. In 1981, both the FSU women’s golf team and FSU softball program, then slowpitch, won the first national championships for women’s program at Florida State. The titles were won under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) rather than the NCAA.

“Coach (Lonni) Alameda did an amazing job at educating us on the history of FSU and women’s athletics,” Cooper said. “In my time at FSU, I spent a lot of time getting to know Dr. Billy Jones, who started the first softball program when FSU was a women’s college, along with Coach (JoAnn) Graf. Through the stories the told and all of the alumni that I connected with in my time, I got somewhat of an understanding on just how lucky I was to have what I had. It is because of the sacrifices they made and the respect they demanded, that my teammates and I got the opportunities that we had. I will forever be grateful for women like Dr. Jones, Coach Graf, and Coach Alameda for fighting for women and paving the way.”

Jace Pardon was a redshirt senior for Florida State’s beach volleyball team when it became an officially sanctioned NCAA sport in 2016 and helped lead the Seminoles to the national championship match. Pardon called her time at FSU the best of her life, but said she wasn’t surprised that women’s sports have only been active at FSU for 50 years and that some disparities in treatment between men and women still existed while she was a student-athlete. One of those, she pointed out, were that the beach volleyball team was not allowed to wear spandex in the weight room because it may have been a “distraction” to male athletes.

“I thought this was silly as spandex are a part of beach volleyball’s uniform,” Pardon said. “I thought it could be better enforced where men who harassed or were ‘distracted’ by women in their competitive gear should be punished, rather than the other way around. Other than that at FSU, I felt we received the same respect. It didn’t matter what sport or gender you were; if you were an athlete competing at Florida State, you were obviously super talented and had hopes of playing professionally. We had a great staff and assets to further our skills both in class and on the court.”

INCREASING EXPOSURE, OPPORTUNITY AND SUPPORT
While college football and men’s basketball are typically the only sports referred to as “revenue sports” at most schools, both Cooper and Pardon feel that women’s sports have come a long way in terms of popularity and exposure. Streaming services make it possible to watch regular season games in some sports and most NCAA Championships are televised on ESPN’s family of networks or the Golf Channel.

“I think we have come a long way in the world of women’s athletics, but still have a ways to go,” Pardon said. “There are more opportunities for women now to compete in college due to Title IX, and it is great. Beach volleyball is an example of that. There still aren’t many avenues for women’s professional sports however, not in comparison to what is available for men. The wage gap is insane for the sports that do exist for women professionally. I think social media has helped increase notice of specific female athletes and allowed fans to be more engaged with sports teams definitely.”

In the way female athletes are portrayed as opposed to men, Pardon noted there is a considerable difference. While men are shown as fierce competitors, she said, women are often shown as mothers or sexual objects. Cooper offered similar sentiments.

“The more that ESPN invest in NCAA women’s sports, the more the popularity will grow,” she said. “I think that the more that is shown beyond the playing field, the more respect people have for what women are doing. There is so much more than just playing the game. The weightlifting, conditioning, school, getting involved with the community — all of those things are where the respect is gained.

“A lot of times you see ESPN going beyond the playing field with men’s programs and it is here where people truly connect and gain respect for athletes and programs,” Cooper continued. “While women’s sports has come a long way in the NCAA, there is still a long way to go. I think that NCAA women’s sports will continue to grow, but there needs to be a larger push for professional women’s sports. The NCAA does an amazing job at giving women the opportunities that men get, but as for the professional aspect, it is not even close.”

During Cooper’s four seasons, FSU won the ACC every year and reached the Women’s College World Series twice. Cooper said the enthusiasm for the program continued to grow. In 2018, the Seminoles won six straight elimination games before sweeping Washington to win their first national championship as a fastpitch program.

“From my freshman year, to my senior year, into my year as the student assistant coach, to coming back as an alumni this year, the support from the community around the program has grown year-in and year-out,” Cooper said. “Fans rally around winning programs and the more we won, the more they came. I think that year after year, the FSU softball program left their mark on the community one way or another and more people began to rally around that.”

In Pardon’s redshirt senior season, the Seminoles reached the national championship match before falling to USC in the first NCAA Championships. FSU is one of just four programs to reach the NCAA Championships in each of the last four years. Pardon said there are a number of individuals who help immensely, but noted that there could be more support for non-revenue sports across the board.

