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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?               December 2008

Claussen Huge Part of First National Championship

By Lacy Lee Baker

Although NFCA Hall of Famer Connie Claussen gave up her softball coaching duties about six years before the NFCA was officially formed, she will forever be remembered for her part in collegiate softball history. The year was 1969, and there was a need for a collegiate fastpitch softball championship. It was Claussen who got the call.


How did the first collegiate championship come about?


John F. Kennedy College, in Wahoo, Nebraska, had a really good softball team, and the school wanted to show how good it was by playing in a collegiate championship. There wasn’t such a thing for softball, so school officials went to the Nebraska Softball Association and the Omaha Softball Association to suggest starting one, and I was asked to be on the committee. At that time, I was chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Physical Education Department and was the national chairman of the DGWS (Division of Girls’ and Women’s Sports) Softball Guide. We held the first championship in 1969, and it was sanctioned by the DGWS and the ASA.


So, tell me about the first championship. Did it go well?


It did go well; we had nine teams from six states, and John F. Kennedy College won the event. Illinois State was the runner-up. The Phillipines tried to send a team but did not make it because of an airline strike. We continued to hold the event under the DGWS and ASA banner through 1972.


I’m not familiar with John F. Kennedy College, but apparently, the school had a great team.


Yes, they won the championship in 1969 and the following two years, but in 1972, they were ruled ineligible because they gave athletic scholarships and this was not allowed at the time. Arizona State, with coach Mary Littlewood (NFCA Hall of Famer), won in 1972, and by that time, the championship had grown to 16 teams. The second-place team was the University of Tokyo, and the city of Omaha had a tea for the Japanese players. Some interesting names from those times were Margie Wright, pitcher for Illinois State (now head coach at Fresno State); Betty Barr, pitcher for Arizona State; and Marilyn Rau, catcher for Arizona State. 


When did it become an AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) championship?

That was in 1973, and the ASA was still sanctioning the tournament. Competing institutions had to pay $75 to be members of the AIAW, and a $25 entry fee for the tournament. At that time, it was still a “come-all” type of format, but later, the AIAW went to regional championships with qualification to the national championship. In 1973, Arizona State won its second national championship, defeating Illinois State 4-3 in 16 innings. Margie Wright pitched 30 innings that day.


Another interesting thing was that the newspaper’s headline said, “Gals Softball May Recruit.” I’m not sure what coach said it, but the story included the following quote, “I’m afraid it might get to recruiting, but I don’t want it to – then it’s winning at any cost.”


In 1974, there were 18 teams from 18 states, all members of the AIAW. Southwest Missouri State won the tournament, with the end of the event having to be held on UNO’s astroturf football field because of rain. NFCA Hall of Famer Judi Garman was there coaching Golden West College, and another Hall of Famer, Kathy Veroni, had her Western Illinois team there.


In 1975, Omaha had been hit a couple of weeks before by a tornado, and we couldn’t use one of the fields because the bleachers were wrapped around a light pole. I had to call up some of the teams to try to relocate them since their hotel had been blown away. Once we got to the championship, it was especially exciting for me because my team – UNO – won by defeating Northern Iowa in the finals; Judi Garman and Golden West took the junior college division title.


The 1976 championship had a 20-team field, but one team could not attend, so there were 19 teams. Michigan State, with assistant coach Sandy Fischer (2008 NFCA Hall of Famer), freshman Carol Hutchins (Michigan head coach and 2006 Hall of Famer) and sophomore Kathy Strahan (Cal State Sacramento head coach), won the event. An interesting note was that Ralph Raymond and John Stratton from the Raybestos Brakettes were there scouting players for the pro league. Another thing you might find interesting was that Jody Conradt, long-time Texas basketball coach, coached the Texas-Arlington team.


The AIAW was becoming more and more organized every year, and in the 1977 championship, we had regional tournament directors in nine different regions for the first time. UCLA’s Judie Holland was president of the AIAW, and it was announced then that every three years a different region would host the Women’s College World Series. UNO was automatically in the championship because AIAW rules said the host school could always get in. Northern Iowa won in 1977, defeating the University of Arizona. Our paid attendance was 5,251, and ticket costs were $1.50 for adults, and 75 cents for students or senior citizens.


Your records are VERY impressive. It’s also equally impressive that you were UNO coach and tournament director at the same time. Tell me how you managed that.


We had a lot of great volunteers. But, I’ll always look fondly on the times because the tournament is really one of the reasons that we started women’s athletics at UNO. It was 1969 and we were organizing the first championship, and some of our women students said, “Why can’t we be in the tournament?” At that time, we had no teams, but the dean approved our participation. We didn’t have much money at first, and the UNO Alumni Association bought a set of uniforms for us, which volleyball, basketball and softball all had to use. The association also bought us rings the year we won the national championship.


What were some other milestones in your hosting history?


