The women are forever young as they smile cheerfully from a mid-20th century black-and-white photograph.
It was their moment in time and, like the women pioneers who preceded them on the American Great Plains, these Creighton University athletes proved a revolutionary force. Within ten years, they and their sisters across the nation would see the president of the United States sign into law “Title IX”: an amendment to federal civil rights law that bans every educational institution throughout the land in receipt of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex in its programs or activities. And that includes sports.
Fifty years have passed since former President Richard Nixon put his name to that directive in 1972. The Creighton women who were then performing intramural water ballet and synchronized swimming routines, and indeed those of even earlier dates who formed rifle teams and fitness clubs in the 1930s, must surely today marvel at the vibrant world of women’s athletics they did so much to create.
Today, women’s collegiate sports are mainstream. For example, a recent Creighton women’s basketball game in November 2022 drew 2,306 spectators to the University’s D.J. Sokol Arena, where they handily defeated their in-state rival, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). A month earlier, the nationally-ranked Creighton volleyball team took on UNL’s powerhouse volleyball team before an NCAA record crowd of 15,797 fans. That is a transformative number.
Kirsten Bernthal Booth is the portrait those early Creighton pioneers dreamed of painting.
A star of tennis and volleyball at Lincoln East High School in Nebraska, where she became an all-state setter in volleyball and a three-time All-American and two-time state champion in singles tennis, she embarked on a collegiate volleyball career as player and coach. Today, she is the head coach of Creighton’s women’s volleyball program. In 2002, she inherited a 3-23 Bluejay team. Twenty years later, her 24-3 team is knocking on the door of a top-10 national ranking.
Women’s sports at Creighton, Booth says, follows the faith of the pioneers, that for women in all fields of endeavor, the inconceivable is achievable. “Creighton does so much more than just build athletes,” she says. “We develop people. If you talk with our alumni, they will tell you that although sport was a large part of their college experience, more important was the empowerment they developed to believe that they can do anything they set their mind to.
“We have volleyball alums who are doctors, lawyers, coaches, teachers, stay-at-home moms, pharmacists, executives, nurses, professional athletes, and so much more,” she says. “We want our athletes — and particularly our female athletes — to know there isn’t a glass ceiling they can’t break, and we at Creighton help them develop the skills necessary to believe the inconceivable is achievable.”
Twenty years before Booth took up the volleyball cause, student Mary Higgins pitched the idea of a Creighton University softball team. Armed with Title IX legislation, she won her battle in 1973 and served as the University’s softball coach from 1977 to 1993. Today, she is a Hall of Fame member of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, having built a 564-298 career record while twice reaching the NCAA Women’s College World Series.
The walls had fallen, and the story of women’s sports at Creighton ever since has been a story of forward momentum:
- In 1973, Creighton established women’s teams in volleyball and basketball; in 1977, the University began awarding scholarships to female student athletes.
- The 1977-78 school year saw Creighton field teams in golf and tennis. In 1979, the women’s athletics program joined Division I of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, founded in 1971 to govern collegiate women’s athletics and to administer national championships.
- In 1982, Creighton’s hometown, Omaha, NE, hosted the inaugural NCAA Women’s College World Series and continued to do so through 1987.
- On May 11, 1991, Creighton and the University of Utah played the longest game in NCAA softball history, taking 31 innings and almost seven hours to register a post-midnight 1-0 Creighton win.
- In 2002, Jamie Thompson was named Missouri Valley Conference Goalkeeper of the Year after helping the women’s soccer team achieve their first MVC regular-season title and first NCAA Tournament appearance.
- The arrival in 2003 of the $13 million Rev. Michael G. Morrison, S.J. Stadium gave the men’s and women’s soccer programs one of the finest collegiate soccer stadiums in the nation.
- In 2004, the women’s basketball team took center stage when it captured the University’s first national title in any sport — men or women — with a 73-52 win over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the championship game of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament held at the Omaha Civic Auditorium.
- In 2009, the 78,000-square-foot Wayne and Eileen Ryan Athletic Center and D.J. Sokol Arena provided a new home for women’s basketball and volleyball.
- In 2010, the Creighton women’s rowing team, which began competing in 1994, joined the West Coast Conference, while the volleyball team made its first NCAA Tournament appearance, upsetting No. 16 Iowa State and bringing Coach Booth National Coach of the Year honors.
- In 2014, the Creighton women’s tennis team made its first trip to the BIG EAST Women’s Tennis Championships played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
- On Dec. 10, 2016, the volleyball team continued its journey to national prominence by advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight, one year after making it to the Sweet 16.
- In 2019, Creighton dedicated the new Ruth Scott Training Center, to be used by the volleyball and women’s basketball teams.
- In 2021, the women’s cross-country team earned a 3.83 GPA, the best ever by any Creighton team in any sport for a semester.
- On March 25, 2022, the women’s basketball team took its place alongside the volleyball team by advancing to the NCAA D-I Tournament’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
And so, the story of women’s athletics at Creighton rolls on, always with the goal, according to Allison Taylor, executive director of Creighton’s Office of Title IX and Civil Rights Compliance, of enabling women to fulfill their potential.
“Our mission calls us to be women and men for and with others, ensuring equity and access for all students,” she says. “Creighton’s holistic approach to Title IX ensures female students, including student athletes, have the opportunities and support they need in order to achieve their highest potential.”
By Eugene Curtin, Office of Marketing and Communications at Creighton University