“I think the staff is great, incredibly supportive,” she said. “Particularly with someone like (senior associate athletics director) Vanessa Fuchs running the show, she makes sure she attends all the games she can and that we feel valued as athletes. She’s really a spectacular role model and human being. There could always be more support from the fans and other student-athletes, but that could also be said for any sport that isn’t men’s football or basketball. I mean beach volleyball got a bit, but I think they could try to market the games more around campus. It is crazy to me that they’re aren’t more fans at women’s games because of all the success women’s sports have had in the last 50 years.”

As a redshirt senior in 2016, Jace Pardon helped FSU reach the national championship match. (Dan Avila/FSU athletics)

FSU’S WINNING CULTURE
Across the women’s sports spectrum, FSU is among the top universities in the country. This past athletic year saw FSU soccer claim its second national championship in five years after beating the top three teams in the ACC to win the conference tournament. FSU also claimed conference titles in outdoor track and field, beach volleyball — a fourth straight — and softball — a sixth straight.

“When the men’s teams are winning championships and having epic seasons, I do think that the women’s seasons can sometimes get overlooked,” Cooper said. “With that being said, I do think that the FSU faithful do an amazing job at recognizing the success of our women’s programs and supporting them through and through. The atmosphere at the soccer games, volleyball matches, basketball games, and softball games are some of the best in the NCAA. I think that teams are so successful at FSU, because of the coaching that FSU brings in and all of the people that we are surrounded by daily.”

Pardon also praised the culture of the athletic department.

“I think Florida State women’s sports have had so much success because of the exceptional staff and care we receive as part of the athletics program,” she said. “Female athletes are treated, for the most part, the same as males and like I said earlier, we have great role models like Vanessa Fuchs ensuring that everyone is respected and needs are met while attending FSU. There is also the comradery between athletes, whether you are male or female, we are all busting our butts in the weight room and striving for greatness.”

FSU claims nine national championships in women’s sports going back to AIWA titles in softball and golf in 1981. Despite the success, Pardon noted that women’s championships aren’t celebrated with the same ferocity that titles are in major men’s sports.

“I think great coaches and national championships do get overlooked a little bit at FSU,” Pardon said. “The school basically shut down for a week when the football team won a national championship (in 2013), but many students on campus didn’t even realize the women’s soccer team won one just a year later in 2014.”

The success has continued for FSU women’s sports in recent years and in many cases, has hit new heights. With the retirement of head baseball coach Mike Martin last week, women’s basketball coach Sue Semrau is now the longest tenured coach on campus. Semrau perennially leads a top-25 program and has five Sweet 16 appearances to her name while making the NCAA Tournament in each of the last seven seasons.

The women’s cross country and track and field programs combined to rank among the top 10 in the country, according to the USTFCCCA. This past season, the FSU women’s tennis program set a new program record for ACC wins with 11 — just one year after reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

“I think more marketing and player highlighting could really help this aspect,” Pardon said. “The fact that women’s sports aren’t taken as serious, not by staff, but by members of society does leave great coaches and players that have built amazing programs to be overlooked.”

A LOVE FOR THE GAME AND WORDS OF WISDOM
A native of California, Pardon is currently playing beach volleyball professionally and is ranked among the AVP’s top 15 players in the world. In Austin last month, Pardon and teammate Karissa Cook claimed their first AVP championship. The 5-foot-10 California native said she was encouraged to pursue beach volleyball by a former coach.

“I would tell young girls to not believe what society tells them about women,” she said. “We are strong and physically capable of any athletic feat. We’re taught to strive to be mothers, wives, be beautiful, but can be all of those things or none and also be athletic and driven as hard as any of our male counterparts. Work super hard and never let society tell you that you can’t just because your female.”

A career .319 hitter at Florida State, Cooper now serves as an assistant at East Carolina. Her love for the sport, she said, comes from her father who moved from New Zealand to the United States as a teen to play fastpitch softball professionally.

“I was just a little girl who wanted to play the sport her daddy played, and the rest is history,” Cooper said. “I would tell any young girl to pour their heart and soul into whatever sport they may love, to exhaust every path the sport has to offer, because you can find yourself with opportunities that you could have never imagined that will set you up for success for the rest of your life. Work hard, play the game the right way, be a good teammate, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook. To pitch an idea, author a post or to learn more about The Daily Nole, email Mike Ferguson at Mike@TheDailyNole.com.

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