The 1978 championship was special because it was UCLA’s first title, and a little outfielder by the name of Sue Enquist had the highest batting average in the tournament – .421. Of course, Sharron Backus was the coach. Diane Ninemire, now head coach at California, played for UNO in the tournament, and more than 10,000 fans came to watch the event. We made a profit of $9,106 after $8,993 expenses were paid out. In those days, 25 percent went to the AIAW, 25 percent to ASA and UNO received 50 percent of the profit. We also were fortunate that the organizing committee for the NCAA’s College World Series in Omaha helped fund the event since 1975, and in this particular year, they upped their donation from $2,000 to $3,000. Another interesting note was that the AIAW was allowed to select 10 players for the Pan Am tryouts, courtesy of the ASA.


In 1979, Donna Lopiano was the AIAW’s Commissioner for Large College Championships and was our breakfast speaker. We always had a breakfast for the teams.


Do you think there was more mingling of players back in those days?


Yes, especially when we first got started. There were no scholarships back then, so the players were playing for the love of the game. There was definitely more camaraderie, and we would put as many teams as possible into the same hotel. We gave the players patches, and Louisville Slugger provided us with the miniature wooden bats with the name of the championship.

Getting back to the 1979 championship, what were some of the highlights?

Kathy Arendsen (Oregon head coach) pitched Texas Woman’s University to the title, defeating UCLA. Texas Woman’s went 71-5 that year. Our attendance topped all records; we had 11,250 people for the four days. Some other names you may recognize were: Judy Martino coaching South Carolina (NFCA founder); coach Linda Wells (NFCA Hall of Famer) with Minnesota; coach Carol Spanks (NFCA Hall of Famer) with Cal Poly Pomona, and Jill Hutchinson (Illinois State) and Mary Littlewood (Arizona State) were still coaching their respective teams at that time. Another neat thing was that we received a congratulatory letter from Jimmy Carter. During those 11 years (1969-1979), we gave about 2,000 student-athletes opportunities to compete in a national championship.

1980 brought a new era. It was the first time that the AIAW sponsored the tournament alone (without ASA), and it was the first time that the AIAW divided into two divisions - Division I and Division II. In that year, the University of Oklahoma hosted Division I and Cal State Sacramento hosted Division II. Utah State won Division I and Emporia State took Division II honors. 


In 1981, the AIAW Division II championship returned to Omaha. Sixteen teams took part, with Cal State Sacramento defeating C.W. Post. Since the NCAA College World Series organizers always chose a CWS queen, we decided to name a WCWS king.


In 1982, the NCAA championships started, and the NCAA Division I tournament returned to Omaha, with Creighton hosting. UCLA defeated Fresno State in Division I, while Sam Houston State won Division II and Eastern Connecticut State won Division III.


Was that the end of your active involvement with the sport?


No, because I served as Division II sub-chair on the first NCAA Women’s Softball Committee. There were subgroups for Division I, Division II and Division III, but we all worked very well together. It was a great committee. The overall chair of the committee was Creighton coach Mary Higgins, and Creighton went on to host the next five NCAA Division I championships in Omaha before the championship moved to Sunnyvale, California, in 1988.


What were some of your best memories from those days?


In 1979, I had the honor of serving as manager of the USA Pan Am team. It was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and it was the first time softball was included on the program for the Pan Ams. Ralph Raymond and Lorene Ramsay were the coaches, and Kathy Arendsen, Dot Richardson, Marilyn Rau, Kathy Strahan, Diane Schumacher, Barb Reinalda, Suzie Gaw and Sue Enquist were some of the players. We stayed in dorms, and there was poverty all around, and I remember that we had an armed guard on the bus with us.


I seemed to order a lot of uniforms. If a player left one somewhere, or the laundry shrunk one, I would have to order another whole set of uniforms because they didn’t seem to have replacement uniforms in those days.


You gave up softball coaching in 1977, but what advice would you give the coaches of today?


Be true to yourself, and don’t compromise your morals or goals. Believe in what you do and stick with it. Make sure your student-athletes know what you expect and then follow through. Have fun and enjoy the game.


I have a plaque on my wall that my 1973 volleyball team gave me at season’s end. It says: “Because of you, we have experienced the joy of success, the emptiness of defeat, and most of all, the warmth of togetherness.”


That’s what coaching is all about, and it was a wonderful part of my career.


What are you doing now?


I retired from my UNO associate athletics director position in 1998, but I still work part-time for the school in fundraising. In 1986, I started an event for UNO athletics called the “Diet Pepsi UNO Women’s Walk” and over the years, the walk has raised more than $3 million for women’s athletics scholarships. In 1986, we had 85 walkers and raised $12,000. In 2008, more than $300,000 was raised for UNO. I also staff events, including hockey, basketball, softball, football and soccer, and our athletics teams have done very well.


I know you enjoy working, but do you have any other pastimes?


I like to read, do woodworking and yard work. My mother is 97, and I spend as much time as I can with her. I have a cottage in Minnesota, and I really enjoy fishing. In fact, when I retired, the theme to my banquet was fishing. My license plate even says “Gone Fishing.”


I enjoy the serenity of it. In fact, my dad used to tell me this story about my uncle. My dad would say to him when they were fishing, “Do you even have any bait on your hook?” My uncle would reply, “No, I don’t want to be bothered.” Well, I can say that I still bait my hook, but I really don’t know for how much longer.