Monday, April 12, 2021

50 Years Ago Today

The first sentence of the story in the "Daily Princetonian" speaks volumes on the event of 50 years ago today and the times in which it was played.

The boys gathered on the hills to watch the girls behind the fences as Princeton's first women's varsity athletic team — tennis — opened with a 5-1 win over Penn yesterday.

That's a lot packed into fewer than 30 words.

First of all, there was the use of "boys" and "girls," which is a long outdated concept. More importantly, though, it tells the story of how for the first time ever, men watched women compete on the Princeton campus.

The women's tennis match against Penn on April 12, 1971, marked the third time women had competed intercollegiately for Princeton. The match did provide two firsts. 

The very first time that women competed for Princeton was in October 1970, when Margie Gengler Smith and Helena Novakova won the Eastern Intercollegiate championships all by themselves. The second time was on March 5, 1971, when Jane Fremon swam and Cece Herron dove at the Eastern championships.

The match against Penn a little more than a month later was different. 

For starters, it marked the first time that Princeton women competed in an on campus event. Second, it was the first time an official varsity women's team from Princeton competed against an official varsity team from another college.

Fittingly, it was Princeton-Penn.

When Merrily Dean Baker was hired in August 1970 to begin the women's athletic program, she was 27 years old and had one year of experience in women's college athletic administration. When she arrived in her office in Dillon Gym, she found a five-year plan for easing into sports for women, with varsity teams in that fifth year.

Of course, a five-year plan didn't do much for the women who were there then. And Baker isn't the kind who sits around and waits for things to happen.

Baker was driven to get the programs started. The women who were there weren't there to be passive. It turned out to be the perfect match in many ways. 

So when Gengler Smith and Novakova came into her office to ask about playing in the tournament in October, she said "of course." The same was true for Fremon and Herron.

By spring there were enough women to form an entire tennis team. There were a few problems still to overcome.

For one thing, there was no budget. Since varsity sports weren't supposed to begin until 1975, there was no money for little things, like coaches and uniforms and travel.

Baker, in fact, had purchased the first Princeton "uniforms" herself at the U-Store, when she bought shirts for Gengler Smith and Novakova and sewed their names on the back.

When it came to a coach, Baker recruited a local woman named Eve Kraft to lead the first tennis team. Kraft did this for no money at all. 

In addition, Kraft bought all the players orange and black mini-pompoms for their shoes. That was essentially what comprised their uniforms.

By contrast, when the visitors got off the bus that day, they all had Penn sweatsuits and travel bags. Every member of that first Princeton team with whom TigerBlog has spoken remembers that part clearly.

They also remember how Princeton rolled over the Quakers, starting with a 6-0, 6-1 win by Gengler Smith at No. 1. Novakova won her match at No. 2, and Laurie Watson won at No. 3.

The team had one senior, who won her doubles match. That senior, Podie Lynch, was the only female letterwinner in the Class of 1971, and she has gone on to be, in addition to a hugely successful businesswoman, the president of her class and a Princeton Varsity Club board member.

This was also in the Daily Princetonian story (written by Debbie Goldstein):

According to elated varsity coach Eve Kraft, the racquetwomen "won handily but not easily" over their rival.

Winning handily was something Princeton women's tennis has done a lot of, recently as the team has been a regular high up in the national rankings, and back then. The Tigers went 8-0 in the 1971 season and won the Middle States tournament championship. In fact, it would be until 1976 when the Tigers would actually lose a match, after winning their first 39.

Kraft would coach the Tigers for the first three seasons. Her career record: 26-0. Princeton women's tennis has had eight head coaches all time, and the lowest winning percentage any of them had was .594.

That's a lot of success.

Princeton women's athletics has had a lot of success across the board. It started from Day 1 in October 1970. There have been any number of historic days since, across not one by 18 varsity teams.

Of all the historic dates Princeton has had, that tennis match on April 12, 1971, is right up there near the top. It was the first varsity competition a Princeton team ever had. 

And it was 50 years ago today.

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