Lucas: a sports school for women


This year, we’re celebrating 50 years of Carolina women’s athletics with a series of stories and social media content celebrating our many champions, legends and leaders who have shaped the landscape of women’s sport at Chapel Hill. Find out more at GoHeels.com/50Years and @GoHeels throughout the year.

Carolina Athletics was in a very similar state to today when Dean Smith provided a quote that came to define women’s sports in Tar Heel.

It was the summer of 1997, and the basketball Tar Heels sacked Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison on a team that would spend much of the season at No. 1 in the nation. Under the direction of Mack Brown, meanwhile, the football program had achieved national competitor status and was ranked No. 1 in the country in the preseason edition of Football News magazine.

It was that same football magazine that asked Smith about the boring school basketball versus school football debate. Could there be room on the Carolina campus, he asked, for two national high power programs?

Smith’s response has become legendary: “This is a women’s football school. We’re just trying to follow them. “

As the Tar Heels celebrate 50 years of women’s sport in Carolina, those words still resonate.

At the time of Smith’s quote, Anson DorranceThe program did not need to be legitimized by anyone. The Dorrance Tar Heels had already won ten of the previous 11 women’s national football championships and would be 11 of 12 in the fall of 1997. Mia Hamm was well on the way to becoming the most recognizable player in the world. Kristine Lilly had previously won an Olympic gold medal, won a Women’s World Cup and will compete in three more.

That was in 1997, just over a quarter of a century in women’s sports at the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill was not just a place for women to participate in college sports, it was already a destination for those who wanted to excel. Field hockey was set to win a third consecutive national championship under the leadership of Karen Shelton. Women’s basketball was only three years away from winning a national title on one of the iconic last-minute shots in the history of the sport. A promising young female lacrosse coach named Jenny Slingluff (now known as Jenny levy) had just completed a Final Four season in the second year of its program’s existence.

Almost a quarter of a century later, Smith would be delighted to see that the standards haven’t changed. Field hockey has (stop me if this sounds familiar) won three consecutive national titles under the leadership of Karen Shelton. Lacrosse has a pair of NCAA Championships. In June, Makenna jones and Elizabeth Scotty won the NCAA Doubles Championship.

Since Smith’s comments in the summer of 1997, men’s sports in Carolina have won six NCAA championships, while women’s teams have won 15. Include the women’s tennis team’s success at the National Indoor Championships. ITA (the Tar Heels have won the event five times), and the women’s Tar Heel teams have won nearly one national title per year for the past 24 years.

Although they steadily racked up victories, these early Carolina women’s teams did not receive the same national attention the Tar Heel teams are receiving today. In 1971-72, seven women’s Tar Heel sports – basketball, field hockey, volleyball, fencing, swimming and diving, tennis and gymnastics – became varsity under the AIAW. Prior to the 1974-75 season, these same teams moved from the physical education department to the athletics department. The same common thread was true in grade one which is true this school year, in grade 50 of intercollegiate women’s sports at Chapel Hill: the Tar Heels were winners. These consistent victories have helped set a standard for the entire sports department.

Some schools have a dominant agenda that dominates the rest of the coaches and players on campus. It’s not Carolina, and that’s why you might spot the women’s basketball coach Courtney banghart during a morning walk with Mack Brown, or why one of the rowing team’s boats is named after Roy and Wanda Williams. That’s why Carolina won 55 national championships, including 39 women’s team.

It attracts student-athletes who want to be pushed by other greats. Erin Matson, on his way to being one of the greatest Tar Heels of any sport in school history, seemed equally excited this spring for the women’s lacrosse team’s efforts for a national championship that ‘she made her quest for a third consecutive championship. Last spring, as Jamie Ortega’s women’s lacrosse team chased a national title, they seemed almost as invested in the similar pursuit of the men’s lacrosse team. Already this school year, men’s basketball players have been regulars at Dorrance Field to watch the women’s soccer team.

Fifty years after those first seven teams went on to varsity, Carolina is a place where greatness in women’s sport is encouraged, expected and celebrated.

It may even be time to update Smith’s quote. Carolina, in fact, is a sports school for women.



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